Jennifer Brown (she/her) is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, author, and diversity and inclusion expert who is deeply passionate about building more inclusive workplaces where more of us can feel welcomed, valued, respected, and heard. As the Founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting (JBC), a certified woman- and LGBT-owned firm, Jennifer and her team design and execute inclusion strategies that have been implemented by some of the biggest companies and non-profit organizations in the world. Jennifer is also the bestselling author of two books, Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace and The Will to Change (2017) and How To Be An Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive (2019). She recently co-authored a ground breaking book on diversity, equity and inclusion in society with thought leader and fellow bestselling author Rohit Bhargava. The book, Beyond Diversity, 12 Non-Obvious Ways To Build A More Inclusive World will hit bookshelves November 9, 2021. Jennifer’s podcast, The Will to Change, is downloaded by nearly 15,000 listeners per month, and she is a sought-after keynote speaker and expert for leading research institutions and business schools.
Jennifer was recently featured in Onalytica's Diversity & Inclusion report
How did you get to become an expert in your key topics?
I was a community activist right out of school and always knew I wanted to make a difference in the world. At the same time, I was also a musician and passionate about singing, so I sought a degree in Operatic Vocal Performance and moved to New York to follow that dream. However, after injuring my voice and several vocal surgeries later, I ultimately had to leave that dream behind. But life unfolds in mysterious ways. Closing that door opened another and I found my true niche and passion in leadership development, life-long learning, and driving organizational change.
I got a degree in organizational change and spent some time in HR roles in corporate America where I experienced and observed first-hand the dynamics of inclusion – and exclusion. I was just finding my voice as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and was realizing my passion for workplace equality, but still unable to dive into it as much as I would have liked. Through those early days in my career, I gained a lot of exposure to employees of all different identities – employees that hadn’t traditionally felt seen and heard, similar to my own personal experiences.
Several corporate roles later, I started my own firm, Jennifer Brown Consulting, so I could be a more powerful, independent voice. As JBC grew, I began to realize that what was needed was a leadership conversation about accountability, growth, and organizational health. As a company, we began to focus heavily on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy and training and we continue that focus today, doing a great deal to work around driving systemic change, which we know is what matters most.
Writing several books has also clarified my expertise and challenged me to lay out a pathway for inclusive leadership that is concrete and immediately applicable. This critically important given where we are in the urgent need of action on the part of those with any sort of power and capital.
What sub-topics are you most passionate about?
While we primarily deliver services in the DEI space as a firm, I find myself extremely interested in different aspects of leadership and social change such as corporate social responsibility (CSR), environmental, social, and governance (ESG) indicators, and the relationship between DEI and corporations driving social impact. In addition, inclusive leadership frameworks like emotional intelligence, psychological safety, allyship and the role of heart faith leadership are topics I am very passionate about.
I think we are at a real crossroads as a country, and that we have an opportunity to finally reckon with and address the legacy of oppression and inequities that have held so many people back. I’m very inspired by the anti-racism movement and the role corporations can play in making real change happen. This will require intentional strategies, for example, creating new pathways to meaningful careers for historically marginalized communities, looking within organizational structures to identify and tear down policies and practices that benefit the few but leave many underrepresented groups behind, expanding recruitment and hiring to tap into non-traditional talent pools such as formerly incarcerated talent, individuals with disabilities, older workers, and the list goes on.
I also am fascinated by the changes happening in the workplace. The pandemic has changed the world of work forever, and issues like work life balance, mental health and well-being, expanded benefits for caregiving, and hybrid work structures, have come to the forefront. There is an opportunity today to redefine what the workplace looks like in the future, with the employee’s ability to thrive at the center of the corporate strategy. But there is also the potential that many of these same issues, if not properly addressed, could increase disparities and inequities in the workplace and further the wealth and opportunity divide that currently exists.
Who influences you within these topics?
There are so many! On the topic of hiring formerly incarcerated talent, I am following the work of What’s Next Washington. This is an organization of formerly incarcerated individuals and allies working to improve the ability of people with conviction histories to reintegrate into society and achieve economic stability. Sue Mason, one of the co-founders of the non-profit, has joined us on our podcasts and community calls to help amplify the message that this is a valuable and untapped talent pool.
I think Rocki Howard is doing amazing work in transforming hiring practices that better promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Amber Hikes, Head of Diversity at ACLU, has also been a guest on our community calls twice now and never fails to impress and uplift those around her. Rana Reeves inspires me with his approach to inclusive, creative solutions for brands with his intersectional creative direction at Ranaverse. Authors Dave Smith and Brad Johnson, who focus on modern male allyship and redefining what it means to be a man and masculinity are also doing important work that can provide a roadmap for bringing White males off the side lines and into the discussion.
What challenges are brands facing in this space?
