Interview with Nicole Lee - Leaders in Conversation

I'm delighted to introduce you to Nicole Lee in this sixth interview of our Leaders in Conversation series. Nicole and I talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency in the workplace and it’s impact personally and professionally. [Transcript]

Nicole Lee is is a diversity, equity and inclusion expert, leadership coach, nationally recognized speaker and strategist who regularly consults with nonprofits, schools, businesses and political and social movements to improve their climate for themselves and all those that they serve.

She is the founder of Inclusive Life™ and co-founder of the Lee Bayard Group LLC and Black Movement-Law Project (BMLP). Nicole is a prolific speaker who has given testimony to the U.S. Congress, the United Nations and other international bodies. She has been a commentator on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and BBC. She has been recognized for her outstanding contributions in the private and public sectors through numerous awards.

You can reach Nicole Lee online: and in the Inclusive Life™ Facebook community (

What Are Your Thoughts On Answering the Call of Diversity and Inclusion?

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Leaders in Conversation Featuring Karin Berardo

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[Beth Wonson] Hi, this is Beth. Today I'm welcoming a friend of mine and a professional who everybody on this podcast is going to want to get to know and know more about. Her name is Nicole Lee and she's a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert. She's also a leadership coach and she's a recognized speaker and strategist who does a lot of consulting in a lot of the places that we all move around in-- nonprofits, schools, businesses, political places, and even in a lot of the social movements that we know are happening right now hoping to improve climate for ourselves and for everybody who shows up in these places. She's the founder of Inclusive Life and the co-founder of Lee Bayard Group LLC. Also the Black Movement Law Project. Nicole is a prolific speaker who has given testimony to the US Congress, the United Nations and other bodies. She's also been on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.

She's been recognized for her outstanding contributions in the private and public sectors through numerous awards. I am so honored to bring Nicole in to this navigating challenging dialogue based podcast so that all of you can get some insight into some of those conversations you're resistant to have--some of those themes that are making work and personal life tough and Nicole is going to share her wisdom with us today. Thanks for joining me, Nicole

[Nicole Lee] Thanks Beth. It's great to be with you.

[BW] Nicole, tell me just a little bit about your work and your background, just share with folks kind of how you got to where you're at today.

[NL] Sure. It's a bit of a trajectory. I grew up in the conservative evangelical movements of the 70s and eighties and despite that I became an enamored with progressive movements both in the United States and across the globe. Ended up going to law school from an African American middle class family, and so there were a few options. One of them was law school, the other was medical school or becoming an accountant or even maybe a teacher, but I went to law school and really had some very specific plans. I decided that I wanted to be an international human rights lawyer, so I did everything I could to get enough experience to earn a job in the field. I think often people think fields where you're doing quote unquote good work, they are easy to break into, but actually international human rights in particular is pretty hard. But I did end up landing a job at first in southern Africa. I was based in South Africa and worked in Zimbabwe and Lisutu and Swazi land and it's my first real taste. And then I moved to Haiti and lived in Haiti for a few years doing human rights work and all that work actually led me back to the United States and I ended up doing a lot of advocacy where I'm running an organization called Trans Africa, which in the international policy space in Washington DC it's super unique. It was an organization that was founded by African Americans, celebrities like Harry Belafonte leaders of at the time the newly founded congressional black caucus that really felt that African Americans in particular had a unique perspective on US foreign policy. And so I worked in that legacy. That helped me see even my own human rights community from a very different lens. I noticed that some of our humanitarian programs that were just so well-intentioned were falling apart and so many things that we thought we were doing the right way really did not have the results that were anticipated. And one of the things I came to learn is a part of it was a lack of cultural competency on the part of the folks executing the programs where people would go from the United States to the country to execute a program. So a lack of cultural competency there, a lack of cultural competency, just like in the minds of folks making up programs in Washington DC, there were going to be executed all over the world. So through that work I started learning more and more and getting certified and really understanding like what is this world that diversity, equity and inclusion? What does it mean for me and how do I have an impact on behalf of those issues? And so this is what leads me kind of to the moment I'm in--the moment we're all in where we're really all trying to navigate what we're seeing in our society in every aspect. So I work in a lot of businesses and corporations like you mentioned, and that certainly is a space. And then it's also at our dinner tables. It's in our neighborhoods, it's in our communities. How do we interact with each other in ways that are positively impactful rather than having a lot of conversations where we all kind of say nothing and don't get much out of it.

