Operator spotlight: DEI leader Aubrey Blanche

Looking for practical help and advice on an operational area that may be outside your realm? Each month we spotlight one of our talented operators, who’ll share their expertise and offer insights and ideas. This month we spoke to Aubrey Blanche, a leader in the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) space and newly announced Global Head of Equitable Design & Impact at Culture Amp.  

It seems like every company is trying to build diverse, inclusive teams – yet entire industries are still quite homogeneous. Why is this such a challenge?

AUBREY: Companies are incredible at saying they care about building balanced teams and inclusive cultures, but when it gets down to it, most are unwilling to support the work that would help achieve that outcome. Sure, PR and recruiting efforts can offer a short-term boost in numbers, but they don’t address the fundamental problems causing the lack of representation in the first place.

Companies that are truly dedicated to creating change will ask questions like:

  • How is bias built into our hiring and evaluation systems and how can we redesign these systems to be more accountable?
  • Are we spending more budget on swag than we’ve allocated to DEI?
  • What resources are we providing underrepresented people to build community and provide feedback on what’s not working in our culture? 
  • What are the consequences when individuals or leaders don’t live up to our behavior standards or goals for advancing representation and belonging?

The companies I’ve seen move forward the most are those whose executives have the humility to take responsibility for missing the mark in the past + take ownership of building a future in line with the promises they’ve made to employees. 

What’s one piece of advice you’d offer a company looking to improve its hiring process? 

AUBREY: Stop using candidates’ educational institutions as a signal on whether or not they’ll be wonderful teammates. The number one factor that determines whether someone went to a “top” university is the amount of money their parents made. That’s not a skill – it’s a (fortunate) accident of birth – and it lowers the overall quality of your talent pool. 

Give us your hot take on the future of DEI in America. 

AUBREY: I think we’re going to have to rely a lot more on companies to make changes, because our governmental systems aren’t incentivizing changes in the ways we’d like. Since industry often moves faster than government, I think there’s incredible potential. The three things I want to become standard:

  • Corporate courage to fire harassers and abusers instead of locking victims in forced arbitration and non-disclosures.
  • Shift of budget from marketing-focused activities to those that create equitable experiences internally (like funding for accessibility work and career pathing for underrepresented people). 
  • Expansion of the discussion to not only include gender and race, but also disability, neurodiversity, caregivers, and formerly incarcerated people, and others (including intersectional identities). 

What’s one thing any company can do to foster a sense of belonging? 

AUBREY: The best way for leaders to get the ball rolling is to begin soliciting feedback on what they’re doing that is or isn’t creating a sense of belonging for folks on their team. Once they have that, it’s imperative to share what they’ve heard back with the organization, commit to specific changes, and have a mechanism for updates and accountability. And they should repeat this exercise quarterly. This is work of continuous progress: there’s always more to learn and ways to improve.

AOC often talks about the skills she picked up as a bartender, and others talk about what they learned working retail. What were some of those formative jobs for you?

AUBREY: I worked part-time at Talbot’s for 7 years, starting at age 14. I was so proud to have my own income! It mostly involved folding clothes, counting inventory, and staying patient when people were having meltdowns about cashmere. People often talk about that kind of work like it’s easy, but I can’t imagine anyone who’s done it thinking that. It requires persuasion and emotional intelligence, and it’s also physically taxing. 

What’s something operators don’t often worry about but should?

AUBREY: Whether their social networks reflect the diversity they say they want in their workplaces. We all have a tendency towards homophily, but by building more diverse personal networks (business and social), we’re more likely to be more open and innovative, not to mention more adept at conducting ourselves in the workplace in ways that support people from all backgrounds. 

Whats one book that’s vital for everyone to read?

AUBREY: I am a huge bibliophile – Here’s what I got through in 2019, and an overview of some of my favorites. If there is one book I want all business leaders to read, it’s The Memo by Minda Harts. It’s a professional advice book for women of color that I think would benefit a lot of White folks in understanding how fundamentally different their experiences are, which is the first step to being more effective allies.

I’d also strong encourage folks to read How to Be an Inclusive Leader, Technically Wrong, Algorithms of Oppression, and Winners Take All to gain a better understanding of how the beliefs we hold and choices we make create fairness or inequity. 

What’s something at work that makes you roll your eyes every time?

AUBREY: “We don’t want to lower the bar” when talking about building a more balanced team. Let me be clear: if your team is not equitable and balanced, it is because of low or unfair standards. A balanced team is a result of holding yourself to the highest standards. 

What’s the one condiment you could never live without? 

AUBREY: Hot sauce. I have an entire shelf in my fridge just for my hot sauce collection, and have been known to leave a bottle at the homes of people I visit often who don’t enjoy it as much as I do.

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