Bernadette Smith is a diversity and inclusion keynote speaker and an award-winning author of four books. She is a trusted advisor to Fortune 500 companies helping to promote an inclusive work environment and celebrate diversity.

Bernadette and I work in the same field now, but she did not begin her career as a D&I consultant. We started our conversation off by talking about Bernadette’s backstory.

‘In my heart of hearts, I am an entrepreneur. I’ve been an entrepreneur for nearly 18 years. I started my first company back in Boston, Massachusetts in 2004. It was when Massachusetts became the first state in the United States to legalize same-sex marriage. Before that law was enacted there were protests trying to change the constitution of the state. I was planning events for a nonprofit and attending these protests, rallies and hearings. I saw couples, some of whom had been together for decades, and I thought, “This will happen. This law is going to be put into effect.”

I decided right then and there on the Massachusetts State House steps, “I’m going to become a gay wedding planner.” I wanted to make sure those couples felt they could have a safe experience. So I started a business to be an activist wedding planner to help gay couples navigate a very traditional heteronormative industry, a very bride-and-groom-focused wedding industry. I wanted them to feel free from discrimination so they could truly, authentically be themselves.

As time went on I planned several hundred weddings with couples from all over the world, including the UK, who came to Massachusetts to get legally married. It was an amazing experience. I wrote three books about same-sex weddings and LGBTQ wedding inclusion. I started speaking and training in those industries: wedding, travel, hospitality. I also created a certification course for those industries to help people in those industries be more sensitive to LGBTQ folks, specifically. That’s how it all began almost 18 years ago now.’

Bernadette has now written her fourth book Inclusive 360: Proven Solutions for an Equitable Organization. I asked her to give us an overview of the book.

‘I wrote the book for several reasons. I knew that it was time for me to move on from the wedding industry as I had retired as a wedding planner and got divorced myself. I moved and I didn’t want to have to rebuild my business which now felt less activist-y and more like a luxury wedding planner. It caused a professional identity crisis. I knew that it was time for me to evolve my career. What kind of company do I want to build now? Who do I want to be? What’s important to me? As I was going through that process, I reconnected with my ‘why’.

My ‘why’ is a driving force for what I do. It began in about 2010 when I was working with a woman named Joanne who was about 60 years old. She is a transgender woman and she hired me to help her become the bride she’d always dreamed of. She had a lot of fears around planning her wedding to Terry, her spouse to be, her female spouse to be.

Joanne approached me because she wanted to feel safe and be authentically herself. She was afraid that when she was trying on dresses, her shoulders would be too broad or she didn’t have appropriate hips. She was afraid that her hairpiece would fall off and, of course, all of the fears of discrimination. The types of fears that she had gone above and beyond what my same-sex couples were concerned about. Joanne was afraid that her transgender guests would have problems with the bathroom at the wedding venue, for example. These were some of the considerations that I had to be mindful of. Working with her challenged me to be even more of an advocate than I was before and it excited me and it inspired me. On her wedding day, she walked down the aisle escorted by her father who was about 85 or so years old, in an Episcopal church service, to a song performed by the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.

It was magnificent. I knew that I helped her become the bride she’d always dreamed of. When I decided to evolve my business, this sense of being able to create a feeling of safety and help others feel safe put me very in touch with my why. No matter if people are my customers or employees, as they move about the world, my ‘why’ is about helping them feel safe to be authentically themselves. I have a picture of Joanne on my bulletin board to remind me of that.

The book was sort of my coming out in this new part of my career. It’s the first book that I wrote that has nothing to do with LGBTQ weddings. It was my way to prove to myself that I know all this other stuff and that I can deliver it in a way that makes sense to folks. It’s a book that’s really about a holistic approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s not just about human resources and leadership like a lot of the other books out there. It’s also about the customer or the client experience because that’s a lot of what I did before. In the wedding industry, I was about advocating for my customers and clients and helping them feel safe. The book very much addresses that part of diversity, equity and inclusion as well.’

