Leave politics at the door! Coming off what is one of the biggest election seasons our country has seen in the past 50 years, it’s no wonder that this is my number one step. The political divide that has ripped our country has also been felt worldwide. Republicans, Democrats and everyone in between have created these extreme and far-reaching boundaries between the everyday American. No longer can any person affiliated with a specific political party not be seen by the other as un-American. Instead of viewing the high-profile police brutality incidents and the corresponding protests for what they really are, politicians have spun it as an us versus them scenario.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Jessica L. Mazzeo.
Jessica L. Mazzeo is millennial serial entrepreneur who runs three women-owned businesses, all of which she co-founded. GriesingMazzeo Leadership conducts diversity, inclusion, elimination of bullying, bias and sexual harassment education and training for businesses; Bossible provides business and professional development for individuals and small businesses; and Griesing Law is a full-service business law firm. For all three businesses, Jessica focuses on overseeing and implementing all business operations while establishing policies that promote and retain company culture and strategic vision and is considered a thought leader on diversity and inclusion, employee issues, business generation and overall business management. Jessica is currently pursuing her law degree at Widener University Delaware School of Law.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in suburban Philadelphia — Delco to be exact — to two working class parents and am the middle of three children. From a young age, I always knew I wanted to be my own boss but I always thought it would be in the hospitality industry because my dream was to open and run a successful restaurant (who knows, maybe one day!). I had a great role model in my mom who returned to the workforce when my brother, sister and I were all still school-aged. In fact, my work ethic is mostly derived from her (however, I also have to give my dad credit as he worked for over 40 years at the same company). My mom used to drag me into her office on the weekends to help with small tasks like filing and organization. It was through those efforts that I got my first job at the age of 14 — and I have been working ever since.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I have always loved Great Expectations — it was, and is still, one of my all-time favorite books. Coming from a working class family, I always appreciated Pip’s story, his struggles and accomplishments. I have read some other amazing books over the years but a new favorite is The Hate You Give. The story and lessons from that book hit you to your core — in fact, I encouraged my 11 year old to read it and it is now one of her favorite books as well.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
There are so many good ones out there but for me it boils down to: never give up. Not taking no for an answer when I know I am right has always worked for me. I am a very driven and ambitious person so when I set my sights on a goal I want to accomplish, or an obstacle I want to overcome, I just buckle down and do what it takes to get it done. But, that way of life comes with sacrifices. Building three businesses while raising a young daughter, there were often times that I had to miss out on things because I was busy with the businesses. After ten years, I have found the right balance that allows me to dedicate all my energies and focus where they need to be for the moment I am currently in.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I am a strong believer in being transparent and a good and effective communicator — two of the highest attributes I hold out for myself as a leader. While a bit cliché here, I do believe that leaders lead by example. A leader sets the tone for what everyone else is supposed to do by guiding and encouraging their team members. As a leader, you don’t always need to be in the spotlight but there are times when you need to take the reins and allow others to follow.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Self-care is probably one of the most important things we need. Without our bodies and minds we wouldn’t exist and so if we don’t care about them, we stop existing. But I didn’t always take my own advice. For years, I pushed and pushed and never thought I would hit a breaking point. Luckily, I didn’t need to reach a breaking point to finally listen to what my body and mind was telling me. Mental preparedness is extremely important, especially for a lot of the work I do — presentations, trainings, business generation. I oftentimes find my mental stimulation taking a greater toll on my body then any physical act. I recharge by taking me-time whether that is sitting alone in a quiet room with my thoughts, or pampering myself with a day at the spa. I also really enjoy Pilates and cardio kickboxing — while different ends of the spectrum both bring me balance on several different levels.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
To put it simply: people have had enough. I always tell clients and contacts that talking only gets you so far but actions always speak louder volumes. While I am not a minority, I am a woman and so I have some personal understanding of the bubbling of frustration when wrongs keep repeating themselves and the systems we have in place in our country to fix those wrongs are failing us. I have worked in the legal industry for over 20 years, an industry that is the least diverse in this country. When you look around and look at the impact on our Black and brown communities, it is no wonder that people have reached their tipping point. And it’s not just the recent police brutality that caused it — it’s everything together that allows for systemic racism to continue to thrive — imbalances in power and equity in healthcare, education, economic opportunities, and public policies that are broken and need stringent reform.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
