My interview for this week was with Mark Baker. I met Mark a couple of years ago when I was leaving a job in the city as a D&I leader to set up my diversity and inclusion consultancy. Mark and I connected on LinkedIn initially because I found out that he was organising a conference for diversity and inclusion leaders and practitioners. If memory serves me right, I think I was trying to bag a free ticket out of him. We met up and we got on well and we’ve kept in touch because we were at similar points in our entrepreneurial journey.
So, Mark, why did you set up d&i Leaders?
‘There were a lot of things happening in my life and my career. I’d reached the big 4-0, which is not old. I was in a very comfortable job. I had a successful career: 20 years in events, events research. Inside I wanted to disrupt myself. It dawned on me that I would hope to work for another 20 plus years and I felt my fire, my energy had gone down. That’s no disrespect to my previous employer. I had the freedom to set up a whole business there for several years, set up a big events team, and worked my way on to the board there. I had got disconnected from what I did, the events.
Ultimately, I’m an events professional. I connect people. My work had become more about the strategy than the people. I had a hunger to get back to basics. At the same time, it was a period of reflection in my personal life. Our adopted son had lived with us for three years. My mum had moved down from rural Wales where I’m from. I was commuting. A horrendous drive. There was this need to be physically near family and to get back to basics with events. I was questioning whether it had become about the money and it was less about why. What an event is and why do we run events? Who are they for? What’s the purpose? What happens when the event finishes? I was longing to build something that I was personally connected to rather than always going to work for somebody else. I wanted to be closer to family and friends.
The connection with D&I was that we’d already done something elsewhere. We’d taken events around sustainability for sustainability professionals and really ripped up the rulebook. I had started to see that you don’t have to do things the same way. That you can build a community and be part of that community, not just serving by offering events. That excited me.
Originally I thought the business would be looking at inclusion in board governance. The researcher in me locked myself away for a couple of months to explore corporate governance and I started to get drawn to the D&I role or that area of business. I gravitated to that and decided to run an event on that topic to see where it went. Two years later, it’s become something more than I ever expected.’
In my experience of Mark’s events, he has indeed ripped up the rulebook for events. In my opinion, anyone who has been to your events and conferences will know that they are pretty special. I’ve been a few times as a participant and I’ve been a speaker too.
Purpose before Profit
I asked Mark ‘When you set up d&i Leaders, what was important to you? What were some of the important principles that you wanted to put in place?’
‘The freedom to do good comes if you have underpinned it with a sound commercial offer. I wanted to build d&i Leaders and base it on research with practitioners. It was putting the content first, that was my main thing. It sounds obvious, but many events are built on commercial sponsor money first and the event is organised once that money is in. I wanted to stand on our own two feet meaning people would pay for our event tickets based on the content. If we had sponsors, that would be secondary. That’s how I’ve continued to do it, which for a lot of people doesn’t make great commercial sense. Maybe I’m missing out there, but that’s the approach we take.
We find a few sponsors who we work with. It takes a lot more time to do that, but I think it’s worth it. I also wanted to make sure that when I focused on diversity, I didn’t just want to talk about diversity, we wanted to give a platform to diverse voices. Again, an obvious one, but in many industries I’ve worked in quite often, it’ll be senior white middle-class males that will be dominant.
When I came to this sector and looked at the HR and D&I profession in the UK, I found that a lot of the people in those roles would be white women. It didn’t chime. Nothing wrong with that, but how are we gonna reflect the voices that we’re talking about if we’re talking about social mobility, ethnicity, disability and so on. Every time I put a programme together, I wanted to really stop and look and think, “Can we ensure that we have a diverse representation in the programmes?”
The other element was the free element. Whilst we’re doing all of this work on our conferences, they couldn’t happen behind closed doors that people had to pay to go to. I always made membership free, and that’s what we wanted to do from the start, and then gradually we’ve built up a bank of more and more free content.
Initially all the reports from our events, real practical reports, we offer those out and that’s something we’ll continue to do. Our events have a carbon impact, so we make sure we offset carbon. We look at the sustainability of our events. We work with local food producers, for example. We provide subtitles and we look to support charities as well, where we can.’
Centring the D&I Practitioner
One of the other things I like about Mark’s conferences is that they are for diversity and inclusion practitioners, with diversity and inclusion practitioners. Many events bring in outside consultants, but the experience of being an in-house diversity and inclusion practitioner is very different from being outside counsel. The people that are on Mark’s stage are the people that work in businesses and are delivering on diversity as part of their job, and then sharing their experiences and knowledge with the audience.
‘When I started looking at diversity and inclusion for events, it’s such an enormous area, I easily got side-tracked, and thought, “How am I going to do justice to all of these areas?”