One of the reasons why I wanted to talk to Bernadette was because of her holistic approach to diversity and inclusion. There’s loads of great stuff in her book, but she covers a range of things like product design, shelf space, her ARC method and random acts of inclusion. I was interested to hear Bernadette’s take on D&I when it comes to product design.

‘We don’t know what we don’t know. And I am cisgender. I’m white. I’m upper-middle class. I don’t have a disability. I have so much privilege, just like a lot of the other people who are doing product design. The products that are being designed are not necessarily designed for all. We don’t always see the full picture which means that we might not consider other ways of being or the barriers that can prevent someone from having an inclusive experience with a product. The book has a lot of examples of what companies are doing right, in terms of product design. It’s full of examples from best-in-class companies who have set themselves up first for progressive work.

I love that it’s thinking about things holistically. With product design, you need to make sure that there are diverse perspectives on the team to create inclusive products, but there should also be a system of checks and balances. A checklist in the process of product design that considers things like, “Are we considering people with disabilities?” “Are we considering the needs of transgender people?” “Are we considering all the different perspectives that can go along with this?”

Inclusive Product Design Examples

Bernadette gave a few examples of this from her book.

‘A restaurant in the state of New Jersey, a small business, has created a space in that restaurant that is specifically for autistic children and adults. They’ve considered some of the sensory issues that can come up for people. It has different lighting, the wait staff are trained about providing excellent customer service, things like that. That’s product design: an inclusive product at that restaurant, so it can be as simple as that.

Another example is Comcast Xfinity, a telecom company here in the US which has its customer service available in American Sign Language. That’s something we don’t think about because we don’t use American sign language. But they re-engineered their customer service and their product experience so that people who use American sign language can get the customer service they need. And that’s also about product design.

Those are the types of things that are just really the nuances of diversity, equity and inclusion that I address in this book. The narrow parts of the experience that again, would be very easy to miss, especially if there aren’t diverse perspectives on the team.’

Shelf Space

Inclusive product design as Bernadette has illustrated so well, leads on to what she calls shelf space. I asked her to tell me a bit more about the meaning of shelf space.

Shelf space is about the types of products that are typically available in a retail store. The products that show up on shelves mostly come from white-owned businesses. This is because white-owned businesses have greater access to the companies that have retail stores because of the historical legacy of structural racism.

We had greater access to educational and professional networks that help us get our products on these shelves. Now one thing that’s happened in the US and also in Canada is the 15% pledge that was created after George Floyd was murdered last year in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The 15% pledge is a pledge where companies commit to providing at least 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

It’s so hard to do that there has to be a pledge, despite 15% of the US population being Black Americans. So it should be fair enough that 15% of the products on shelves are created by Black-owned businesses, but that’s not the case. Now major companies are signing this 15% pledge it means there’s going to be accountability. And The Fifteen Percent Pledge organisation provides resources to help companies meet that pledge. That means under-represented founders get greater resources and expanded access to shelf space, which can reduce the racial wealth gap.

Recent census data tells us that for the generation of kids who are just graduating from secondary school there’s no dominant race. Now, you can’t be what you can’t see, and when people go to retail stores and they’re not finding products that meet their needs or they’re not finding products that represent their unique diversity, it’s a missed opportunity all around. Increasing shelf space is one way to create equity. Equity is all about changing the systems to give folks who have been historically disenfranchised a leg up and to fix what’s been wrong over the years.’

Reflecting on Bernadette’s point, I think it’s really important that people see themselves in the products and services that they buy so they feel represented. I was born with a physical disability and I use a wheelchair, but there are very few disabled characters in children’s toys. Lego has been looking at this recently, but there’s a long way to go with toy manufacturers and all sorts of products. By way of another example, Bernadette shared that the card game Uno is now available in Braille so kids who are visually impaired and read Braille can still play Uno

Good Vibes in D&I

Bernadette told me that for about two and a half years, she’s had a weekly newsletter called 5 Things, which goes out on Saturday morning.

