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Why Diversity in Thought Leadership Matters—to Everyone

By Anna Redmond

It’s awards season, so I’m nominating the Consumer Electronics Show, held earlier this month in Las Vegas, as the most tone-deaf conference of the year. Yes, it’s only January, but CES has already earned the dubious honor for not featuring any women or minorities as keynote speakers—for the second year in a row. Perhaps even worse than the decision was the justification that came following a social media backlash.

In response to criticism, CES Senior VP Karen Chupka wrote in a blog post, “To keynote at CES, the speaker must head (president/CEO level) a large entity who has name recognition in the industry. As upsetting as it is, there is a limited pool when it comes to women in these positions…”

Setting aside the fact that there are numerous women who are not only qualified, but would have made great keynote speakers, I believe that Chupka is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. In point of fact, lifting up women’s voices as conference speakers and thought leaders is a key step to getting them more representation in the C-suite.

The problem runs deeper than thought leadership though; it’s a question of who we think of when we think of these impactful roles. The more we can change the standard, the better off we all are. For instance, if you think of a doctor as a middle aged white man, you’re going to bypass the brilliant woman of color who might save your life. But if we get used to reframing these roles —and a lot of that is done via thought leadership and being a public figure in a given field—then the best and brightest innovators will have the opportunity to succeed.

Why A Lack of Diversity Holds Businesses Back

On a human level, equal representation should be important to all of us. The dirty secret is that if someone is being left out consistently at an organization, it’s likely partly a result of some form of discrimination. The organization is not trying hard enough or is oblivious to the fact that they’re hiring, promoting and/or producing a lineup of the usual suspects over and over again.

The immorality of that goes without saying, so let’s look at the consequences from a purely business standpoint. According to a 2017 story in Fortune, just 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 chiefs are female. That’s nearly a 50 percent increase over 2016, but still only 32 out of 500. When it comes to entrepreneurial opportunities, the numbers aren’t much better. In 2016, women got just 2.19 percent of venture capital funding; that’s $1.46 billion in VC money compared to the $58.2 billion invested in companies with all-male founders, according to data from PitchBook.

Why does it matter? For starters, performance. According to a 2015 report by McKinsey & Company, businesses that are overtly racist or sexist perform more poorly than their equal-opportunity counterparts. Meanwhile, women on boards benefit board outcomes such as profits and acquisitions. In fact, the study found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

The findings shouldn’t be surprising. We live in a diverse society, and we need a diversity of insights at all levels of business. Take the case of Rent the Runway, the women’s online subscription apparel company, which had over $1 million in sales last year. In a HuffPost interview from October, CEO and co-founder Jennifer Hyman commented that when she’s raising money in rooms full of men, she spends 50 percent of her presentation explaining why women want variety in their wardrobe, observing that this wouldn’t be necessary if there were more women in the room. (In an interview from last February Hyman said, “when I speak to a woman, it takes me five minutes.”)

I mention this example because not only did Hyman and co-founder Jennifer Fleiss help to pioneer the sharing economy (before Uber and Airbnb) when they started the company in 2009, but last year they raised a $60 million Series E, which was the biggest round of 2016 for a female-led startup.  

The Way Forward

At the end of the day, if we aren’t set up to let the brightest people succeed, then we all suffer. When only one worldview is presented at a conference or in a thought leadership piece, we miss out on other important nuances that could be immensely helpful to us as investors or businesspeople. We are often left to make decisions and strategize based on one homogeneous perspective—and that’s no way to do business.

We need to see large corporations building programs to support diversity in leadership roles and in thought leadership. I would love to see companies prioritize women’s voices and the voices of people of color in their organizations. An encouragement to speak out would help. When we create barriers that prevent smart and interesting people from speaking to us, we all lose. That’s why, whenever a client tells us they want a female executive to byline their next piece, I give a quiet cheer.

Anna Redmond is co-founder and CEO of Hippo Reads.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.

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