13.5 C

    Making Room in the Workplace

    If anyone could ever claim to have been born to champion racial equality, it’s Angela Vallot. Her father raised the roof when she was placed in the “colored” nursery at the Louisiana hospital where she was born. As a result of his protests, she was moved to the main nursery at the segregated hospital—though, admittedly, behind the door so she couldn’t be seen from the viewing window.

    “I fought to get you in that room,” he told her years later— and she’s stayed in there ever since, fighting to make sure others also get the opportunity to be there. A longtime legal expert and adviser on diversity and inclusion, she began challenging organizations to reckon with their exclusionary practices long before it became a hot-button issue.

    Not surprisingly, over the last 12 months, VallotKarp Consulting, the New York City boutique consulting firm she founded with fellow attorney, Mitchell Karp, has seen a dramatic uptick in requests for diversity, equity and inclusion work, especially anti-racism workshops. And though she looks back on the long list of police killings— Breonna Taylor and George Floyd among them—with anger and heartache, Vallot believes that the tide of public opinion is finally beginning to turn.

    Many organizations have been compelled to face the reality of systemic racism. “It’s the first time in my 25 years of doing this work that I’ve seen organizations taking the issue so seriously,” she says. “This makes me feel hopeful.”

    Not that she’s being naïve. “I don’t know where this is ultimately going to lead,” she adds. “I’ve been out here for a while and I’m now seeing the possibility of some real organizational change. Time will tell, but I can say that we’re having some very different conversations with clients, and deeper levels of engagement than we’ve ever had.”

    She sees positive signs of real, lasting change, citing as an example Coca-Cola’s recent announcement that it won’t be doing business with law firms where less than 30% of the people working on its matters are attorneys of color. “That’s a game-changer,” she says.

    The dividend of diversity

    A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, Vallot didn’t so much ease her way into the world of diversity and inclusion as jump in with both feet. It was 1996, and she had been working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., when the CEO of Texaco offered her a job just after the company paid out $176 million to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit after executives had been caught on tape referring to African American employees as “black jellybeans.”

    She told the CEO: “You may not know this, but Texaco is considered the most racist company in America right now and I’m not interested in taking a job there.”

    He persisted, and after several weeks of negotiations, Vallot agreed to become the company’s first Chief Diversity Officer, and among the first with a diversity C-suite role in the country. She helped to bring about a corporate makeover that transformed Texaco’s culture and image from corporate pariah to a model for diversity and inclusion. After Texaco’s merger with Chevron, she was recruited to join Colgate Palmolive as its first Global Chief Diversity Officer.

    In 2004, she formed VallotKarp, a consulting firm that advises global corporations, law firms, financial service companies, entertainment and media companies, and cultural institutions in their efforts to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.

    If it’s disturbing that so many businesses have taken so long to come around to recognizing that racial equality is the right thing to do, it’s also disturbing that it’s taken so long for them to realize that it’s good for the bottom line. “There’s a ton of research that clearly demonstrates that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams,” says Vallot. “They are more likely to come up with cutting-edge solutions, innovation and creativity and avoid groupthink.” There is also data that indicates that companies with greater diversity in leadership have higher profitability—25% with increased gender diversity and 35% with increased ethnic diversity. “Pretty compelling reasons to focus on diversity.”

    Often, the resistance to change results from the belief that the organization is a meritocracy that operates fairly and equitably. Many organizations have systems and policies in place that seem neutral on their face, but in reality, perpetuate barriers for people of color.

    “They think they’re operating as a meritocracy and believe that hiring the best people allows the cream to rise to the top. They often fail to see that some people get the benefit of coaching, mentoring, feedback, and second chances, while others are left to navigate independently.”

    Though people think they are being fair, “there are these subtle and not so subtle ways that they send messages about who’s an insider and who’s an outsider.” VallotKarp helps organizations identify blind spots and other ways that they may be unwittingly undermining the development, retention, and promotion of people of color.

    No time to be shy
    Another part of Vallot’s work is helping organizations recognize their PIA: Prove It Again bias. It’s a phenomenon that requires people of color with good credentials and a good track record to prove themselves time and again in ways not required of their white colleagues.

    For instance, a Black woman might get held back due to concerns that she is “not quite ready” for a promotion, and people justify it by saying they would hate to see her fail, whereas there may be a greater willingness to promote a white man on the basis of “potential.”

    Vallot also sees a tendency to interpret behavior differently depending on the person’s race. Blacks are more likely to be labeled as “too aggressive” or sometimes characterized as “angry,” while the same behavior in a white person is seen as “passionate.” She also finds that mistakes are often judged more harshly for people of color. “It’s much harder for us to overcome a misstep,” Vallot says, “whereas for others, there is a greater willingness to say it’s part of a learning curve.”

    Vallot believes this time of racial reckoning is an opportunity for significant change. “If ever there was a time to use your voice, it’s now,” she says to African Americans in positions of corporate leadership. “People are listening. I don’t know how long the window will be open, but we have to seize this moment. This is not a time to be shy or quiet.”

    It’s not just a matter of social justice, but personal indebtedness, says the longtime member of the board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We are all standing on the shoulders of people who came before us. So, I’ve always felt it was my personal obligation to try to pull others along and to speak up.”

    Angela Vallot: MY WAYMAKER
    Angela Vallot credits her father not just for positioning her to challenge racial barriers from day one, but for modeling how to do it. An educator and entrepreneur, he “persevered through so much racism and discrimination.” He always told Vallot and her six siblings they could be whatever they wanted to be if they just worked hard and applied themselves. “Notwithstanding the fact that we grew up in Jim Crow segregation, he used to always tell us the world was our oyster.”

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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