[BW] Yeah. Can you help me understand when you used the term cultural competency, what does that mean? What let's, what does it look like? How do we know? How do we measure cultural competency?

[NL] I know that's such a great question and I'll say this, there's very fancy definitions, but for me, right in the work that I see every day, really cultural competency is an elasticity. It's the ability to see the world from the point of view that you have knowing that your view is just one view, so it's not what's normal. It's not what's original. It's not what's quote unquote regular. It's just what's happening from your point of view. And then to understand that based upon issues of identity, issues of geography, that other people experience the world differently. And accounting for that in your communication with them, accounting for the difference if you will, between where you feel most comfortable and where the other people you're communicating with actually live and reside.

[BW] You know, that really resonates as one of the Navigating Challenging Dialogue mantras. We have a series of mantras that we keep going back to. One is you can only see the world through your own lens. And so knowing that when you're engaging in dialogue, when things feel tough or uncomfortable, perhaps taking a step back and realizing, Oh, this is my lens is mine. But all the things you talked about, right? My culture, my background, my experiences, my values, my communication style, everything is the lens I view the world from. So that really resonates for me. How do people we're getting to the place. But I see this in corporations, the work that I do. And even for me that discomfort in the knowing that in some areas my cultural competency is high. And then some areas my cultural competency is very, I don't want to say low, but tenuous or undeveloped. Perhaps my perspective and my views might be off. How do people develop that situationally and generally?

[NL] Well, first I would say that everyone should take comfort in that we are all experiencing that, right? So even though I've been working from this diversity, equity, inclusion justice lens for a long time, I am still growing my cultural competency in all sorts of areas. Right? And so it's not just as simple as I'm going to learn a couple things and then I'm going to be good to go. I'm going to be certified for life. Right. As a culturally competent person, it really is something that needs continual tending, if you will. I think one of the things that is difficult for people when they first begin this work is to understand that not only are we all coming from a different lens as you mentioned, like we all have our own lens, but there are two other factors that make it really important for us to stay curious and to also frankly stay uncomfortable. And that's the two notions of power and positionality. So it's not as if we live in a world where everyone has a different identity. You may have similar identities of some people, very, very different to others and it's all just fair and equal, right? Actually, no, in our of around the world and in the United States, Canada in particular, if we go micro quite to our own countries, our own societies, what you see is actually people are pre-judged. Not only people, right, but by systems. So often-times when I'm talking about racism, people like to talk about like, well she said this and then I said this, and everybody you know had wrong there. You know, racism actually has much more to do with systems. And so when you hear people talk about issues of racism, often what they're talking about is not what an individual said, but the power and positionality behind what was said or what was done. And so there's so much work one has to do and so much frankly, discomfort we bear when we're trying to understand these different issues. So often people say to me, I just don't want to say the wrong thing, Nicole, right? Like I want to have the conversation. I just don't want to say the wrong thing. And some of that is very real. Like in terms of like how we as human beings, we want to do the right thing. We want to say the right thing in cultural competency. And when one is pursuing cultural competency, we almost have to throw that out and say, I do want to say and do the right thing. I also want to embody the right thing. I want to be curious and I'm ready to fumble right, I'm ready to be wrong, I'm ready to be corrected. And you know that is pretty tough. And I will say in areas where I've been corrected, I know it's it uncomfortable and it's so necessary to be able to develop those muscles of cultural competency.

[BW] So how does someone, and this is, I can't tell you how great of a dialogue this is just for me right now, even if we weren't having the podcast. So I am asking like truly authentic questions and I'm feeling some of that discomfort right in this moment of like, oh, what if I asked the wrong question. So how does someone sort of begin to set the stage to say, I might fumble, I want to engage with this and I may or may not do it correctly. Are you willing to meet me there? How did we do that? Particularly, I'm thinking in the workplace where fumbling could have really high impact negative results.

[NL] Sure, sure. Well, you know, one of the things I would say is, you know, if someone says to me, you know, I want to be cultural competent, I want to be curious. I want to do all of those things. One of the first things I say to people is, that's great. Show me in your work and your research, right? So the first thing that someone can do, and it can take literally just a simple Google search to look and find what has been written, what is being talked about in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. I just read an article from the Harvard Business Review, right? We all can access this, which was a fairly comprehensive analysis as to, why is this particularly around African Americans but how and why do African Americans have a difficult time in corporate America? And it went from the entire hiring process to retention, right? Really accessible information. So before someone says, I want to be culturally competent, so I'm gonna jump out there and have these uncomfortable conversations. I always suggest to have some basic knowledge about what's being discussed, what's being talked about, because you are likely then to come from a place of curiosity that's informed rather than the place that a lot of people come from, which is, well now I'm ready so everybody needs to be ready to teach me. Right? Everybody needs to be excited that I'm ready now for this. And so you know, give me all of your knowledge. That can be like a little off putting to some people, but more than that you actually are expressing, you know, if it's a particular issue of discrimination or particular group that you want to understand better and connect with, you're actually showing that you're not really committed and interested. You just want to be taught cold. I mean there's just so much out there that wasn't out there 10 years ago about these issues. There is so much research, so that is really the starting place. The other thing I would just say really quickly that I especially when we're talking about the workplace, is I actually suggest that people do either their own assessment or work with someone like me to assess their entire situation in their lives. Because I'll tell you what normally happens, you normally find out that when you ask, well, who sits around your dinner table? Or when you have 10 friends over, what does it look like? Oftentimes those friends are living very similar lives and have very similar identities to my client. Right? And then you don't think that that's having an impact on how you are expressing yourself or understanding things in your workplace, but it actually has the greatest impact.

[BW] Yes. That is so key. And it's something that I've heard you say before and a couple other folks I've engaged with have kind of said that, and it really makes me think about how I'm doing that work in my own life. Yeah, thank you.

[Niclole Lee] Yeah. Yeah.

[BW] I saw a comment on Facebook or you know, the great place where debates of all things, right? That's just such a ...

[NL] We're solving all society's problem right on Facebook right now.

[BW] And it was in a, in a group for nonprofit leaders that I happened to participate in sometimes because I like to learn what's current and going on in that world. And someone had brought something up and a person's response was, I don't see color.

[NL] Hmm.

[BW] Say more from your perspective about I know when I hear that. So I was having coffee with someone one time, another Caucasian person who had the whole background I did. And I said, yeah, I just don't see color. I was kinda taken aback. Help me to understand more about why I have a negative reaction to that statement, if you will.

[NL] No, sure. I mean there's so much that could be said and it needs to be said about this particular topic, but I'll get right to your initial question and expand upon it. So why, why was it uncomfortable? Because you know, inherently that's not true.

[BW] Right.

[NL] It's just simply not true. And we know again from research, we know that actually color is one of the first things that babies-- not talking about children because you know everyone always likes to say children are color blind. That is so not true. Children are probably the most aware of color, but we know from research that babies as young as six months old can identify people who are of a different quote unquote color or race, then their caregiver, right? So we know that babies even even when their eyes are like still forming, still developing, they can make that identification. It is a part of what separates us, if you will, from the other primate. We have the ability to create bias very, very quickly. And when I'm talking about bias, now I'm really talking about differentiating between one thing and another, right? So it's a part of who we are and there's so much, I teach a whole class on bias. This is a very interesting thing. We all have it. It is weaponized again, when you start mixing in power and positionality, unfortunately. So one other thing I would want to say is the history of colorblindness is very real in the United States. So around the time schools began to desegregate, this whole notion of colorblindness became really important that we were going to desegregate and black and white kids could be together because we're really not different. Right? And there was this altruism in many, many people's minds in white leaders' minds that if we just don't deal with the fact that these folks are black, right, quote unquote black, then we can all just be together. I did some research for the last two years and I've been talking with parents. I do a lot of work with parents around diversity, equity and inclusion issues. And most parents who grew up during the late sixties/seventies talk about colorblindness as really the only thing their parents imparted to them. So they would say to them, you don't treat anybody differently because of the color of their skin, period. End of story. That's all it needs to be said. And yet we know both from our personal experiences as well as research that that can't be farther than the truth. That there is...colorblindness actually breeds discriminatory behavior and you can see that in children as young as seven years old.

