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“Leadership is about inspiring people to imagine what’s possible” With Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated & Dr. Erin L. Thomas

This fight for our dignity and humanity isn’t new to us but I’ve seen newcomers to the cause over the past few months. Company leaders are recognizing that racism isn’t “out there,” that their workplaces inherit and perpetuate the racism that pervades our society. They’re even saying the word “racism” — not bias or another […]

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This fight for our dignity and humanity isn’t new to us but I’ve seen newcomers to the cause over the past few months. Company leaders are recognizing that racism isn’t “out there,” that their workplaces inherit and perpetuate the racism that pervades our society. They’re even saying the word “racism” — not bias or another euphemism — which signals to me that we might finally be ready to get honest about where we are and how far we have to go to build anti-racist organizations.


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 Dr. Erin L. Thomas, Ph.D.

Erin L. Thomas, Ph.D., is a leading voice on racism, inclusion and equity in the workplace and an expert in helping organizations address a lack of diversity through culture transformation and people development.She is the Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging and Head of Talent Acquisition at Upwork. She lives in Chicago with her husband, their two small children and two cats that seemed to take up less space before the pandemic.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Thomas! 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 on the south side of Chicago with my mom and two sisters. My mom’s mom didn’t live with us but was also an instrumental member of our family. I navigated two very different worlds: my low-income all-Black neighborhood and the wealthy, predominantly white wealthy schools that I attended. I saw firsthand how environments affect interactions between people from very different walks of life. That lived experience sparked the intellectual curiosity that I bring to my work today.

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 was a voracious reader as a kid. I wore down my paperback copy of Maniac Magee. It’s a story about a white boy in a highly segregated town who’s clueless about racial dynamics and, accordingly, gets into all sorts of trouble. My guess is that I’d find the book highly problematic today but, even as a kid, I was fascinated by the concepts of race, difference, inequality and social norms.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I’m the mom of two small Black boys and I am profuse with “I love you” and “You’re so beautiful” both because it’s true but also because the world will tell them otherwise. I count these as life lessons for them.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think leadership is about inspiring people to imagine what’s possible, shaping a vision they believe in, crafting a course for getting there and enabling them to carve out their unique roles and contributions on the path to progress.

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 over prepare. I’m often complimented on the ease and relaxed nature I bring to my work. I don’t wake up like that! My family and those who work closely with me see that I turn things over from all angles and purposefully work myself up before a big opportunity so that I’m more than prepared come showtime. I think about the worst thing that could reasonably happen — the hardest question I could be asked or what I would do if my wifi cut out — and I plan for it.

If I have last-minute nerves right before taking a stage, I reappraise the energy. When I was a first-year graduate student, my advisor Jack Dovidio invited me to co-present with him at the biggest conference for my field of research. We’re talking about thousands of very judgy academics who would be poised to critique me. I was a shaking wreck. Jack told me that nerves show that you care and you should use that energy for good. That was over a decade ago and I’ve never forgotten it.

I also bring the breath. I’ve been practicing yoga since I was a kid and controlling my breathing is the most powerful way for me to gain perspective and feel in control.

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?

It’s pretty simple: Black people have been told for centuries to pick ourselves up from our bootstraps in a country that we built and was quite literally designed to oppress us. On the back of a viral pandemic that is disproportionately killing us as a consequence of this oppression, we’re over it.

This fight for our dignity and humanity isn’t new to us but I’ve seen newcomers to the cause over the past few months. Company leaders are recognizing that racism isn’t “out there,” that their workplaces inherit and perpetuate the racism that pervades our society. They’re even saying the word “racism” — not bias or another euphemism — which signals to me that we might finally be ready to get honest about where we are and how far we have to go to build antiracist organizations.

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?

The work I do is grounded in research, data and pragmatism. There’s a huge gulf between diversity research and practice and I’ve tried to bridge that gap throughout my career. I’m a social psychologist by training and spent about a decade in higher ed conducting research on and teaching classes on identity and bias. I then went on to stand up and lead strategic diversity and inclusion functions for two different organizations: one within the federal government and the other a professional services firm. I took a two-year detour to external diversity consulting and am now back in-house as the head of diversity, inclusion and belonging and the head of talent acquisition at Upwork.

This work is my calling and has always been important but feels especially urgent given everything that’s going on in the world right now. I think the workplace has the opportunity to be one of the safest places for marginalized people.

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 so many benefits. Here are a few:

  1. Talent exists everywhere but opportunity does not. If your executive team isn’t socially diverse, it’s — by definition — not the strongest team possible
  2. Social diversity yields diversity of experience and perspective. You want that at the top of your organization as you’re shaping its direction. Without it, your decision making isn’t as robust as it needs to be.
  3. Excellence comes in many forms. Diversity at the top grows your organization’s capacity to expand its prototypes for high performance and potential.
  4. Diversity at the top signals to lower-level employees that they can succeed within your organization. (If they can’t see it, they can’t be it.)

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’ll keep my steps specific to the workplace:

  1. Articulate why you care. Habits form best when they’re internally motivated. Get clear about why your organization values equity: Does equity tie directly to your mission or values? Do you have a moral imperative? Is it about your customers and clients? The communities you serve? Innovation? Creativity?…
  2. Identify your goals. Organizational equity should be treated like any other company strategy. This means tangible representation targets should be set and communicated.
  3. Pinpoint where your organization is falling short. Examine your people data to understand where you should focus. Most organizations spread themselves too thin. By following the data, you can effectively concentrate your scarcest resources: time and attention.
  4. Investigate why you’re falling short. Leverage quantitative and qualitative (employees’ stories and experiences) data to get critical about the mechanisms underlying your outcomes. You may discover that you need to tighten the inputs to talent decisions. You may also discover that you need more employee accountability for utilizing your processes as designed.
  5. Make a plan. Organizational equity requires collective action. No one person, team or function can do all the work. A plan outlines everyone’s unique role in building an equitable workplace.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I think optimistic is a strong word. I have hope.

There’s so much short-term potential to be more fair and just in government, workplaces and society at large that isn’t being optimized right now. And, in the long term, I have to believe what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached: that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.

I’m not sure how much will change in my lifetime, but I do what I can to make it easier for my children and the change agents that come behind me.

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. 🙂

I’d love to chat with Trevor Noah. He’s brilliant and always finds the perfect balance of vulnerability, humility and provocation in his work. I’d want to thank him for using his voice to affect change and to hear more about how he personally balances the complexities of his platform.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow me on Twitter. I try to post something helpful related to workplace inclusion on Sundays: @ErinLThomasPhD

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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