Listen/Learn — How can we discover what we do not know and understand what is unfamiliar, particularly about things we will never experience, no matter how we try? We need to open ourselves up to other people’s knowledge and experiences. Asking questions, reading and listening to someone’s lived experience is the only way to get past assumptions and acquire knowledge that is not your own.
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 Cecilia Wessinger.
Cecilia Wessinger is an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder and founder of Mass Collaboration. Her current role supporting ecosystem building practitioners as a consultant with the Kauffman Foundation and Co-Founder of the Future Agro Challenge unites her dedication to empowerment and equity, with her love of community culture. As a certified Cultural Competency and Unconscious Bias facilitator, she moves conversations beyond diversity and inclusion to connecting, engaging and belonging.
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?
My family is from Taiwan, I was born in Japan and grew up in New York City. From a young age, I was navigating my environment and trying to fit in. As a first-generation immigrant, twice, I spent a lot of time and energy blending in and attempting to be the average person.
When I was in 6th grade, a few things shifted and changed my mindset. I was born with a heart defect and the spring of that year I underwent open-heart surgery. My mother told me the night before my surgery I told her that if I were to die, I wanted her to know I had a good life up until then. The other mind shift came from a comment made by my teacher. I do not know if he said it to insult me or motivate me, but the words hit hard. He told me I was “mediocre”. I do not know if I really understood the definition when he said it, but I have strived to be better than mediocre ever since.
I attended the Bronx High School of Science and that was the first time I felt like I belonged. It is a prestigious learning institution with an exceptionally long list of illustrious graduates. While we were admitted because of our intellectual prowess, but it was more about keeping company with other misfit geeks who just accepted you for who you were that made me feel like I found my people. We became friends back in the days when we thought we knew it all, and continue to connect now, aware of how much more we have to learn and enjoy hanging out with each other anyway.
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?
Margaret J Wheatley’s “Who Do We Choose To Be?” particularly in this turbulent time, offers unexpected solace and inspires me. It reveals how the world has been down this path before, in some fashion, and shines some insight on how centering oneself helps guide toward impactful and proactive outcomes. It is not a ‘how-to’ book with a laundry list of items that exhibit the ideals of leadership. Wheatley offers examples of how leaders achieved greater impact by using whatever power and influence they had, to achieve shifts that lead to greater effectiveness The book is not about the position of leading from the front, back or alongside, but the potentialities from within to create ‘islands of sanity’ and a call to action. For me, the book is an invitation to seek humanity and possibilities in all of us regardless of our titles and pedigree, it motivates and holds me accountable.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Water seeks its level…but you get to decide how high.” This comes from something I was taught by my Aunt Suzy, plus my addendum.
Suzy (Shu Mei) Chen was the first person in my family to immigrate to the United States. She taught me a lot about being confident and authentic. She came to this country to attend college back in the day when girls were not expected or encouraged to seek higher education. Anyone who knew her can tell you she spoke unabashedly and unapologetically. If you were on the receiving end of her tongue, you were well aware she never minced words. She was my “aunt without a filter”.
When I was in my 20s, we went out to lunch and she asked me what was new. In your 20s, the fun, ‘new’ thing was usually the boy you were dating. I told her I was dating a sous chef at Tavern on The Green. She looked at me wide-eyed and said, “we don’t associate with people like that.” Coming from an affluent and highly educated family, she regarded her elevated socio-economic status proudly. Then she uttered the words that haunted me for a decade. “Well, I guess water seeks its level.” It was like nails on a blackboard, I could hear them in the back of my mind for years.
Funny thing though, she was right. Not that the boy was lesser or anything, but the thing is, people judge you by the company you keep. Through the years, I shifted the impact of the phrase to remind me of this and somewhere in the last decade and a half, I took her words to heart and have made them inspire me instead of pulling me down. I decided since water does indeed seek its level, I needed to gain higher ground and started mindfully keeping company with people I aspire to be like. It was a lesson hard learned, but aren’t most things worth learning like that? Not the way I wanted to understand this reality and not the words I would have chosen, but an important lesson, nevertheless.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My definition of ‘leadership’ has shifted through the years. At one time I thought they were embodied by reigning monarchs, military commanders, elected officials and captains of industry. It is what we are taught in school and hear about in the media. Long after I graduated, I became more conscious of the fact that history is written by conquerors. There is an African proverb about the story of the hunt glorifying the hunter if the lion does not tell it. Along that vein, I have come to realize the ideals of leadership held dear some, are what I now feel are more about managing and governing.
Leadership comes from anywhere and everywhere. It is how one shows up to work, alongside others for the betterment of the group. Leaders inspire, encourage, support and resource the environment, so others can contribute to the best of their ability. It is not about WHO you are, as much as HOW and WHAT you do, with, and for others.
In one of my first meetings at the Kauffman Foundation after I was brought on as a consultant took place in a boardroom at EMKF headquarters in Kansas City. I was pretty intimidated sitting in a room with recognized leaders in the field who have been working in entrepreneurship, community and ecosystem building for a while. I was older than most of the people in the room and had come out of middle management in corporate America. As we went around the room introducing ourselves; a scrappy entrepreneur who changed the face of their community, a presidential election campaign organizer, TED speaker and author there was a lot of proven leadership in that auspicious room. Then there was me, in that exact moment, a poster child of imposter syndrome. While there was thought-provoking, inspiration shared about the vision of what we would all be building together, the words that resonated with me were more valuable. Victor Hwang, (then) Vice President of Entrepreneurship painted the picture of the movement of ecosystem building as the evolution in economic development. He said we were at a pivotal moment in history emerging out the Industrial Age into the next era. Victor told us this was likely 20–30-year work and we were not going to solve it by the next summit (which we were there to plan). Then, as he was sharing the importance of this work, he said, “and we’ll get it wrong”. My mind was reeling, here I was in the boardroom at a highly regarded and well-known organization centered on entrepreneurial learning and initiatives, and I was just told by the VP we were going to get it wrong!?! I was ready to check out and live in a cave, because if he thought we were going to get it wrong, there was no hope for the rest of us. Then he said that we had the best people sitting at the table and we were going to get it right more than we were going to get it wrong. That was the moment I made my whole self-present. I no longer felt like I needed to amp myself up or pressured to say just the right thing. My imposter syndrome melted away, shoulders relaxed, and I was ready to engage. I was inspired to try my best, give it all I had, and bring my authentic self with all that entailed to the work.
I saw Victor later in the day, and I thanked him for the opportunity and inspirational words. He leaned in and remarked, “isn’t this fun?” Yes, it is amazingly fun and I’m honored to do this work.
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?
Stress is about tension and I have worked to mitigate that from my life. Many of the emotions linked with stress, such as anger, frustration, fear and anxiety are linked with things we feel cannot control. Thinking through and processing why I am angry or frustrated, I try to identify where it stems from, whether the story I tell myself is based on fact or assumptions. We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions, so I decipher which is leading me. I also do my best to be prepared, which means homework, i.e. research, reading and viewing material prior to the meeting. The more information I have, the less fear and anxiety I experience. I can only do my best, after that, it is how I react that affects the outcome. Additionally, I am fairly good at improvising and being more agile, the more adaptable I am to change, the less stress I experience.
The rest is physiological preparedness. I do some breathing exercises which helps me to relax. I also stretch and make myself ‘bigger’. Like animals do for confrontation and mating, I stretch my arms and open my chest wide; it helps mentally and physically. Then I play my walk-up song; that is the music played when a batter steps up to the plate in baseball. I recommend something with a heavy beat, “We Are the Champions”, “Ironman”, or “I’ve Got A Feeling” as some suggestions. Whatever some gets you pumped up to take on the world helps, for me it is “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.
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 United States is an individualistic society. We were born out of the notion that each individual has inalienable rights and can achieve the American Dream. Essentially the autonomous right to say and determine your own future are tenets of this country. We value personal space, private property and intellectual property.
Ironically, we are also tribalistic in nature. We flock to our respective affinity groups to feel connected and affirmed. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, has written extensively about this, and I strongly recommend reading his book, “The Righteous Mind”.
We are at the crux of these two driving behaviors acting out. The chasm between groups deepens as more polarizing factions pull people to their respective sides. We stopped talking about religion and politics, because it was not polite conversation, which has led to the inability to talk about it amiably. The need to be right and win has taken over respectful discourse. We also put more labels on people and use broad brushing assumptions because it is easier to categorize, than to take time and effort to learn. The oxytocin high we crave from flocking shuts out the lessons we learn from discomfort and makes us tone-deaf. We forgot that “THOSE” people are our neighbors, family and once were our friends.
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?
Entrepreneurship numbers in this country have been stagnant for the past 20 years. According to the Indicators of Entrepreneurship published by the Kauffman Foundation, the country coasts around the 31% mark; with women it sits at 23%-24% and has slightly decreased for men. We are still embarrassingly lacking in support for entrepreneurs who identify as women, people of color, LGBTQ+ and from rural communities. Until we value and showcase entrepreneurs who are our neighbors and look like us, we will only inspire and support those who fit the stereotype. In my work with entrepreneurial ecosystem builders we model what is needed to create what is possible. That means when we organize events and convening we do our best to ensure the representation that mirrors our communities.
When I started attending a local 1 Million Cups meeting in Tulsa, OK, I was one of a handful of women in the room. Most of the organizing team was young men, mostly white; the audience resembled the leadership, but not the greater community. A year or so later, when I was lead organizer we had several women of color on the organizing team. Meetings were 50% women and the number of people of color and older demographics increased. Does that mean the guys who were leading back then were not being inclusive? Not necessarily, they attracted people who looked like them, remember the flocking affinity driver? When we see people like us in spaces where we aspire to be, we feel welcome in the room. By inviting people who are not like you, you create environments that resemble communities holistically.
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?
The world, even this country is not wholly comprised of people just like you. Your customers, audience and colleagues have different lived experiences. When your team includes a wide range of diversity, it contributes to better insights and more ideas. Lack of variety limits innovation and creativity due to its homogeneous nature. While surrounding yourself with people who look, think and experience life the same way you do makes things run smoothly, it creates an echo chamber. Growth happens at the end of your comfort zone and collaboration is the creation of something new and different. We only know what we know, and we do not know what we do not know. When there is sameness, there may be a lot of cooperation which is basically going along to get along, but it is dissent, disruption and diversity which bring to new light, creativity and innovation.
From a purely capitalistic view, if 100% of the buying power sits with 100% of the people, you should do your best to engage 100%, or as close as possible.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. 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.
The list is in no particular order, and most of these are two actions which are part of one step, because one action is not as effective without the other. Just as it takes two feet to take a step, it requires follow up (the second foot moving) to create momentum and move forward.
How can we discover what we do not know and understand what is unfamiliar, particularly about things we will never experience, no matter how we try? We need to open ourselves up to other people’s knowledge and experiences. Asking questions, reading and listening to someone’s lived experience is the only way to get past assumptions and acquire knowledge that is not your own. I am a first-generation female immigrant, and I can tell you about what happened to me; but I cannot speak for others. A Black woman who came to this country recently does not have the same lived experience, nor would a Latinx woman who has been here all her life, even though we would all be categorized as women of color.
The second part is harder than the first. Acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, attitudes and preferences is challenging. It requires that we be open to doing something we are unfamiliar with and unaccustomed to. This may threaten and conflict with the world as we know it and expose us to vulnerability. It is natural for human beings to generalize information to help process, there is a lot of data out there. Knowing common trends helps us to start seeing the uniqueness and commonalities within a cultural cluster. Generalizations are meant to be an introduction and should be flexible and never include judgment.
In addition to opening oneself to ideas that are different than what you may be used to, assessing the conditions in your environment to see how that aligns or impedes others helps. Doing things, the way they have always been done is about conforming and assimilating. The problem is this is not good for everyone. Systems have been put in place to maintain the status quo which favors certain groups over others. No, you cannot please everyone; that is not the goal. The objective is to create a climate wherein we can each contribute and flourish. Look around you, does everyone share similar upbringing, socio-economic and demographic traits? Does that reflect your greater community? Has it always been this way? What/ who is missing?
In order to truly move forward, we acknowledge what has transpired, consider this to be “closure”. Without this essential step, we cannot turn the page. There will be lingering doubt, questions and haziness which embodies itself in mistrust. Everything moves at the speed of trust. On a recent inclusion panel, one of the speakers shared that a restaurant in their area posted a Black Lives Matter sign in their window just prior to a scheduled protest. There was huge public backlash from the community on social media calling out their prejudicial practices just a week prior. Even if the restaurant had a genuine change of heart, the neighborhood did not believe it was authentic. Perhaps if they had stated that they realized their blind spots or the errors of their ways, the outcome would have been more amiable.