[BW] Wow. That is, it's so fascinating to me as I'm going through my own journey of becoming more aware. Right? Navigating Challenging Dialogue is if it's only about one thing, it's about self-awareness.

[NL] Yeah.

[BW] And for me as I'm going through this intentional journey of increasing my self awareness, like the layers of like this is underneath that and this is underneath that. I can spend my lifetime just learning about how I show up in the world and how it supports me or how it holds me back and then the impact on others. We're talking a lot, which is probably the tendency, right? Because you're black. I'm white, right? So we're talking a lot about the black, white, but I know from having taken one of your courses, from spending time listening to you and learning from you, that black and white is not the definition of inclusivity. Right?

[NL] Absolutely not.

[BW] About melding black and white and bringing black and white folks together and live harmoniously.

[NL] I mean, that would help, but no, that's not all of it. There's so many identities even within, right? Those binaries of white and black, and then there's all these other indices of identity that are so important, like gender and gender identity and class, ability, right? I mean, so many things that we don't talk about and yet they really do in our society right now, distinguish how one's experience will be and how one experiences, how one experiences the rest of the world and how the rest of the world experiences you.

[BW] Yeah. So as you're thinking about, or as I'm thinking about, the value, I know that you're doing a lot of work around inclusivity and bringing folks together to have tough dialogues and cultural competence. What is the benefit? So we know the basic benefits, right? For companies, corporations to do this work, right? Where they're going to have to be protected from HR stuff hopefully. And they're going to show they're going to check a box. We, we'd done this work and it brings some protection. But what's the true value of taking time to build cultural competency within a workforce?

So this is really interesting. I love this question because this is something that I spend a lot of time on. Like, because while a lot of people will say, Oh, well, you know, we need to engage on these issues because it's the right thing to do. And even some people will make a business case for it, but they come back to the quote unquote right thing to do. We actually know a lot more about the importance of inclusivity in businesses than just that. And so just to talk about kind of what, what's kind of the newest or what we understand about what's been going on in the last decade. We know that the highest performing employees now that can be, they're really looking at Gen Xers and millennials. Most there's more millennials, so they look at more millennials. We know that the highest performing employees demand equity and inclusivity in their workplaces now. We know that. We know that through several series of exit interviews where basically a company will go and they will recruit like the best from, whatever they believe the best school to be, the most experienced. They will recruit that person. And depending upon the cultural climate, not the money, not the salary, not the benefits and bonuses and all of those things, not how many, you know, whether or not they serve breakfast everyday for free. You know, some companies are just flush, right? And give everyone everything. That actually doesn't determine whether or not they'll stay. Whether they're still there 18 months later. It's actually issues of cultural climate that determine it. It also doesn't matter what race or gender anymore either. So if you take a stereotype of like a, a very impressive white male employee, if he's a millennial, cultural competency issues or toxic workplace issues that have to do with identity will impact whether or not he stays as well.

[BW] Wow.

[NL] So, so there's, there's real issues of what we're trying to do is build healthy, sustainable, innovative workforces because those folks demand, right? That they're in inclusive environment. So why do they do that? Well, they can, right? Because they're so successful, they have so much ability, they can go other places. And so what you find is when you have a toxic workplace, it's almost like a cycle, if you will. You're not actually retaining the people that you need to retain. And because you're not doing that, you're not able to change the cycle. So there's some, I mean there's a lot of, I encourage folks to just dive deep into your particular sector about this because there's so much that we know now that has almost nothing to do with altruism and everything to do with our bottom line, like our productivity, our ability to make profit, you know?

