October 1, 2020

Having Critical Conversations at Work

How Mentors, Community Help Create Diverse, Inclusive Workplaces

For Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) professionals, getting ahead in the corporate environment can be difficult. But they don’t need to walk the road alone.

Malcolm Gillian ’95, MBA ’00, says his path to success was forged in part because of the mentorship he received early in his career. Having that mentor, he says, was essential for his first promotion after graduate school and accelerated his career growth.

“It’s so important to have someone else in the room who can fight for you. I was too naive to seek out mentorship and too naive to know I was being ranked among my peers,” says Gillian, now head of influencer marketing at Cogent Entertainment Marketing in New York. “I was thankful to have someone who saw my potential and understood how they could help push me to reach it.”

Mentorship is important, says Sherika Ekpo, MBA '09, and so is finding a professional community to lean on and learn from.

“Being paired with a mentor vs being chosen is quite a different relationship. There’s a mentor, whom you choose, a sponsor who may choose you and then there’s a community,” says Ekpo,  the global DEI lead for AI and research at Google. “It’s that community of people who are like-minded, whether it be gender, race or general interests, that can be extremely valuable in your career progression.”

Gillian and Ekpo recently shared their experiences during the “Smith Solidarity Series: Critical Conversations at Work” webinar. The event, moderated by Maryland Smith professor Nicole Coomber, also included discussions about changing work culture and about race in the workplace.

Ekpo is helping to promote diversity at the world’s third-largest tech company. Her approach begins with changing the hiring process. Black and Latinx leaders, she says, are more inclined than their counterparts to offer opportunities to BIPOC candidates.

The goal is to make the hiring process fair and equitable for everyone. Solutions like blind resume reviews are one way to help increase diversity and mitigate unconscious bias, but real change stems from education.

“Educating leaders is a process because they are at different points in their educational journey,” says Ekpo. “Doing blind resume reviews is an intervention. It’s not the answer, but it’s certainly a short-term fix that we can learn from.”

Like Ekpo, Gillian focuses on building a diverse organization to better serve a wider range of marketing clients. Leaders, Gillian says, help set the tone and can create the conditions for others to embrace more diverse practices.

“We’re in the business of doing cultural marketing, so I needed to make sure that we had a team that understood culture,” says Gillian. “This is the work we have to do to make sure that organizations grow organically.”

Promoting inclusivity and diversity in the workplace will continue to be a gradual process, but creating a sense of belonging for employees to feel is something that every organization should strive for to be successful moving forward, says Ekpo.

“I shouldn’t have to be the exact same to be able to belong. The focus should be on general commonalities that we can find to create a bond and belong to a group within a group,” says Ekpo. “People will be much more likely to be satisfied at work and ultimately work more effectively.”

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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