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Diversity or Tokenism

January 3, 2017

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Diversity or Tokenism

January 3, 2017


Brian is the owner of, “Gladiator Marketing Agency.” Brian started his company with three friends he met in undergrad. Over the years, they talked about starting a business together and a decade after graduation, their time came. Gladiator Marketing Agency was the “go to” agency for every car dealership, insurance company, and dental office in their metropolitan area. The agency was very successful, and the three men were making a solid profit.


“Things are going great,” Brian said at a team meeting, “Our clients are happy with our services, and we have secured an account for every major business in this area.” His partners agreed, but as Brian continued they quickly realized that their agency was coming to an impasse. “However, we have completely saturated this market, and we need new accounts and new strategies.”

“My wife told me about a new bakery coming to town,” one of the partners said, “A woman owns it, I think her name is Vivian. She started with just one location, but now she is about to open her third.” Brian’s ears perked up hearing this promising lead. “That’s good,” he said, “Does anyone know of anything new happening?” The other two partners silently shook their heads. Their void response was disappointing, but Brian couldn’t judge them too harshly because he realized that they all networked in the same circle. For the most part, they all had similar information, but the bakery was a promising lead Brian intended to follow up.


The next week, Brian visited the bakery. He was impressed when he walked in, but he immediately saw several missed marketing opportunities. Brian knew that he could help this business owner increase revenue immediately. A petite young woman greeted him with a warm smile that made Brian feel as if they were old friends. “Hi,” Brian greeted, “I don’t have an appointment but is your owner available, I’d like to introduce myself and leave my business card.” “Sure, I'll see if she's available,” the associate said and disappeared into the back room.

Moments later a tall, slender middle-aged woman walked from the back office with a smile that mirrored that of her associate working the counter.


Before Brian could say a word, the owner extended her hand and greeted him, “Good afternoon, I’m Vivian, and this is my bakery.” Brian wasn’t sure if it was the woman’s height or sleek gray knot she wore her hair in that made him forget his sales pitch, but by the time they sat down to speak, he felt as if it was his first time.


“Oh,” Brian stammered, “Thank you for giving me a few moments of your day.” Recovering, Brian told Vivian about his company and what they do for small businesses like hers. He told her about his top three accomplishments from the prior year and sold her on all the reasons why she needed Gladiator Marketing. When he finished with his sales pitch, Vivian asked a few questions.


“Do you have any experience working with anyone with special needs,” Vivian asked, “I ask because I am legally blind. You wouldn’t believe how that can get in the way,” Vivian joked. Brian feigned laughter, “No, but we are very flexible, and we can accommodate any needs.” Vivian held her pleasant demeanor and went to her next question, “What about women.” Brian must have looked confused because Vivian continued. “I don’t need to state the obvious, but most of the clients you’ve mentioned here today are in male dominated industries. My customers are women. Do you have any women in your agency who have experienced working within my market,” Vivian asked pointedly. “We don’t have any women,” Brain answered immediately hearing the door slam in his face. Vivian asked a few more questions and concluded her meeting with Brian, firmly shaking his hand and promising to call in the future if she decides his services are needed.


Brian walked away from the meeting knowing Vivian was not going to call. For the first time, he felt that his agency may have a limitation. While the Gladiators were all talented and smart, they were all just like him; white, well-educated and unencumbered.  Brian could see that if he wanted to continue enjoying the success of his dreams, he was going to have to hire a woman.



When we hear the word diversity, many of us think about race. In the past, I have had recruiters approach me with applicants who are, “diversity candidates.” I came to recognize this as a code phrase that meant, “ethnic minority.” However, this limited view of diversity is just tokenism. Having one of every race, gender, color, and ability alone does not create diversity.

The Society of Human Resource Management describes Diversity as, “The qualities, life experiences, personalities, education, skills, competencies, and collaboration of the many different types of people who are necessary to propel an organization to success.” This view of diversity is more than a rainbow of ethnicities. It is a strategic commitment to equip your business with the flexibility to meet the needs of any customer you choose.


In this competitive environment where technology is the king, it isn’t enough to be good at what you do. Your client needs another reason why they choose to do business with you over the next company who is selling the same product with a similar quality price point as yours. Diversity may be the attribute that separates you from your competitor.


Brian’s conclusion is to hire a woman, but what he means is, “I need someone to join my organization who can identify with the people I do not. I need someone in my business who can create the solutions I cannot.” That is real diversity; understanding your limitations and looking for people who are not like you to collaborate with to turn obstacles into opportunities.


Here are three indicators that your business may need more diversity:


1.    You seem to be operating in a niche market that was not dictated by your strategic plan. It is one thing to set out to service a particular group of people. It is another thing to end up maintaining one group of people when your product is universal. While accurately identifying your market is critical to your success. Failing to capture all sectors of your target market could mean that you are missing opportunities to expand your business.


2.    You have tried to capture new clients or customers, but have consistently failed. It is easy to assume that the people you pursued to no avail just aren’t interested in your product. However, it is always beneficial to evaluate your approach. A diverse team of individuals with varying backgrounds could help diagnose organizational problems. Having a diverse team of people standing behind your vision will help you achieve more.


3.    You hired people of diverse backgrounds, but they left prematurely. Significant efforts could be made to create a diverse work environment, but it is all for naught if your organization fails to be inclusive. You can have a great mix of people working for you, but if you expect them all to think, act, and decide as you would then you miss the competitive advantage of a diverse organization.


You cannot perform a symphony without an orchestra. Your company is no different. You need people of all backgrounds working in their field of expertise for you. With true diversity, there is no limit to what you can create.

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