Want to Do DEI Right? Ask Yourself These 5 Questions
Bethaney Wilkinson, founder of The Diversity Gap, shares how to make your diversity, equity and inclusion strategy sustainable and effective.
Introduction by Adenike Olanrewaju
Illustration by Richard A. Chance

In the current social climate, it seems that everyone is trying to embed DEI practices into the way they do business, to varying degrees of success. This is not just a challenge for large corporations, but it’s also one that even small Black-owned businesses should keep top of mind at all points in their business journey and across all industries.

But how can entrepreneurs know that they’re taking the right steps toward useful, impactful DEI efforts? We got the answers from Bethaney Wilkinson, a leading expert in diversity, equity and inclusion who educates business leaders and entrepreneurs on how best to implement mindful, values-driven DEI work in their lines of work.

In an interview with Adenike Olanrewaju for Bloom Season, Wilkinson shares 5 questions all Black business owners must answer as they attempt to incorporate sustainable, effective DEI practices.

5 Questions for sustainable and effective DEI Work
What is my DEI story?

Leaders also don’t always have clarity about their ‘why.’ In the cultural environment we’re in now, it’s easy to hang your hat on the DEI thing because that’s what everyone is talking about; but that’s just not sustainable. Leaders need to have real clarity about their purpose for pursuing diversity, equity, and inclusion so they’re able to show up in the work for the long haul.

One of the first gaps I often see is a business or a leader underestimating just how much time and how many resources are required to go against the grain to create a truly diverse and inclusive and equitable work culture. It’s not a standard business practice so it takes a lot of time, innovation, commitment, and creativity on leadership’s part to incorporate these new practices.

One way to clarify your DEI story is to pay attention to organizations that are doing DEI 'right.' The organizations that I follow that I think are doing the best are often led by women of color. One organization is Creative Reaction Lab. It’s based in St. Louis and is founded by a Black woman named Antionette Carroll. Another is called Liberated Together. It’s located in the Bay Area and is led by Erna Kim Hackett, a biracial Korean woman. I find their work to be the most inspiring and comprehensive because they amplify the needs and perspectives of queer women of color and nonbinary people. I find that those spaces really push us to be better and help to provide a lot of vision and direction in my own DEI practice.

Who am I trying to include and why?

“When people just jump into incorporating diversity practices without knowing why and in an effort to be relevant, it’s not sustainable and you end up commodifying people. And that’s problematic as well. Always ask yourself, ‘Who am I trying to include and why?’

A helpful barometer for positive impact is the close relationships you have. What's tricky is that it can be weird and performative to amplify true DEI work. If you as a leader have a robust, thoughtful, DEI practice, people on your team and in your community will be able to testify to that.

We get it backward sometimes: We think that if it looks good externally or on social media, then it feels good to people. That’s not always the case. It needs to feel good to people first, and that close relationship—what’s happening on your team, how people are evolving in their own DEI practice and understanding internally—that’s the best gauge for the long-term success of your DEI work.”

“We get it backward sometimes: We think that if it looks good externally or on social media, then it feels good to people.”
Who in my sphere of influence can I partner with to actualize this vision?

“Every company doesn’t need to reflect all the diversity in the world; that’s just not possible. But a community or neighborhood can. A city can. Leaders should ask: How do we link arms with other people so we’re telling a more inclusive story across a larger space and within the walls of our business?

A recent and unexpected inspiration that I’ve found in this regard is in a book I’m currently reading called ‘The Hidden Wound’, by Wendell Berry, an 80-something-year-old  farmer from Kentucky. Berry writes about white farmers in his state and the racial issues that took place when he was growing up there 70 years ago. Those racist white farmers were his sphere of influence, and he made a difference with them. Sometimes diversity, equity, and inclusion work begins in nonobvious and unexpected ways.”

How can I best fall in solidarity with other people who are also having a marginalized experience?

“If you are a Black entrepreneur, consider what it looks like to partner with our Asian and Asian-American companies and what it looks like to amplify the narratives of Latinx people. Think about how you are dealing with internalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia. I think a lot of those questions—who are we trying to include and why—are still important, even if you yourself come from a traditionally marginalized group as well.”

“Every company doesn’t need to reflect all the diversity in the world; that’s just not possible. But a community or neighborhood can. A city can.”
What am I getting out of this partnership, and am I okay with that?

“If you are a Black entrepreneur in a DEI partnership with another company, I think it’s important to know what you’re getting out of certain partnerships and to be okay with that. Are there any economic/financial incentives for you to pair with this organization and you happen to need cash flow? If the organization is aligned with your values, there’s nothing wrong with considering a collaboration. Again, entrepreneurs should be mindful of what they’re doing and why.

It would also be helpful to ask larger companies about how your organization’s involvement fits in with their overall DEI goals. What are they looking to accomplish? Who else are they partnering with? What is their 10/20—year vision for this work? If you want to make sure that your time, and energy, is contributing to something greater, then those companies have to be able to answer that.

It ultimately comes down to your values and what matters to you in that moment. If it’s financial, okay. If you’re wanting to stay aligned alongside a bigger-picture societal or cultural vision, then you make your decision in alignment with that. Make sure you’re clear on if your involvement is worthwhile or if it distracts from your overall mission.”

For more guidance on doing DEI right, check out the following resources from Bethaney Wilkinson and her consultancy, The Diversity Gap: