Act on change right where you are. — We can get overwhelmed by the size and scope of our problems. There are so many, and it will take a lot of seismic action to repair. That doesn’t mean that each of us cannot start where we are and influence improvements right where we stand.
Aspart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Michael Rain.
Michael Rain leverages storytelling and technology to expand the world’s perception of diverse communities. He is the founder of ENODI, which highlights the lives, cultural innovations, and entrepreneurial work of people with immigrant backgrounds. He is a 2020 Stanford University Knight Journalism Fellow and 2017 TED Resident & Speaker with a talk that has over 1,000,000 views.
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?
Iam the third child of two Ghanaian immigrants. I was born in Manhattan, New York, and grew up in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is home to the largest immigrant population in the U.S., with neighboring Queens having the most diverse population of immigrants.
The prevalence of multicultural groups living and co-existing was the reality of my youth. I attended Brooklyn Tech, a public high school that had the most diverse student body in the country with over 60 countries represented. My close friend group consisted of males and females, with a range of ethnic backgrounds and nationalities including people with roots in Bangladesh, Haiti, the Philippines, India, Nigeria, Vietnam, Barbados, China, Jamaica, and Poland, and also Black and White Americans.
It was only later, in my 20’s, as I was introduced to more corporate, and mainstream spaces that I realized the diversity I grew up with — that I thought was normal and common — was actually quite rare.
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?
There are many, but today I’ll go with The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton. The book’s main point is organizations often make the mistake of enduring bad people because they do great work and ignore the damage they do to other team members. He encourages the idea that you can have highly talented team members who are also kind people.
Full disclosure: I was an editorial intern at Hachette Book Group years ago and Dr. Sutton’s book was the first I worked on so it also has great sentimental value to me.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Competition breeds champions,” is a quote by my all-time favorite entrepreneur, Berry Gordy, Jr. Mr. Gordy is best known for founding Motown Records and discovering and grooming some of the greatest talents in the history of popular music including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye.
Motown used to do something called quality control meetings where songwriters and producers would play the songs they recorded that week and the staff would vote on who brought the best song. The dynamic stimulated a friendly and vibrant competition that encouraged everyone to bring their best work. He credits this system for why the company produced so many hit songs.
I believe that competition can bring the best out of us, without emboldening our worst selves.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the consistent act of service to others, regardless of your level of authority or responsibility. Even if people do not report to you, you can still lead.
When you lead a team, or you lead leaders in an organization, you are in service to them to make sure they are in the best possible position to successfully accomplish their scope of work. If you are elected or appointed to public service, leadership means just that — serving the public.
Poor managers or bosses think about their role as being “in charge.” They derive their ability to tell people what to do from their role or from the power of their position. This is not leadership.
The junior person who influences a slow-to-innovate organization to adopt digital programs and new approaches by demonstrating the value of these tools is a leader. The senior manager who uses the threat of termination or stagnant career progression as their way of making employees stretch beyond what is reasonable is not a leader and likely just a jerk.
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?
When I know I have an upcoming engagement that requires me to perform in some way, such as a keynote speech, investor pitch, a crucial client meeting, etc. I spend a lot of time doing preparation and practicing. When I get close to the moment of the event I trust that my work will show up in my performance. This is how I approached preparing for my TED Talk.
If I just need to release and relieve stress, physical activity is my go-to. I lift weights and do machine cardio. And a long walk with the right music playlist does wonders for my spirit. Playing instruments also works for me. I play the piano and keyboards.
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?
We are currently in a moment where there is the greatest potential for social, racial, and economic change since the 1960s. We arrived here by failing to fully address the roots of our problems and expecting band-aids, rhetoric, and silence to work in place of doing the work. We are in the middle of a global pandemic that is exposing the flaws, cracks, and weaknesses of so many of our social and economic systems. Americans are feeling the pain of being crushed.
George Floyd being murdered in public by an officer of the state is a visual representation of what is happening to people in this country. The footage resonated with millions of people not just because it was brutal and outrageously violent. It was also because it connected with a collective sense of being fatally suffocated by systems that do not serve us.
What we are seeing now are so many frustrated and marginalized people who have reached their limit of patience. We have been promised basic change, then told it will take beyond our lifetime to achieve while watching milestones of inequality accumulate without resistance.
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?
My work comprises of leveraging storytelling and technology to expand the world’s perception of diverse communities.
My company ENODI focuses on the stories of people with immigrant backgrounds that go beyond issues of documentation. Immigrants and first-generation people have impacted this country in great ways both culturally and economically. Most people don’t know that almost half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Most people don’t know the reason hip hop started in the Bronx was because of Caribbean immigrants bringing their styles of DJing and dancehall that mixed with the musical history and culture of African-Americans living there. Even the food popular with most Americans, pizza, and all of the varied styles of it start with Italian immigrants in New York.
I spent this last year at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Journalism fellow researching the private digital messaging networks of immigrant communities. I’ve observed WhatsApp groups and studied digital messaging culture. I’m finding that communities that are not properly served by consistent and well-funded media rely on interpersonal communication and social groups based on salient identity for information. In these digital spaces, they find news relevant to them, along with humorous memes and gifs, and the occasional alarming video.
Prior to this, I co-founded a media and tech startup that made mobile app, web, and email products to serve the global Pan-African community with a broader range of news. Our mission was to make it easier for people to find cool stories that were not war, poverty, and disease stories that mainly comprise the narratives major outlets publish.
I have a background in consulting Fortune 100 companies and funded startups on reputation management, crisis communications, content marketing, branding, and diversity and inclusion work. I regularly do keynotes, workshops, and panels about multicultural identity, serving the underserved with technology, being a Black founder, digital storytelling, and on Black and African media for top financial firms, tech companies, federal government agencies, philanthropic foundations, and top tier business schools.