As I mentioned, I started out in the legal industry and still work in that today, and it’s the least diverse industry in the country. The representation of women and minorities in top positions in law firms and corporations is terrible. But I really started to dedicate my time to promoting D&I after we opened our first business, Griesing Law, in January 2010. Up until that time, I knew these imbalances existed, I had experienced overt sexual harassment and bullying at firms I worked at — but once I was on the other end it really hit me. Trying to grow our new law firm, we had door after door close on us — even with some of the same clients who we worked with at larger firms once we went out on our own. At that time, a women-owned (or minority-owned) law firm was not mainstream, there were not a lot of us in the U.S. When we were admitted into the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) in November 2010, I think there were roughly 50 firms across the United States. I became a staff volunteer for NAMWOLF in 2012 and I believe there are now over 250 diverse-owned firms that are in its membership across almost 45 states. All the companies I co-founded are certified women business enterprises by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and I have been volunteering locally for WBENC since 2014. I am currently the Chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee for the Association of Legal Administrators which has over 8,000 members around the globe. The entire premise behind GriesingMazzeo Leadership was to educate and train companies broadly on becoming more diverse, equitable and inclusive. We also help our clients with diversity audits and risk assessments arising from D&I policies and initiatives. If I had to guess, I spend at least 40–50% of my time immersed in the D&I space on a daily basis.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
We all know the business case, right? But the impact on a company today that does not have a diverse executive team runs far beyond just the bottom line. Both customers and employees want to see diversity at the top. When a customer doesn’t see it they leave and go to a competitor but when an employee doesn’t see it the impact is so much greater. Companies that do not have diverse and inclusive cultures that includes diverse top executives feel the impact across a broad spectrum: employee morale and engagement is negatively impacted, production and efficiencies are weakened due to increases turnover and attrition rates. Putting aside, however, the obviousness of the business case, companies really need to think about whether they are really doing their best when there is no diversity. Problems like group think happen when everyone who has a seat at the table looks the same; differences in perspective only have positive impacts. But the focus of your question is on diversity, I do want to say that it’s important to not just focus on the diversity case. Diversity is a just numbers game and is something that is “easier” for companies to achieve, however, what companies really need is to ensure inclusivity and equity in regard to those diverse executive team members.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
I love a good list! It’s important to note that these steps should be viewed as a 30,000 foot overview of the actual hundreds of steps it will take to make our country more diverse, equitable and inclusive.
1. Leave politics at the door! Coming off what is one of the biggest election seasons our country has seen in the past 50 years, it’s no wonder that this is my number one step. The political divide that has ripped our country has also been felt worldwide. Republicans, Democrats and everyone in between have created these extreme and far-reaching boundaries between the everyday American. No longer can any person affiliated with a specific political party not be seen by the other as un-American. Instead of viewing the high-profile police brutality incidents and the corresponding protests for what they really are, politicians have spun it as an us versus them scenario. In reality, every person I have spoken with over the last year regardless of their political party affiliation has been appalled at the disproportionate number of incidents of police brutality (and murder) of members the Black community. (Side note, any chance I get, I like to say her name — Breonna Taylor — as justice has still not been served). Where I have seen opposite ends of the spectrum are the heated discussion surrounding the looting and destruction that have occurred during otherwise peaceful protests. I personally do not agree with the looting or destruction as in many instances it has only hurt small, diverse-owned businesses — members of the very communities for which the looters live. But my point is this, politics should have no place in any discussion when it comes to an inclusive and equitable society. The issues facing us today, face every single one of us regardless of your political party. These are human issues that we all need to conquer together. With that said, I encourage more women and minorities to run for political office — we need better representation!
2. Speaking Up. I do a lot of trainings and presentations in this space and I usually like to have a roundtable component. Two common themes keeping popping up: first, BIPOC appreciate having forums to share their perspectives and life experiences with those of us (like me) who can empathize, but not truly understand, their experiences in the workplace or, say, sitting in a public park birdwatching; second, overcoming the fear factor. Most people have a fear of admitting when they are wrong or that they don’t fully understand something (which in turn comes off the wrong way). So I want to say it loud and clear — it’s not only okay to be wrong about a view or position you have long held but it’s even more okay (and is really applauded) when you admit your mistake (or misunderstanding), you own it and take authentic steps to changing your course of action. Important note: authenticity matters (in every step in this list) and we must be authentic when it comes to admitting our mistakes and our desire to learn and move on.
