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Why We’re Getting More Intentional about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

By Ken Chen

About a decade ago I was brought in by the president of what was then the largest online gambling company in the UK to do some market research. Specifically, he wanted to understand the opportunity in a nascent category he thought they should enter: Fantasy sports. He had a hunch it was going to be really big, and as a fantasy sports player, I was familiar with the space and its growing popularity in the US.

I spent about a month doing market research and preparing a business case, which I presented at a meeting with the president and top company executives. It did not go well.

There were a lot of men in suits in the room. I was not one of them. I was a fantasy sports player. They were not.

I knew my research was solid, but I quickly became very uncomfortable because I could tell the people in the room did not believe in what I was presenting. Their questions revealed that they not only didn’t understand fantasy sports; they held them in contempt. They were dismissive of the data, suggesting that the segments I’d chosen weren’t valid. Some of them were on their phones or computers. It felt like they were just waiting for me to leave the room so they could say, "Yeah, we're not going to do that."

Missing the Market

As it turned out, the president’s hunch was right. The global fantasy sports industry grew from $4.6 billion in 2010 to $7.8 billion in 2020, a 67 percent increase, and is projected to grow at a CAGR of five percent between 2020-2025, and this company missed it completely. They didn't even scratch the surface, which would have been to build a product or prototype, or at the very least do some additional research to validate my recommendations.

Instead, the meeting just ended with a thud, and my client, the president, said, "Thank you for your hard work. I still think there's something here." And then he refocused me on a different project.

To me, this is a perfect example of why we need diversity in business. I’ll never know if there was racial or cultural bias at play in that meeting (I’m Asian American, and the others were all British). What I do know is that there was no diversity of thought. That is what tends to happen when you have a group of people who are all similar — whether in ethnicity, age, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or educational background.

This is why EM is making an intentional commitment to DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — both in our internal staffing and in our consultant pool. What happened in the spring to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery was the catalyst for action.

This may sound surprising coming from a majority Asian-owned company, where nearly 70 percent of our consulting pool is made up of women, and we have a good mix of senior, mid-career and younger people. In many ways, we are already diverse. But we realized we could do more.

Organic, Not Intentional

Up until the events of Spring 2020, our approach to diversity was organic, rather than intentional. We believed in it, and we were well aware of the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in the business world. It’s one of the reasons many people turn to consulting. The traditional 9-to-5, male-dominated, one-size-fits-all workplace isn't cutting it for a lot of people.

It certainly wasn’t a fit for me. Early in my career, working as an employee inside corporations, hoping to make my way up the ladder, I felt like there was a limit to how far I could rise no matter how well I performed. There were few Asian people in leadership roles. With the exception of one employer, all the others were dominated by white, male leaders.

Something magical happened when I became a consultant. I felt like I could be who I am, and not worry about politics. I could just focus on my clients and do a good job.

I know my story is not that uncommon, because it didn’t take me long to build a community of consultants who have made EM their freelance home. They had similar stories of feeling restricted working inside of a corporation, either because of who they were, or because they didn’t want to make work the sole focus of their life, or both.

The Unspoken Truth

The unspoken truth is that the people who advance have to look a certain way and behave a certain way: you work your ass off, and you don't talk about your children because that comes second. Many of the people who join our community don't feel like they fit into that mold. A great many of them happen to be women, and they introduced us to people in their network who also happened to be women.

But we were not diverse in some other areas and, specifically, with Black and Latinx consultants. In that respect, we were just like a lot of other people in the recruiting industry who do not proactively reach out to people of color. We were not deliberately discriminating against specific groups. We just were not doing anything to address what is clearly a systemic problem that requires proactive effort to change.

We have begun changing that; we are now actively creating a talent pool that is reflective of the diversity of our country as a whole, not just Silicon Valley. We have hired a DEI consultant to help us improve our practices. Internally, we have begun learning about our own unintentional biases, and having discussions about what we’re finding. And, we have changed our process for presenting candidates to our clients without personally identifying information that may trigger unintentional biases.

This is a systemic problem, and we can't solve it on our own. It has to be in partnership with our clients. We can have all of the diversity we want on our bench, but clients make the decisions about who they work with. There’s a lot of research showing that diversity actually improves company performance.

According to research by McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

McKinsey DEI

Those in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Moreover, the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. For example, companies with more than 30 percent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where the percentage ranged from 10 to 30. A Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19 percent higher revenues due to innovation.

An Inflection Point

There’s a lot of momentum right now to push for more DEI, and with COVID, we’re also at an inflection point where companies are more willing to consider work structures outside of butts in seats 9 to 5. For many clients, our initiative will provide additional support for their own DEI initiatives. Our hope is that many more will see our effort as a way not just to address social injustice but to offer an opportunity to help make their business better.

The reason you hire a consultant in the first place is because you're in a hyper-competitive space and you hope that you will gain some extra insight that helps you to break through the clutter. It is well known that to foster innovation and be creative, you need more diversity in thought and experience. One way to do that is through your talent base. You need people who will ask different questions and provide different insights.

In marketing in particular, we are looked to as a function that is listening to the customer. You have to be more empathetic and a good listener. And you can do that no matter what your race or age or sexual orientation is. But certainly if you've lived a different experience, you have a different kind of empathy.

We know that the companies that succeed are the ones that are more innovative and creative. Sometimes innovation comes down to who you have around the table. Are they all the equivalent of British men in suits who understand gambling but have never played fantasy sports?

We never want our clients to hire a candidate simply because they are from an underrepresented group. But if we don’t have consultants from underrepresented groups in our candidate pool, they won’t have the opportunity to hire them at all, and that is the opportunity we are providing.

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About Ken Chen

Ken Chen is San Francisco-based online marketing consultant and owner of EM Marketing. EM Marketing specializes in marketing strategy, product launches, customer acquisition, and mobile & social marketing.

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