Have everyone own the change. Once educated, every one of your people should be part of the system that reinforces a culture of inclusion. Remind everyone that they have two jobs: one is their job description and the second is the company’s aspirational “culture description”. You need to articulate what you want your culture to be like and then ask people to help you achieve it over time. This is so important. A critical part of this culture aspiration must be to be a place where all people can thrive. This aspirational culture achievement will enable the company to attract and grow in ways companies that fail on this will not.
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 Karine Bah Tahé.
Karine Bah Tahé is the founder and CEO of Blue Level, a global training service provider that aims to build diverse, inclusive, and respectful work environments. Karine has 10 years of experience in training and development in North America and internationally on various topics including communication, business etiquette, sexual harassment prevention, diversity and inclusion, microaggressions, and anti-racism. She has worked with executives including foreign leaders, the diplomatic community, academic innovators, and senior business executives representing a range of industries.
Karine holds a Bachelor of Commerce from Concordia University, certificates in diversity and inclusion as well as strategic human resources leadership from Cornell University, and an executive program certificate in human resources from Stanford University.
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 the daughter of an African dad and a French-Canadian mother. My parents separated when I was three years old. My dad would tell me stories about my grandfather’s life in Africa: he had 14 wives, so at a very young age, I started questioning the fact that women and men were treated so, differently.
At six years old I faced racism for the first time. As I was walking with my sister to school, a group of young white boys on bicycles started circling us and calling us the n-word and spat on us as they surrounded us.
Given my racially mixed upbringing in Montreal, I grew up between my white side and my Black side of the family. In Africa, mixed kids are considered white, so sometimes I felt my African family didn’t feel I was the same. In Quebec, biracial kids are considered “mixed” but later, as I lived and worked in the U.S. as an adult, I realized here I am considered Black.
Depending on where I was, I was either privileged or not privileged. I grew up in every scenario: mixed and accepted, half-white and therefore “not African,” and half-Black and therefore Black. In my all white IB school, even my closest friends would sometimes make backhanded compliments, comments like, “Oh, I forgot that you were Black.”
At home, our dad (who is Black) would use colorist terms saying that my (mixed) sister and I are better or smarter than my other siblings (not mixed). It took me years to finally put into words the abuse that we went through. My sister was once fired from her job because the restaurant clients didn’t want to be served by a Black woman.
Growing up, I couldn’t understand that other people just accepted that unfairness as “the way it is.” I cannot stand the status quo. To me, it is the most irrational thing humans do to themselves.
My business, my purpose, and my passion capture this past and they are the engine of my mission to help make the change society needs. And it all starts with education.
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 am a person who learns in action and experience versus. reading — the story that had the most impact on my life is my own. Since childhood, my life has been quite intense with many lessons learned early on. Every five years, I travel alone to reflect on what I have done and learned to move on to my next chapter.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Intuition is the only certainty we have, and it is important for humans to recognize that the things we see and are told by each other are not absolute. As individuals, you must think for yourself, feel for yourself and educate yourself to find the answers. Just because things have been done one way for a certain amount of time (even for centuries) does not mean it has to continue. We do not need to accept what we see as the norm. We can cause change, we can demand change, we can be the change.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is being bold, providing direction and making everyone accountable. It is giving the tools for people to be able to reflect on their own and act. This is how I treat our training [at Blue Level Training]. Everyone I train, we work to turn them into anti-racism leaders. We give space to think, take accountability and develop skills and build their strategy to end racism on their own. We develop their leadership in anti-racism no matter what their level is within their organization and no matter if they are Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) or non-BIPOC.
I expect the same level of anti-racism leadership from everyone that I train, as I do from my employees and my family members.
I always tell my team: You are builders. We are doing what nobody has ever done. Don’t freak out, instead build the path for others to reach higher levels after you. This is bigger than us, period.
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?
I love working. So, I work to relieve stress from work.
Before a big call, I like to play my favorite Rihanna song. She helps me get in the right mindset to feel confident and encourages me to take on the world.
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?
The fact that Americans have been going about their normal workday for decades while Black people are murdered and receive no justice… it could not last forever. Everyone likes to bad-talk millennials and their obsession with social media — however, for saving Black lives, social media is a game-changer. We’re also starting to bring more light toward the trauma of being Black in America; from everyday bias, to learning how to “move on” after a family member has been shot and killed due to the suspicious color of their skin. The Black and brown populations have been traumatized for far too long and now through collective voices they are finally speaking out.
You cannot fool people with the right information. Studies show that cops are less likely to find drugs in a car of Black people than a white person, yet Black people are being pulled over 20% more and searched 2 times more often. This is racism, pure and simple, and this is just one little area. If many cops are racist and killing Black people, many HR people and managers must be racist as well, eliminating professional growth opportunities from BIPOC. The problem is that the entire BIPOC life cycle is affected by racism. There are so many players that everyone is responsible. That is why anti-racism education of the masses, not just few individuals, is key.
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?
I worked with colleges and university clients for many years, and I am sorry to say that the word “diversity” was often used as tokenism rather than a value to obtain. I am seeing now in my work that when diversity is supported, there is a true value add to organizations. One of my most rewarding moments is when a client recognizes that achieving diversity is something they want and need versus filling a quota. Time and time again, studies show that people thrive in diverse and complex environments; so, once you have DE&I as a core value of a company, the value becomes evident. There is no going back to the status quo.
When I was working with Fortune 500 companies, the focus was often to enter new markets and be local. Cultural intelligence was my focus.