[BW] And it's so fascinating. I just came from doing a big stint in the tech world and there's so much focus on onboarding people quickly and getting people to stay because the unemployment rate is so low right now, right? So the employee has a lot of power in terms of moving, where they are staying, and so really getting to what's underneath, you know, more money. And like you said, I saw that free breakfast, free lunch, free this free that, you know, the, the restrooms are totally stocked with everything you could need. It's like going to a boutique, you know, want for nothing, health club on site. And so what is underneath what gets people to stay and understanding that it's knowing that they work in a organization that is in tuned to and values cultural competency and inclusivity is that's gold for retention for organizations.

And just one more additional thing. So there are a lot of companies that do for various reasons, see diversity as important. So the, they're onboarding more women, they're onboarding more women of color and of color. They're bringing people in that will quote unquote create this diversity right for, for them. But when you don't deal with cultural issues within a community, within a workplace. So when you have, for example, folks that really don't see the importance of diversity or you have microaggressions, right, which are like little slights over time that build up to a big thing, right? When you have microaggressions happening, you are actually forcing your minority employees be it that you know, that you have, you're bringing in women or you're bringing people of color, whatever. You are actually forcing them to dedicate significant parts of their intellect to dealing with your bad culture instead of dealing with your work. Right. Dealing with the thing they're supposed to be creative about. And you know, I, I've found as a coach, I'll encounter clients all the time who came into a company, they were the star, they were amazing, they were collaborative, they were all of these things. And then two, three years later, they have not produced or they're not producing the way that it was envisioned that they would. And oftentimes what you find out is that they've been dealing with constant daily microaggressions. And microaggressions are actually something that you can't ignore, but what they tend to do is store up. Right? And so you literally are sucking the life out of your best people when you're not dealing with those sorts of things in their environment and their workplace environment.

[BW] Yeah. But you know, it's so interesting, some of the correlations and I'm just so thrilled to have this conversation because that's a component we talk about in Navigating Challenging Dialogue is all the unspokens that people are carrying around that they're not having dialogue about are distracting them.

[NL] Yep.

[BW] From their creativity, their innovation, their contribution to the organization. That's it. Companies that are doing really well and they want to identify a way to do better, they can't expand time, but what they can expand is people's ability to focus and innovate and contribute.

[NL] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And you know, and the in sometimes people say, well, oh gosh, well if I start dealing with all of that and my company, isn't that going to be distracting for everyone else? And the truth of the matter is we're actually not doing our employees or you know, in, in our homes, our children, our colleagues, our friends, any service by allowing their behavior to not be culturally competent. Because here's the deal. Like, we have a changing demographic in this country, in the United States, we have changing demographics all over, you know, you, you now are actually finding situations where, for example, people of color will say, no, I'm not going to work with that business because either the diversity is inappropriate or I've heard that, you know, it's not an inclusive place. And you know, here I am, have my, you know, I'm an entrepreneur with a $30 million business and I can choose who I'm going to work with. And so that is so important in, in 10, 20 years from now. You know, for those folks who are saying, oh, it's okay for my kids to be color blind at six, well, when they're 26 it's going to be super, super hard to present oneself as someone that can work in a multicultural, multiracial workforce in comparison to others that have actually done that work. So it's essential that, you know, for the folks that we care about and we care about ourselves, that we really take this work pretty seriously.

[BW] Yeah. You know, one of the greatest gifts that I've had in the past year or so has been getting to know you and being able to have conversation with you and learn from you and your friendship. And so I'm so excited that my listeners are also going to be able to, to hear some of the brilliance of magic and perspective and intentionality behind who you are, the work you're doing in the world and understanding that this a safe place to learn. And I encourage people to go to Nicole's website. You can find her online. What's your web address Nicole?

[NL] It's

[BW] So that's pretty easy. The Inclusive Life Accelerator--Politics and Spirituality at the Crossroads is a big event that Nicole is putting together in DC, Washington, D C it's going to be October 11th through the 13th. It's going to be three day intensive exploring the intersections of holistic spirituality in our current political climate. And uh, I encourage you to go to our website, get on her mailing list. Nicole is also one of the folks who's in the Navigating Challenging Dialogue Facebook group. I just, I, I can't thank you enough for taking time out to be with us and share the work you're doing with our listeners. I encourage everybody to get in touch with Nicole and learn more about her and learn more about yourself. Thanks for joining us today and I will talk to you soon.

[NL] Take care.