A lot of the events I was looking at were very broad and didn’t cut to the chase of how to make a difference in a working environment. For my own sanity, I decided that I would feature D&I practitioners, and that could be HR, recruitment or talent, but people who were making sure that their workplaces were inclusive in both their policy and practice. and talk to them and feature them. That’s probably our USP, is that I’ve stuck true to that.
Not Just Talking the Talk…
I was interested to hear what Mark had personally done about diversity and inclusion since creating the d&i Leaders events and conferences?
‘I’ve tried to offer a platform. I’ve tried to widen my circle of people that I talk to and put myself out there and talk to a diverse range of people. That’s what I spend most of my days doing. I try and book as many calls as possible and I really listen. I’m not a huge reader of books, my attention span is not that great, so I do get lost online, on LinkedIn. I’m living on there, talking to people, but obviously, that’s a narrow audience. I’ve spent hours online reading, watching TED Talks, videos, other things to increase my knowledge.
I’ve mentioned that I’ve started working with charities and NGOs, and I’m personally taking a role in that. I’ve been working with the Aleto Foundation for the last year as a mentor through that programme last summer. It identifies and brings together young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in business, so that’s been a great experience and something that I’m gonna continue to do.’
Inclusive Growth during the Pandemic
I asked Mark how he has adapted his organisation because the events industry has been one of the hardest-hit industries throughout the pandemic. So many events have been cancelled and people are going out of business, but Mark’s organisation is thriving.
‘Everyone is impacted differently. We were going along nicely and had a whole plan of 10 events, running workshops, all these other things and it simply stopped. The LGBT at work event was the last event to happen, but we were already having to get attendees to sign a declaration stating where they travelled recently.
I could see the tsunami coming from overseas because I knew people running events in Asia.
We cancelled the rest of our events, and then we paused and took time to breathe for about a month. There’s a lot of admin involved in cancelling events. After that, we were taking stock, and thinking, events aren’t the most important thing that’s happening right now. There are bigger things. We thought about what our audience was doing and thinking? We put out a survey for D&I practitioners and that threw up a wealth of information.
We asked a question about the well-being of D&I practitioners. What they shared with us was overwhelming. It was personal. It wasn’t information we could share, but it was people saying how they were struggling personally with what was happening and in the role that they were forming in their business.
We stopped and thought, “What’s our role in all of this? What is d&i Leaders now? We’re not doing physical events, so what do we do?” We’d been producing some new content, the reports online, but it forced us to pivot completely online. We did that through the short online conversations that we’ve been running. I stopped and thought, “Everybody’s so busy right now, what would I stop for?” And it would be something short, interesting, and I could listen to on the go.
We started putting those together in May. We’ve run 18 of those now covering all sorts of things including intersections of colour, LGBT, colour in class. We’ve been looking at neurodiversity. We’ve got stuff coming up around psychological safety. I’ve built what’s almost a studio in the office. We’ve been continuing conversations online which has meant that we’ve managed to widen our audience globally, which we’d never been able to do before.
It’s been an interesting time, but it’s been a time of reflection on what the purpose of d&i Leaders is. It’s forced me, personally, and the team to get to grips with the technology that we haven’t had to before, so it’s been a huge learning curve, which we have enjoyed. It’s been an interesting time but we will be coming out stronger, and d&i Leaders is much stronger.’
The Future of d&i Leaders
I asked Mark where he sees d&i Leaders going in the future? What does he have in store for the audience?
‘We will definitely be offering more free content. We’ve got a huge resource bank now. We’ve always said membership was free, but it’s now opening that up to more people. We’re building out more news stories and we’ve got another survey coming out which is a benchmarking survey. My next step is looking at how we can share information between members. It’s really clear at a lot of our events that people have policies, documents and other things that they are happy to open up to other businesses to share, so it’s what we can do to share that information and that learning.
We are looking at the skills of the D&I professional and what role we can play in professional development. Maybe for people who have recently moved into the role or are thinking of moving into the role. So we’re doing quite a bit around professional development. I’d invite people to tell me what they want from d&i Leaders. I want to listen, and that’s how we constantly evolve d&i Leaders. There isn’t an end goal to all of this, it’s ultimately to do what we can do and what people want.’
As I was talking to Mark Baker for The Inclusive Growth Show, I was intrigued to find out what inclusive growth means to him.
‘Inclusive growth is where everybody is lifted up, so no one is left behind. Appreciating that we’re all different and that some people may need more support to get there than others. That’s what it means to me.’
d&i Leaders is a brilliant community to be part of and they provide a wealth of information that will help anyone in their diversity and inclusion job. To join the community, get access to their reports, on-demand presentations and recordings sign up as a member at www.dileaders.com