Investing in Inclusiveness: Making Room at the Powertables

PowerKids with OtterBox CEO Brian ThomasPowerKids Networking with OtterBox CEO Brian Thomas

Some solutions are not entirely “legal.”

At EEO Legal Solutions, not all the solutions are “legal” . . . in fact, some our solutions to the problems of workplace discrimination and under-inclusiveness are social/psychological and even business-focused.  Truth is, legal remedies alone for eradicating workplace discrimination, in place since the Civil Rights Act of 1991, have done little to ensure the inclusiveness of people of color, religious minorities and women in the highest paying jobs (e.g., executive management) in every major industry.   Over the past 25 years, a substantial amount of money has changed hands (mostly between insurance carriers, plaintiff lawyers and defense attorneys), but otherwise, very little has actually changed for women and minorities trying to reach the top.  In America, our management ranks remain 83.6% male and white.  Legal “solutions” (i.e., litigation) simply have not solved . . .

For that reason, EEO Legal Solutions established the Inclusiveness Account.   As strong proponents of the “business case” for diversity and inclusiveness, our Inclusiveness Account funds social programs that level the playing field, promote understanding, and empower kids to reach the top– e.g., PFLAG, Phamaly, the Colorado Muslim Society, the American Indian College Fund, and of course, Junior Achievement (to name a few).   EEO Legal Solutions’ Inclusiveness Account, however, also seeks to demonstrate that investing in inclusiveness earns incredible returns that benefit people AND bottomlines.  Progressive and visionary business leaders like Colleen Abdoulah, CEO of WOW! get it, investing their time and treasure into building an inclusive organization from within.

Toward Creating Inclusive Powertables

In 2012, the Denver Business Journal (DBJ) bestowed upon me the dubious honor of including me as a finalist in its annual Denver PowerBook; that year, EEO Legal Solutions had defeated the EEOC in an ostensible disability discrimination prosecution where the EEOC did serious violence to the ADA.  Read more here,  In any case, my husband and I used the DBJ’s PowerBook event as a chance to groom our 10-year-old daughter for her place at the proverbial “powertable”, coaching her on business etiquette, professional dress, networking, virtues of hard work.  Within 10 minutes after our arrival, my daughter asked “Where are all the girls? The people with brown skin?” Looking around, she was right: the Powertables, nominees, and winners literally mirrored the stark reality for women and minorities trying to reach the real Powertables in their organizations.  “That’s real,” I told her, embarrassed. “But we’re working hard to change that.”

Then, Robin Wise, the charismatic CEO of Junior Achievement Rocky Mountain and last year’s winner in the Non-profit category, took the stage.  With characteristic exuberance, she observed “You’re what is working in our economy right now—I wish I could bring you all to Junior Achievement!”  And then, an inspiration: if Denver’s leaders were too busy to come to Junior Achievement, let’s bring an inclusive group of Junior Achievement “PowerKids” to them!  From a social/psychological perspective, this investment in inclusiveness could give other kids the same opportunities as my daughter—e.g., networking, mentoring, grooming, and a dose of “you can!” cheerleading; it could also model for the grown-up Powertables the incredible synergy and value of an inclusive community of achievers.  But perhaps more important, from a business perspective, this idea seemed like a great chance to motivate other business owners and entrepreneurs to “invest in inclusiveness,” and fund this and other projects that groom young women and men of color to step up to the power table.     

Junior Achievement liked the idea right away.  We reached out to the DBJ shortly thereafter, discussing extensively in email exchanges the social/psychological and business interests at the heart of EEO Legal’s monetary investment.  Scott Bemis, stated that he “loved the idea” and that he was looking forward to the 2013 PowerBook event because of “you” (i.e., EEO Legal Solutions).   We assumed “loving the idea” also meant loving its underlying purposes.

The 2013 Kids’ Powertable: Investing in Inclusiveness WORKS . . . Mostly

Given its dual purposes, the inaugural Kids’ Powertable simultaneously succeeded and failed.  From a social/psychological perspective, this project succeeded beyond our wildest hopes. Junior Achievement selected six PowerKids from the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST)—Ashlee Rodehorst, Derrick    Trujillo, Dwight  Pullen III, Jubilee Michael, Lourdes Luna, Rachael Rousseau-Shander—all of whom established themselves as rock stars during in its weeklong summer program, Business Week.  Under the leadership of Emily Milan, Business Week accomplishes the impossible—i.e., polishing 250 teenagers into sophisticated presenters who can deliver excellent marketing campaigns for major corporate sponsors.  As a rookie Business Week judge this year, Junior Achievement’s and the kids’ enthusiasm, energy, and EFFICACY literally blew my mind.

At the PowerBook luncheon on September 19, 2013, the six PowerKids challenged each other to work the room and collect business cards, just to practice the networking skills that Junior Achievement had taught them.  One PowerKid met State Representative Angela Williams, who invited his entire team to visit the Capitol floor in January to learn how laws are made.  Two PowerKids met OtterBox CEO Brian Thomas, earning invitations to tour its Fort Collins headquarters.  All the PowerKids got to hear personal stories about how hard work paid off, how leaders overcame adversity, and how investing in the community is good business.  Junior Achievement reported that after the event, the PowerKids were “on fire” (hopefully with excitement and inspiration).  The Kids’ Powertable, then, fulfilled its primary objectives: creating more opportunity, modeling inclusiveness and inspiring excellence.

The inaugural DBJ Kids’ Powertable, however, missed its business objectives in ways that should be acknowledged.  We quickly discovered that “loving” the idea of the Kids’ Powertable did not necessarily mean that the DBJ embraced its underlying message of promoting corporate inclusiveness and charitable investment.  Despite promising corporate table sponsors “mention in program, powerpoint & DBJ thank you ad”, the DBJ sanitized the program of any reference to EEO Legal Solutions as a corporate sponsor.  From the podium, publisher Scott Bemis welcomed the PowerKids on behalf of the DBJ, insinuating that DBJ had sponsored the inaugural Kids’ Powertable, not a small business owner.  In the end, the DBJ donated nothing, made money, and then took credit.  But for this blog, no one would likely guess that the inaugural Kids’ Powertable happened only because of one person’s “investment in inclusiveness,” Junior Achievement’s vision and mission, and DSST’s enthusiastic cooperation.

The social/psychological successes of the inaugural Kids’ Powertable far outweigh any losses from a business perspective.  EEO Legal Solutions thanks Junior Achievement for its enduring efforts to level the playing field and increase opportunity for kids, and will continue to partner with Junior Achievement in its inclusiveness initiatives.  Through this blog, we also still hope to inspire other like-minded business owners to invest in inclusiveness and to partner with community non-profits, chambers of commerce, and other associations that help fulfill the promise of equal employment opportunity.  Despite the DBJ disappointment, this project showed that one person’s small “investment in inclusiveness” opened doors for young people who may not otherwise have had those opportunities, a social/psychological solution that, COLLECTIVELY, will likely help address the problem of underrepresentation far faster than litigation.