3- Remember the Platinum Rule
Most people know the “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. This is a good approach, but it assumes that all people want the same thing. People are unique and not all situations are the same.
The Platinum Rule is about doing what the other person wants done. It shifts the focus towards the other person and creates a relationship. It takes into account and consideration of other people’s feelings and conditions. It is more respectful and empathetic.
An illustration of this from personal experience; as a person who verbally processes things, I would talk about a challenge I was having with my ex-husband. In my mind, I was articulating something I was working to solve and mostly I was sharing what was happening in my world. He is a problem solver and seeks solutions in a pragmatic way. When an issue comes up, he strives to fix it, while I prefer to resolve it myself. We both treated the conversation in a way that we each would have liked (golden rule); neither of us thought about how the other person approaches obstacles and would have preferred (platinum rule). It seems a bit comical and perhaps all too familiar scenario.
A frequently overlooked opportunity is not interacting with others in your community. Sometimes we feel we must do it all and we need to have all the answers, particularly if we have a management or leadership role. Communities and organizations are comprised of several stakeholders, each with unique perspectives and needs. When we create space and occasions when others can contribute, we foster and sustain environments wherein we all find purpose and meaning.
As these occurrences and engagements happen, it tends to cultivate rich habitats where people feel a sense of belonging and perpetuate serendipity. When people feel like they can bring their whole authentic selves, they are more connected and committed. It may seem a bit whimsical and trivial, but a large percentage of millennials (the largest working demographic) leave jobs because they do not feel trust and are disillusioned and skeptical according to the 2019 Deloitte Millennial Survey.
5- Awareness/ Accountability
Awareness is paramount to several of the things already mentioned. As I mentioned before regarding 1 Million Cups, being alert to the people who were not present and reaching out to include them was the beginning of a shift in who attended and presented. Acknowledgment is awareness that things were not optimal and favored some over others. Awareness is also needed in differentiating between what was intended, implied and assumed with the impact of one’s actions and words.
Accountability is needed to ensure the efforts are executed and maintained. This does not need to be formal or extensive, it can simply be a mental note, checklist or partner that keeps you aligned with your goals.
We are all part of the complex, interdependent systems. As challenging as that sounds, it is also a plus. When we engage in one or some of these activities, it catalyzes positive change and the more we do it, the greater the momentum. It can also spark others to join and creates opportunities for others to contribute in ways we may not have thought of yet. All the articles and information you will read on your journey of inclusion are adding to your knowledge base and even if one person’s 5 Steps does not exactly match another person’s, it is okay. There is not an ‘only way’ to do this work, it will take all of us, doing positive and proactive things to the best of our ability. The most important thing is, no matter where you are and what you know, try.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I have hope and faith because the alternative is not acceptable to me. It will not be easy or simple, but I believe people are intrinsically good. It is not the first time humankind has faced adversity and conflict, along with far greater awareness because of our connectivity, there is also better linkage because of it. Together, we can solve the challenges we face and offer comfort as well as camaraderie. We will make mistakes and we have a long road ahead; people are resilient and there is no other true option, but to be optimistic and try.
Margaret Wheatley also says, “No matter the problem, community is the answer.” I am optimistic because some of the best people I know are working to grow, connect and engage communities everywhere.
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. 🙂
My friends would assume it would be Bruce Springsteen. I have been a huge fan and attended shows in 20 states and 4 countries. But in thinking about it, I would love to spend time with Jimmy & Roslyn Carter.
I am intrigued with the idea of spending time with a former leader of the free world who made hard decisions and centered themselves in bringing people together. I have mixed feelings about the term ‘servant leader’, I am sensitive about the hierarchical phrase, but I appreciate the idea of it. The Carters embody trying to contribute to the best of one’s ability, maybe not getting it perfect, but doing what they can to make the world just a bit better.
Perhaps the Obamas would be a good choice too, along the same lines, and just maybe, they would invite their friend, Bruce along to join us.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for asking, the most comprehensive place would be on my personal website: ceciliawessinger.me
You can find my social media links and some of my writing there.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!