‘The concept behind 5 things is to share what I consider to be good vibes in D&I. By good vibes, I mean things that are inspiring, hopeful, fascinating and unique. When I read the news about diversity, equity and inclusion, I see so much of what’s going wrong. Lots of negative data and examples of what companies are doing wrong but there’s also a lot of really cool stuff that’s going right. 5 things is full of the stuff that’s going right, five stories that bring me hope and that organisations can adapt and adopt.

I love putting together 5 Things. My favourite habit of the week is writing this newsletter. It’s become a labour of love. Putting out a newsletter every week requires a lot of discipline, but I get a lot of great feedback on it. I’m glad to be leading with inspiration rather than fear.’

The ARC Method

I like Bernadette’s positive approach. She’s also developed something called the ARC method. I asked her to tell me a bit more about that.

‘The ARC method stands for Ask, Respect, Connect. It’s a tool that I created to help organisations and people move from problem to solution. It’s responding to my experience that people have great intentions, but get stuck in the overwhelm from their competing priorities. My solution is to follow the ARC. Following the ARC moves us from problem to solution and provides clarity in any situation. We can follow the ARC in a few different contexts. We can follow the ARC to make great organisational decisions by asking hard questions. Questions like, what percentage of the products on our shelves come from diverse suppliers? But it’s not just enough to ask the question, we also have to respect the answer, respect the process and not dismiss the data. So R is the respect, don’t dismiss what we find. And then the C is to connect which is about solutions. It’s about accountability, it’s about moving into action.Connect is really where the action is, but to get to that place, we have to establish the baseline. And that’s where the Ask comes in.

Another context of the ARC method is interpersonal relationships. So you can use the ARC method to better get to know someone different from you simply by asking a question like, “What’s your experience been like with X?” or “Can you tell me how you’re feeling about X?” those types of questions, open-ended questions, compassionate questions.

The ARC method teaches folks to share some of their own experience before getting too nosy about someone else. Start by asking a question and respecting the answer. That means you’re not on your phone. It means your arms aren’t crossed, you’re not interrupting, not dismissing. That’s important, the R. And then Connect is about paraphrasing, validating, and helping them feel like you are listening and fulfilling the promise that you made when you started the process.’

Random Acts of Inclusion

I also wanted Bernadette to explain her idea of random acts of Inclusion which I like. It reminds me of random acts of kindness where you pay for somebody’s coffee and then you get that butterfly effect of positivity.

‘Random Acts of Inclusion is my catch-all chapter where other things didn’t fit. It’s about inclusive facilities, for example, baby-changing tables not just in women’s rooms but in other restrooms as well. Setting up all-gender restrooms is a random act of Inclusion. It’s also about inclusive events. Asking how are you establishing your meetings and events to be more inclusive whether they’re in person or remote?

The Random Acts of Inclusion chapter has some checklist things in it, especially for the meetings and events sections, because it’s really about taking a holistic approach. Being inclusive by having pronouns on name badges, having places where there can be breastfeeding or pumping areas for parents, music and art from different cultures. Things like that show a more comprehensive approach to not just events but facilities and other random things.’

I was speaking to Bernadette for The Inclusive Growth Show. I couldn’t let her leave without asking, ‘What does Inclusive Growth mean for you?’

‘Inclusive Growth means to me that we all have work to do because it’s not just about you and me who do this for a living. It’s about all of the other people who are on this journey. Whether they know it or not, it’s about all of us growing inclusively. I had a LinkedIn message yesterday from someone I’ve known for years who just bought my book. Her partner picked up the book. She sent the message because her partner doesn’t typically read books, comes from a conservative family, and has always been indifferent about progressive topics. She sneakily took a picture of him reading it! So Inclusive Growth, for me, means all of us doing this together because we all have work to do.’

To find out more about Bernadette’s book visit inclusive360book.com or pick up a copy on Bookshop.org, at your local bookshop, or on Amazon. To subscribe to the newsletter go to theequalityinstitute.com/join

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