Back to our ghettos: Why leaders should change first.


Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi once told me: “At the end of the day, we all get back to our ghettos…the white ghettos, the brown ghettos, the black ghettos…” Gandhi was talking about how our rugged individualistic culture takes us back to our own isolated spaces, the ghettos we’ve built for ourselves.

Meanwhile, corporate America is investing billions in promoting Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) without understanding that a 400-year-old problem cannot be solved overnight.

The historical trauma of racism and systemic inequality cannot be wiped off with a magic eraser.

“The only way leaders are going to combat racism in their organizations is if they literally make combatting racism a lifestyle —as habitual as a morning cup of coffee,” says Andre’s Tapia, Senior Client Partner, Global DE&I Strategist at Korn Ferry.

Tapia makes a valid point. Few corporate leaders know where the inner city is, and very few have taken the time to understand people from different cultures. However, their companies have invested in anything from backpacks to painting walls to show feel-good corporate social responsibility initiatives.

The old saying: “People, Planet and Profits” could now add DE&I in the mix as it has outpaced sustainability as a key goal for corporations.

Yet, knowing about nan & curry doesn’t let you understand the underpinnings of the world’s largest democracy, India, and neither does eating falafel make you feel the richness of Middle Eastern culture.

“When leaders make combatting racism part of their lifestyle, they’ll never lose focus on creating an inclusive organization. It will define their philosophy on how to approach revenues, innovation, marketing, finance, developing talent, and everything else. It will shape the way they lead,” Tapias says.

How many leaders are doing that? How many are making concerted efforts to spend time and understand the experiences of their employees from people of color to LGBTQ employees?

The lingo of DE&I is alien to many corporate leaders in America but the DE&I checkbox has been in existence for several decades. After all, don’t we invest in political correctness every day?

Leaders must invest time in learning, understanding and building relationships with people of color and marginalized groups. Otherwise, companies will be investing in more DE&I consultants showing more PowerPoints about unconscious bias.

It’s time leaders understand their cultural identity first and start leading with empathy and humility. And, the time is now.

Disclaimer

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any entity with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated. Further, I make no warranty regarding the accuracy or effectiveness of my recommendations, and readers are advised to consult other advisors as well as their own judgments in making decisions.

Blind Date with Sabriye: One of Oprah’s Phenomenal Women


IMG_1210Sabriye Tenberken is legally blind and loves talking about colors.

One of Oprah’s “must-see” women, I recently had coffee with her at kanthari, an organization that she and her partner, Paul Kronenberg, has created in India to give leadership training for  social visionaries around the globe.

The setting is  picturesque. Fresh water lakes filled with lotus flowers surround her brick-layered office where she works tirelessly to nurture a cohort of people who she hopes will become the next change agents, social visionaries or great entrepreneurs.

Growing up in the margins of society in Germany, as a young, girl, she was told that she wouldn’t do much in life because of her blindness. After taking classes at Bonn University, she trekked the Himalayas on horseback and moved to Tibet alone when she was 27. Here, the ill-treatment of the blind made her radically change how Tibetans’ viewed people with blindness. Together with Paul, she founded  Braille without Borders and established scores of schools for the blind in Tibet.

Budding change-makers at Kanthari.
Budding change-makers at Kanthari.

After a seven-year stint, Sabriye and Paul moved to Kerala, India, to start kanthari. In the local Malayalam language, kanthari is  an extremely spicy  green chilly commonly seen in the backyards of homes in India’s southernmost state. They chose Kerala as the Indian state sits like a springboard to Asia and Africa on the world map.

Sabriye passionately told me about her fondness for colors and the 5 colors of Kanthari. These are her tenets for social change and her views on creating change-makers. The first color, orange, consists of social entrepreneurs like one of her graduates, Ojok Simon, a blind person from Uganda who endured torture. After receiving leadership training at kanthari, he returned to Uganda and has set up a highly successful bee co-operative.

Her second color, red, symbolizes social activists like one of her students, Jane Waithera, a person with albinism who fights discrimination faced by albinos in Tanzania and Kenya.  The third is green, showing individuals who want to set up new initiatives within their communities like schools and training centers. One of these green kantharis is Tiffany Brar who runs a mobile school for the blind in Kerala.

Sabriye’s next pick is yellow. Yellow kantharis create new products, strategies or concepts for social change. They can be active in the areas of environment, computer technology, accessibility for people with disabilities, agriculture, education and many more.

The final color is purple, representing artists who use their skills to create awareness and social change. Tamas Barko from Hungary is a purple kanthari who uses dance to create a positive impact.

Today, kanthari takes people from margins of society and empowers them to become social catalysts through a 7-month intensive program. They can turn out to follow paths shown by any one of the 5 colors.

Over the past 5 years, 98 participants from 35 countries have graduated from the kanthari course. This has resulted in 60 plus social initiatives and projects.

The organization relies on donations to partially fund learning opportunities for students to become transformative social change agents.

Entrepreneurship has become a commonly abused term in the West.  It was refreshing to see real social entrepreneurship in action without the noise. For those interested in creating transformative social change, visit http://www.kanthari.org.