3. Education. As a trainer and facilitator myself who spends a lot of time educating individuals and corporate clients in the D&I space, I would be remiss if education didn’t fall somewhere on my list. We need to provide education across a broad spectrum of topics at the corporate level, entry level and everywhere in between. There are many adults today who are unknowledgeable about important D&I phrases and concepts so it’s no wonder that they in turn struggle with acceptance and inclusion. A prime example is the number of people who cringe when they hear the term ‘white privilege.’ For those of you who don’t know, white privilege does not mean white people do not struggle, do not have hardships and obstacles in life — it simply means that those problems are a result of something other than the color of your skin. We also need to do a better job of educating our youth — the future of this country — on being more inclusive and understanding of different cultures and ethnicities starting at the elementary level. And while we may say kids don’t see race or hate — in the same breath we must reply, yes they learn it. Kids who exhibit racist or homophobic (among other) behaviors are learning that most likely in the home from family members. Our public education system needs to do a better job of incorporating D&I education in all levels of education (simply allowing these issues to fall under Title IX violations is not enough). A prime example that demonstrates my point: A few years ago, a boy called my then-third grade daughter a ‘whore’ and that same boy a few months later started telling fellow third graders to ‘not talk to that lesbian.’ And before I go on, yes I said a third grader. In response, the school punished the boy by suspending him but that didn’t stop fellow male classmates from taunting my daughter as to ‘why she got the boy in trouble.’ My response to the school was that they were failing my daughter, the offending boy and all of their classmates — it was a learning opportunity that the school failed to capitalize on. Instead of making it a teaching moment on why we need to be respectful and more inclusive, they simply penalized the behavior with no real effort to ensure it didn’t happen again. When I was sharing this story with someone, they responded by saying that the boy must like my daughter and that’s all it was. To say I was livid was an understatement. What kind of message was that sending to my young impressionable daughter — is it that the only way someone likes you or shows affection is by calling you names and attempting to ostracize you so that when she’s 16 or 21 or 35 she then seeks that same behavior from a partner? Education is essential — it’s that simple.
4. Proactive Over Reactive. Right now we are doing a lot of responding — responding to a global pandemic, responding to increased police brutality, and even responding to (unfounded) allegations of voter fraud in the recent Presidential election. I like to relate being reactive to being on the attack, putting up our defenses. We aren’t necessarily listening when we react — we simply want to correct the issue in front of us and move on. I am a big believer in the power of being proactive. When we are proactive, we can be thoughtful in our planned response and take the time to listen to concerned voices. Right now, before we can truly fix anything, we need to listen and really hear what people are saying. With a proactive approach, we give ourselves the ability to think outside the box, to dismiss the status quo, to listen and hear what people are saying — and then we can respond and come up with an effective workable plan that addresses how we increase representation of women and minorities in leadership — whether that be in the board room or the Oval office.
5. Repeat. This is not a one-stop shop nor is it something that we can fix to just let it break again 10 years from now. Right now we are in a repeat cycle, but the wrong type of cycle. We are repeating the issues and problems that our ancestors were trying to tackle. Clearly it wasn’t fixed back then because we are still facing overt and covert racism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia and transphobia today. History always has a way of repeating itself and we are learning that more than ever as we look outside our windows and at our TVs. As a society we need to keep progressing, keep pushing, keep speaking up and disrupting because when we don’t, our old destructive patterns come back to haunt us.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I think that generally, people are good and even as cliché as it may sound, good triumphs over evil. So yes, I am optimistic that the social uprising that has been happening in our country is only for the better, it is the push that people needed in order to see what is really happening around us. But together, we are going to get through it and come out better on the other side.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
That’s a pretty easy one. I would love to meet Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris!!! Besides being an influential role model for everyone (her career trajectory is inspiring, and as someone who can relate, I appreciate that she talks about how she “eats ‘no’ for breakfast”), she started her career as a lawyer, and I have spent the last 20 years of my career in legal, and am graduating law school myself in December 2021. I was really hoping to see her name lead on the presidential ballot but will take her name as VP for now.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!