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 answer to this can go in so many directions, but I will just focus on product design with this answer.
Last year I was invited to do a Talks at Google, hosted at Google HQ in New York. The talk was about startups serving Africa-based users. The moderator, who was an engineer at the company, asked me about Google’s mantra, which is that they build for everybody and whether I thought it was really necessary for startups and new ventures to be focused on serving a particular group of people or part of the world, as my former startup did. My response was “If you want to build for everybody, you need to have everybody in the building.”
Companies and organizations design and build products and services for a narrow idea of who the end-users are, failing large sets of ignored people. Even when metrics are solely relied upon to influence features, without cultural competency you will misinterpret what the data is telling you. When you do not have diverse teams building products or leading organizations you are limited in anticipating what could go wrong and what the core problems are that you should solve.
No matter how much “diversity of thought” you have mixed in based on people’s professional expertise and skills, this is not sufficient. All of our own understanding of what is possible and what could go wrong is limited to our lived experiences. And those experiences vary greatly based on how we identify and how the world engages with our unique mix of race, gender, sex, age, social status, sexuality, ethnicity, perceived attractiveness, wealth, nationality, education level, ableness and so much more.
This is how we get facial recognition software that cannot tell Black people apart. We get social media platforms lacking safety policies protecting female users from harassment. We get digital products that fail disabled people because only able-bodied people are involved in building the product.
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.
1. Note that people’s identities are complex. Don’t generalize.
As we advocate for fairness based on the hardships people face due to their identities and economic realities, we must also realize that citing just one aspect of how someone is grouped doesn’t tell their whole story.
People may be classified as white in the U.S. due to phenotype and complexion but be an immigrant with English as their third language. Someone could be African-American and of the Muslim faith. We have Asian-Americans whose families go back 70 or more years in the U.S. And we must understand groups of people classified as Latino can have heritage from different cultures and countries including Mexico, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic and be distinct from our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.
2. Stop asking those of us with the expertise to do this work for free.
This point is personal to me. Those of us who do the work, have the experience and education that contributes to building a “more inclusive, representative, and equitable society” are professionals with real skills and expertise. Stop asking us to speak, consult, design, plan, write, build, and more for nothing. We are not your free laborers.
Myself and my circle of professionals have been asked to do everything from giving keynote talks, conducting workshops, drafting communications plans, sketching inclusive redesigns, leading large groups in processing emotions, and more all for the compelling compensation of zero.
Employees at companies that have failed to consider diversity currently have diverse staff doing hours of additional work without additional compensation nor any guarantee this work will be positively considered in their performance reviews.
If you value diversity and inclusion, then you have to value and compensate the people who you turn to for help and consultation. And when you finally have a budget, it wouldn’t hurt if you actually hired and paid diverse people to do this work.
3. Understand that our problems are systemic.
Too many people think of racism or discrimination as an individual person who doesn’t like someone else and treats them badly because of it. Sure, there will always be people who hate “the other” and do and say things to injure those who are not apart of their preferred group. The issue is when there are systems that back up their hateful actions.
This was the issue with Amy Cooper calling the police on Christian Cooper in the infamous Central Park incident in May. Calling the cops and emphasizing that you were in danger from a Black man shows a clear awareness of how the system works. She was aware that the likely outcome of the call is the death, abuse, or arrest for that man.
Know that when people are outraged and want changes, we aren’t asking for people to be nicer or love us more. We are demanding that there are consequences for these actions and that we need to end systems that enforce violence based on discrimination.
4. Accept that bias and discrimination is in everything
I know people who are not well versed in the history of the U.S. and are new to seeing and understanding how systemic racism and bias work get frustrated hearing about how wide the scope is, but it is wide. And it is real. The wealth gap, where poor communities are and why they are poor, even why Black men in the U.S. have the worst quality of life outcomes of all demographics stem from systems built on exclusion and exploitation. This is by design.
Bias is an active agent in unequal outcomes, too. I don’t think anyone really believes that if George Floyd was an elderly white woman, that we would have seen the same reaction from police officers. Identity, social status, and economic position are always factors.
5. Act on change right where you are.
We can get overwhelmed by the size and scope of our problems. There are so many, and it will take a lot of seismic action to repair. That doesn’t mean that each of us cannot start where we are and influence improvements right where we stand.
It’s great to have meaningful conversations with our families and friends to influence more open and inclusive thinking — yet we can do more. We all have the ability to push for or lead change in our workplaces, in our places of worship, and in our in-person and digital communities. We are all apart of these systems damaging us. We can all be disruptors, too.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am optimistic that there will be changes. We’ve moved past a point where we cannot return to where we were. However, I’m not expecting anything to be truly resolved. These problems are centuries old, so one movement at one point in time will not be enough to resolve it all. We can of course push things forward as far as we are able in the time that we have.
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. 🙂
Really tough one to narrow down. I have such a long list. Allow me some leeway.
Outside the U.S. I would want to have lunch with Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, and leader of their economic revitalization and technological developments.
In the U.S. I’ll say Sergey Brin co-founder of Google. I’m very interested in learning how his immigrant background influenced his career path and the companies he’s founded.
How can our readers follow you online?
I welcome people to:
- Visit my website: www.michaelra.in
- Follow and engage with me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/michaeljrain
- Follow me on Instagram: http://instagram.com/michaeljrain
- Follow me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelrain
- And to visit ENODI and listen to some cool stories: www.ENODI.co
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you so much for inviting me to share my story and thoughts!