I do feel hope as hearts across America were stirred following the unjust killing of George Floyd, and many others. And change does start from the heart. The local level discussions on police reform are encouraging. We need people who will support change and create an enabling environment as structural inequalities across society need to be looked at to enable sustained transformation.
I had the pleasure to interview a woman with a global perspective on diversity and inclusion, Jesmane Boggenpoel.
Ms. Boggenpoel was the Head of Business Engagement, Africa for the World Economic Forum. Ms. Boggenpoel is a CA (SA) and holds a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Accountancy from the University of the Witwatersrand. Boggenpoel completed the Mid-Career master’s in public administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2012 in the US. Ms. Boggenpoel is an Edward S Mason Fellow and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Boggenpoel is also the author of “My Blood Divides and Unites,” a book that discusses the topics of race and identity as they relate to her life living under apartheid.
Boggenpoel’s book, My Blood Divides and Unites empowers those living in marginalized communities to create positive change in themselves and others. We’re at a time where globally the racial divide is greater than ever and her story that brings in the stories of others from around the world provides a message to all on racial reconciliation.Through research, Boggenpoel quickly discovered that these issues aren’t unique to South Africa. Racial exclusion has created national wounds and personal scars worldwide. Globally, people are struggling to make peace with their identities and how they fit into the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Jesmane! 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 a marginalized neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa. Despite being raised in a low-income family with tragic circumstances — my dad suffered a nervous breakdown after an exhaustive and abusive construction carpentry project for an assignment in Namibia. My mother, who had not finished high school, was forced to be the primary provider for our family. While life felt hard, we were raised with love from our families.
I also have a younger brother and an identical twin sister, as my family comes from three generations of consecutive identical female twins — a four in 100million or 0.000004% phenomenon.
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?
My book on racial reconciliation, healing, and inclusion ‘’My Blood Divides and Unites’’.
It took two and a half years to write the book, and the process was cathartic. It was like peeling layers of an onion. I got to the core of self-discovery. Sharing my story expanded my awareness of my humanity and how it connects to everyone else. The writing process also allowed me to reframe my past and impoverished childhood to one of resilience and hope.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One of my favorite quotes is ‘’delayed gratification is maturity’’. In our instant-access culture, I have learned to be patient for opportunities to come my way and invest in the seed time until it produced a harvest. This lesson extended to delaying some asset purchases and being debt-free, which enabled me to spend time studying for my master’s at Harvard’s JFK School of Government for two years. It has also enabled me to undertake some entrepreneurial ventures.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is having a vision that connects people’s values and inspires others to be a part of that vision and journey.
Our current world and the entry of millennials into the workspace has created more remote work during the time of COVID. This means that people have more flexible work options and are not bound to an employer for ten years. As a result, leadership is needed to inspire and motivate people to rally around a transformative vision. For example, Philips has the vision to improve the lives of 3 billion people by 2030 by making people healthier through innovation. Philips will aim to do this by inspiring his 81,000 plus employees in 100 countries and various stakeholders to become a part of this vision.
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 visualize that I will make the right decision to overcome the stressful situation. This makes me calm, centers me, and allows me to act in faith and hope.
In making important decisions, I act on a combination of left-brain processing, external consultation combined with intuition.
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?
While the civil rights movement in the 1960s, has allowed for some progress, America still deals with structural, historical inequality that affects access to quality education, housing, healthcare and finance, and seemingly police bias. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated unemployment and lack of opportunity and exposed the US to lack a truly public health care system. These particularly challenging economic times are encouraging marginalized people to fight for their rights.
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 a woman of color, raised during apartheid in South Africa, I spent the first decade of my career in auditing, corporate finance, and private equity, in white male-dominated environments. My personal experience in non-diverse and non-inclusive work environments made me feel like ‘’the other.” These experiences have allowed me to advocate for companies to do better to promote D&I initiatives.
The message of my book My Blood Divides and Unites is focused on racial reconciliation, diversity and inclusion. As part of my book tour last year, I did talks at universities and companies and was exposed to the views of people who feel that they are not included and stigmatized. This insight, combined with research, helped me formulate solutions around diversity and inclusion, which I’ve shared across various organizations.
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?
An extract from my book, My Blood Divides and Unites states, “people of different backgrounds bring together diverse networks, realize there are multiple perspectives, are not fixated on a particular view, and tend to make unusual associations. Diversity is right; the key to innovation and creativity. The mixture of ideas and insights from different cultures, educational disciplines, industries, genders and generations, encourages people to see things in new ways and develop new solutions. A number of studies have looked at the benefits of diversity, including adding women to formerly all-male teams, and minorities to previously all-white teams. One such study found that when women are added to previously all-male leadership teams in firms whose strategy is based on innovation, the firm’s performance improves. Other forms of diversity are also beneficial, as studies have shown that when people of different races, political affiliations, and other markers of difference are brought together, they tend to work harder to prepare better, listen to each other more carefully, and treat contributions from racial or opinion minorities as novel information. You need not have a laboratory or field study setting to be innovative; for any time you bring together a diverse group of people, ideas can begin to cross-pollinate. Even in something as simple and informal as a break room or book reading club, the results can be transformative. And, of course, encouraging people to mix can break down old conceptions of “ us” and “them,” with positive effects that can ripple across society.”
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.
- Embed messaging on diversity and inclusion in all our communication and actions. We are attuned to read subtext and body language in communication. It is easier to feel excluded than included. So leaders across sectors need to embed messaging in their communication that there is an opportunity for all, while also allowing people to show up as they are (i.e., inclusion).
- Have cultural symbols that speak to the history, struggles and accomplishments of all communities. Honoring African American slaves and Native Americans are essential symbolic gestures.
- Education starts at the diner table and continues in schools, colleges and places of work on empathy and barriers against and tools enabling diversity and inclusion. Many organizations seem to have once-off interventions to tick off a box, and these conversations and interventions need to be ongoing.
- Set up mechanisms and hotlines in societies, schools, and organizations to address discrimination and harassment.
- Build gamification on diversity and inclusion for societies and organizations as an incentive. For example, in the state awarding tenders and companies bringing in suppliers in their supply chain, including scoring for diversity as one of the selected metrics.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
In all of this, I do feel hope as hearts across America were stirred following the unjust killing of George Floyd, and many others. And change does start from the heart. The local level discussions on police reform are encouraging. We need people who will support change and create an enabling environment as structural inequalities across society need to be looked at to enable sustained transformation.
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 would like to have a private meeting with Barrack Obama. His African heritage inspires me, efforts made at inclusion (e.g., Obamacare, meeting youth in town halls around the world on his state visits), and measured, thoughtful statements on this topic.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can visit my site myblooddividesandunites.com
Readers can also follow me on Instagram @jesmaneboggenpoel or Twitter at @jesmaneboggenp1
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!