Brands are facing the challenge of not being prepared for a reckoning and not prepared or knowledgeable enough to pivot in times of social unrest. Companies struggle with how to truly listen to their employees and embed diversity into the fabric of how they work, whether it’s hiring teams or developing new products, marketing strategies, and reaching audiences. There are many reasons companies don’t take DEI seriously including thinking it’s something they can outsource and not take ownership of, or running everybody through unconscious bias and thinking that’s sufficient, or just an overall fear of and resistance to change.
Some brands are figuring it out and moving quickly, which involves taking a hard look at things like business practices, representation in decision making roles, engagement statistics, and workplace belonging defined by the different identities that make up a workforce.
What has been largely missing is the focus on accountability, and holding senior leaders responsible for DEI outcomes that are meaningful and that will lead to lasting change. Brands are typically led by the least diverse cohort from an ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation perspective, so the decision making is happening mainly by groups that don’t carry the lived experience that is most needed in the world today to understand the diversity of customers and markets.
The work lies in acknowledging that deficit and being extremely proactive and intentional about lifting up the wisdom in the organization that is literally going to propel us to our next evolution. But this work requires commitment, transparency, accountability, patience and humility.
What do you think the future holds in this space?
Change is coming, whether we like it or not. It is not something we can slow down because the demographics of our incoming talent are the most diverse we’ve ever seen. Companies and organizations are going to need to change to really “see” the full person, and support that person’s potential and ultimate success. But the question is how ready are they?
What I foresee in the best scenario is that we aggressively diversify our workforce and that we admit to and aggressively tackle the many biases that permeate our people and business processes, from recruitment to hiring, from promotion and advancement to performance reviews.
It’s especially worrisome to me that mid-career talent of non-traditional backgrounds are falling out of the pipeline to the C-Suite because of toxicity in the workplace. This is happening across the spectrum of identities who still struggle to succeed in a workplace not built “by and for” them. Corporate leaders must set aggressive goals and hold themselves accountable to fix these things and make sure the workforce is representative of the world they do business in, and that the workplace is psychologically safe to everyone, regardless of their identity. I do think that vision is possible.
The future holds the potential for creating more proactive and informed allyship and solidarity. We are learning that we cannot put the burden of change on those of us who are most impacted by discrimination and biases in the workplace. It’s not a fair ask. The future will hold more practiced inclusive leaders that will be more confident and alert to bias and more vigilant about organizational health and what that means for employees of different identities. If that can happen, then I think businesses will thrive in a diversifying world and be able to resonate with the customer or clients they’re trying to reach.
I also hope to see the democratization of the workplace. There has to be a way to condense the hierarchy and acknowledge that wisdom lives in every corner of an organization. If anything, employees are going to become much more insistent in how they use their voice; this is not going away nor should we want it to go away.
We are being given a gift and an invitation to change and evolve, so the companies that block the voices of their people will not thrive, and companies that welcome that and flex and evolve with it will excel.
What brands are leading the way in this space?
I watch not just what companies say, but where they spend their money, and whom they spend it with, as a measure of their commitment to making DEI real. For example, the Billion Dollar Roundtable (BDR) is a coalition of almost 30 mega corporations who spend over a billion dollars with diverse suppliers. A few of our clients are part of this cohort – for example Toyota, Walmart, Bank of America, and Boeing.
One of our proudest and almost decade-long relationships has been with a major bank who prioritizes this area; we’ve delivered a slew of professional development programs for their underrepresented talent, and I originally heard about the opportunity to bid on the work through the supplier diversity community, further underscoring their commitment to DEI. For me, supplier diversity and the priority that is put on diversifying supply chains, and on every spending decision, indicates a company is taking equity seriously.
JBC is LGBT and women-owned and certified with the NGLCC and WBENC, respectively. Beyond our business mission, we “diverse suppliers” are also showing up as fully ourselves and demonstrating how competent and ready we are to become those bigger companies of the future. These mutually-beneficial relationships are birthing new innovations, and growing the new and next generation of companies in the process.
If a brand wanted to work with you, which activities would you be most interested in collaborating on?
We welcome any and all types of partnership projects! We would love the opportunity to collaborate on workshop trainings, podcast episodes, thought papers, speaking opportunities, and more. If there are any brands in need of developing or revisiting a robust DEI strategy, rolling out inclusive leadership, education, training, or looking for assistance with affinity groups or launches, support guidance, please reach out to us for an informational conversation. I am available for keynote and executive presentations and panels as well.
What are your passions outside of work?
I love spending time with my family and my partner, Michelle, who is involved with farm animal rescue — which is a welcome break from our busy life in Manhattan. I also enjoy doing hot yoga as a stress and jetlag reliever!
I particularly miss my team and am trying to figure out how to see my dear colleagues in person again. The conferences we used to convene at pre-COVID were a true joy because they were so much more than work, but really special times to plug into other advocates working hard in their own lanes to create change. Deep friendships and bonds are formed in our communities of practice. We learn from each other in this field, because expertise and our ability to help our clients is based on our ability to, together, create that rising tide which will lift more boats.
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