Now, after the murder of George Floyd, we are busy with requests and our work at Blue Level Training is entering new categories. We now work with hospitals, tattoo shops, retail brands, engineering firms, movie production companies, and law firms. We meet people where they are.
That is really the new way of doing this work. In the past, we had always a certain type of organization that would work with us. The ones that were already in the know and progressive.
With the recent murders, we get to work with the organizations that have never had a discussion about DE&I, let alone anti-racism. It is such an amazing feeling for an educator to take them by the hand and meet them where they are. We help everyone take a big step towards positive change but, have to be much more flexible and consultative.
I personally love it; it’s more complex but so much more fulfilling because you’ve just welcomed thousands of new people to the conversation you were dying to have with them.
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?
There are two reasons that make having a diverse team at the top a must.
First, there is so much great diverse talent and, if you aren’t diverse at the top, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t have the best talent. Let’s say there are all heterosexual white men at the top of an organization. About 50% of people in the U.S. are women, 13% are Black, 12% Hispanic, 10% or more LGBTQIA+, and so on. You do some math here and you realize that your pool of talent is only a third or less of who is out there. Of course, they might well be amazing people.
That brings up my second reason. Diverse teams perform better — McKinsey tracked, concluded and proved it (diverse leadership teams outperform non-diverse ones). It’s like having a computer and manually turning the power down by 70%. You just don’t have the same provocation, debate, “building on” ideas as a good diverse team does. If you are in that situation, you probably haven’t read this far. If you have, then you’re already on a diverse team and you might have room to go further. Keep going. You have the winning formula!
Third, if “a fish stinks from the head,” it’s also true that you can reinvent an organization through leadership. Having a diverse leadership team gives you such a head start to a diverse organization, which has not one winning team, the leadership team, but a whole company of winning teams. If your executive team is not diverse, how can you serve a diverse world?
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’m going to focus on business leaders for this answer because they can have the biggest effect now in my opinion.
- Educate, educate, educate. Teach your teams about diversity, inclusion, racism, anti-racism, microinequity, microaggression, and more. Education is like rain: good things will grow out of good education. People need to understand the what, the why, and the how so that they can participate in the change.
- Have everyone own the change. Once educated, every one of your people should be part of the system that reinforces a culture of inclusion. Remind everyone that they have two jobs: one is their job description and the second is the company’s aspirational “culture description”. You need to articulate what you want your culture to be like and then ask people to help you achieve it over time. This is so important. A critical part of this culture aspiration must be to be a place where all people can thrive. This aspirational culture achievement will enable the company to attract and grow in ways companies that fail on this will not.
- Spread the change beyond your organization. If you are a company, require your suppliers do the same things you are doing, share your plans with them, and require they measure themselves against those plans. Fire a few early suppliers who do not improve. You’ll see the others change. This is leadership, accountability, and operating with values. Talk honestly and publicly about your path to an inclusive culture. If you’re honest and vulnerable, others will respect you and many will also be honest about their own situations and start to make progress.
- Leaders: be vulnerable. Too many leaders, be it politicians, CEOs, or teachers, only want to show what they have done right. Start by explaining what you’ve done wrong. We need more role models who started from behind than those who claim to be operating well. So many leaders are ready to get on the right track but don’t know-how. Leaders who show vulnerability will lead all of us to do the same.
- The old ways are not fit for 2020 and beyond. Not superficial, nor one-time or a check the box approach. Get into the nitty-gritty, be proactive, focus the light on places people never looked before.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
This issue will be better over time. The antidotes to cure the societal diseases of inequality and injustice for all are education and transparent accountability.
The earlier our people learn about racism, inequities, and microaggressions, the better our society will be. We need to start teaching this in schools — it has to be part of the curriculum. Every movement starts with young people, and in this country, relatively speaking, young people are fiercely anti-racist and pro-diversity. Imagine when we do a great job of teaching diversity and inclusion, anti-racism, and more starting in kindergarten and all the way through. Learning is power and it can overwhelm inequity. The antidotes to cure inequality and racism are education and justice.
But that will take time. Meanwhile, we are starting to see real ownership and accountability by leaders. Transparency of where we are (numerically) and accountability for improving it is starting to happen. And if we keep fostering this, change will come.
Today, we are cleaning up the mess of centuries of prejudices and building new shared values that will allow us to all benefit from the richness a diverse society, community, organization, family can bring to all its stakeholders.
After we do this in America, we have the whole world to tackle. Each country and culture have their own biases and systemic discrimination. Eventually, if anti-discrimination is taught in schools, the change will continue.
If we do our job right, we should eliminate the need for DE&I. My goal as a DE&I expert is to eliminate the need for my profession one day. The earlier that happens the better. We have a long way to go though.
It starts with leaders. Each leader of each organization needs to own their own education. As that happens, and it’s started, the change will come. We have a lot of work ahead of us. I think that the sooner organizations educate people and work with marginalized groups, the understanding of the issue will rise so high that we will make tremendous amounts of progress.
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. 🙂
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). She is driving change through government policy; I am driving change through education. She is brilliant and does not accept the injustices that have been accepted for way too long. She amplifies the voices of marginalized groups and is always prepared to take on bigotry and injustice. I’d discuss the future that we are both building, working toward the same causes but in different ways. We would talk about human rights and equity. AOC and I have similar backgrounds. She is real and authentic. We both grew up in a world that people claimed was “better than it used to be and therefore good.” But neither of us pretend that this “improved” world is now good enough; it’s nowhere near. There is still a lot of work to do. And we are both willing to put in the work.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!