Gloria Hwang, CEO of a bike helmet company called Thousand, Boma Brown-West, senior manager of the Environmental Defense Fund and Erin Patten, CEO of hair product company DāO Detroit and spoke to about 50 students and faculty at the University of Michigan Tuesday night for a panel of business professionals on sustainability-focused workplaces. The panel, titled “The Voice of Business Sustainability,” was moderated by Taryn Petryk, director of Diversity and Inclusion at the Ross School of Business.
The event was hosted by the Frederic A. & Barbara M. Erb Institute, a dual-degree program and partnership organization between the Business School and the School for Environment and Sustainability.
Petryk started the discussion by saying the goal of the panel was to bring awareness to and normalize conversations around diversity and identity.
“Our goal at Ross and in the world when talking about diversity is to really normalize the conversation,” Petryk said. “All those identities who make up who we are and really being able to apply them into the conversation because sometimes, especially at Ross, it can be scary to even acknowledge or identify ourselves.”
Panelists discussed equity and inclusion in the workplace and the current business sustainability landscape for communities of color, LGBTQ employees and other marginalized groups. The panelists all noted their personal identities and the role they play in their work.
For Brown-West, she discussed how her surroundings as a child were homogeneous. She said it wasn’t until later in her career that she found her voice in her professional life. She also said while the employee pool remains predominantly white, she has noticed a progression toward inclusivity and less gender inequality as well as an added emphasis on sustainability in the business world.
Brown-West also said there were certain people — whom she called her “angels” — who helped her feel included while she was starting out in her career. Now, in her current position, she tries to help others feel the same way.
“Growing up feeling like the odd one out in many places that I was navigating, it’s helped me make sure that people feel as if they have this space to actually speak,” Brown-West said. “If we’re going to be able to actually solve some of these environmental challenges … we’re going to need a whole range of different experiences, of different backgrounds, of different points of view to come up with solutions because the solutions that we’ve had to date are not going to help us resolve these problems.”
Patten shared a formative experience from a former job during which a higher-level employee told her that her natural hair was “inappropriate” for the work environment. She said it was in this situation she first realized the impact of her identity in her work life.
She said this experience has stuck with her and was part of her inspiration for forming DāO. An acronym for “Defy All Odds,” Patten said two of DāO’s core values are creating products for everyone and reflecting the diversity seen in Detroit, where DāO is headquartered.
One thing Patten said was she felt like she could never feel like herself in corporate environments. She said people who looked like her were normally considered the people receiving philanthropic help rather than making the decisions on the other end. In the same vein, she touched on current notions to include “fake” diversity in marketing to attract customers rather than including diverse employees in the company and actually speaking to minority consumers.
“One of our hashtags or our phrases we use in DāO is ‘Own your identity,’ really encouraging not only us as founders, but even our customers to question everything,” Patten said. “It’s really important to have different voices and we really wanted it to reflect Detroit.”
Rackham student Katherine Cunningham said she attended because these overarching issues of environmentalism predominantly affect minorities and there is a need for greater understanding of identities and diversity to be able to create positive change.
“When it comes to big issues like climate change, the impacts are disproportionately on minorities and marginalized communities and it’s really important for people who are aspiring to work in this field to be aware of the different lenses that they need to approach this topic and other sustainability topics,” Cunningham said. “The idea of needing to know who you are and come back to your own roots so that you can do your work better, that resonated with me a lot.”
Patten said consumers like when brands are eco-friendly because it adds a feeling of empowerment. Hwang agreed, saying her experience at the footwear company TOMS, and now Thousand, taught her there does not have to be a trade-off between environmental sustainability and revenue and product success. Hwang, Patten and Brown-West all agreed there are economic and other benefits such as social equality and added awareness in incorporating sustainability into business and production.
Hwang started her company to save lives after a friend died from a biking accident. She said at one point she was approached about sharing her background and rise to business leadership, but she said she didn’t feel relatable because her identity differed from the norm. Since then, she said she has come to understand her diversity is a benefit rather than a hindrance.
“I don’t look like everyone else who I have viewed as a founder,” Hwang said. “Being a good-looking white guy — not that. Diversity matters in the sense that you can come to better business decisions.”
At the conclusion of the discussion, all three panelists encouraged attendees to own their identities and be comfortable in their skin. They also said while minorities may feel like they are a low-power position right off the bat, they should realize the value in differences and what they bring to the table.
“My biggest advice is — especially when you are in this room that feels very intimidating — remember why you deserve to be there,” Brown-West said. “Remember what value you bring. Remember that your experiences can add to that conversation and your way of thinking can add to that conversation, and that will help build this cocoon of confidence around you.”