30 Under 30

Why diversity is the key to unlocking sustainability

A group of business people of different backgrounds
ShutterstockTetiana Savaryn
Research proves that companies thrive when they encourage people from a variety of backgrounds to shine.

Editor's note: This is the first in new series by GreenBiz 30 Under 30 alumni, sharing unique, global perspectives on sustainability professionals' roles in ensuring a thriving future for the environment, business and society.

Let’s face it. We live in an incredibly divided world.

As corporate sustainability professionals, we must lead the cultivation of a more inclusive, equitable world for all. We not only must steward the environment but also explore ways to meet the needs of the vulnerable and create healthy platforms for people of all backgrounds to embrace commonalities, celebrate differences and heal tensions. 

If it's not us purpose-driven corporate sustainability professionals, then who? I have a vision of more sustainability professionals championing ethnic diversity within their respective organizations. We have an opportunity to boldly influence the decision-making process in a way that spearheads unprecedented organizational health.

Let me provide some context by sharing what has shaped my perspective. I am a fourth-generation college graduate, earning my degree in Environmental Science from North Carolina State University. I grew up in a happy two-parent household in which my mother homeschooled me from kindergarten to 12th grade. I am employed as the manager of sustainability at Interface Americas and recently was recognized as a GreenBiz 30 Under 30 honoree.

I am also a black man. My great-great-great-grandparents were slaves. I have experienced bitter encounters of prejudice and racism firsthand. Daily, I traverse a world of subtle, nuanced microaggressions that can challenge one’s confidence, success and sense of self-value — and are capable of inducing anxiety in any person of color.

As a black man in the field of corporate sustainability, I refer to myself as a "super-minority." At the average sustainability conference, I am definitely not that hard to spot. Although I have grown used to the discomfort associated with rarely seeing industry counterparts who look like me, I remain hopeful and optimistic that more of us will maximize our platforms and choose to embrace the value of diversity and inclusion. 

A healthy organization must reflect the beautiful ethnic mosaic that is our world. Here are three actionable steps your organization can take to realize greater diversity. 

1. Grow comfortable with discomfort

In order to make real progress on diversifying corporate sustainability, we must be willing to step outside of our comfort zones and have honest conversations.

Candid yet open-minded dialogues in which all participants seek to learn of and empathize with one another's experiences can shine a light on our commonalities. Organizations should make it safe to explore topics such as systemic privilege, unconscious bias and the failure to prioritize in the recruiting process — as well as individuals’ fears, misconceptions, curiosities and obstacles. These topics can be paralyzing, but we must press into these difficult spaces with vulnerability. Communicating honestly helps develop a culture of self-enforced accountability, and can catalyze radical shifts within businesses as a whole. 

Corporate sustainability teams must be the organizational "heartbeat" or conscience (as my friend and mentor Lindsay James, sustainability consultant, expressed), influencing trends and behaviors across the business. I encourage you to develop "unlikely" relationships with a variety of individuals within your network or business and press into difficult conversations. If facilitated with grace and understanding, these dialogues will become easier with time because they cultivate connectedness and transparency as all parties collaboratively take positive steps forward.

2. Invest in the next generation

Providing tomorrow's diverse agents of change with access, exposure and opportunity via internships, apprenticeships and trainee programs is a simple yet meaningful way to promote diversity and unlock a more sustainable future. Creating programs in which students can gain valuable education and experience while providing business value is essential. Such experiences help youth from diverse backgrounds become familiar with corporate culture, gain valuable network connections, showcase their abilities and ideas and test-drive their interests. 

More than 52 percent of paid interns at for-profits received a job offer upon graduation (compared to 46 percent of the class overall), with a median starting salary of $51,251 compared with $47,358, according to the 2016 National Association of Colleges and Employers Report.

According to Net Impact, "More than 50 percent of millennials say they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90 percent want to use their skills for good." Included in this millennial pool are high-potential, minority youth with a strong desire already in their DNA to positively affect people and planet.

Where can you find these passionate, talented students? I have witnessed and engaged with programs, such as Foresight Prep at Oberlin College, that actively invest in and groom future sustainability leaders. Let’s share opportunities with the diverse, next-generation of change agents and help catapult them into high-impact leadership. 

3. Embrace the business case

As we know very well, presenting a sound business case is integral to gaining buy-in from key internal players. Here are some convincing statistics that demonstrate the value of investing in greater diversity and inclusion. In 2015, McKinsey’s "Why Diversity Matters" report measured financial performance against diversity metrics, examining 256 public companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the U.K. and the U.S. 

Here's a snapshot of McKinsey's findings:

  • 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.
  • In the United States, there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance: For every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes rise 0.8 percent.
  • The unequal performance of companies in the same industry and country implies that diversity is a competitive differentiator shifting market share toward more diverse companies.

There are strong correlations between diversity metrics and financial success. "Different kinds of people will come up with different kinds of ideas, and the more variety, the better," wrote Todd Pittinsky, a Stony Brook University professor, in the Harvard Business Review. It's that simple. Diversity breeds innovation and innovation breeds business growth.

Empower cultural liaisons

In order to realize a better world, it is imperative that we engage diverse peoples outside of our niche community of sustainability professionals. Adobe's sustainability team (led by fellow GreenBiz 30 Under 30 honoree Liz Lowe) is an example of a company that has taken this challenge head-on and recognized the value of diversity within an organization.

The lack of diversity stunts the mainstreaming of sustainability. Bringing cultural liaisons aboard the corporate sustainability teams can help bridge gaps, broaden an organization's positive influence and reach, all while bringing in new perspectives and strategies.

I’m confident that our community of corporate sustainability professionals has what it takes to rise to new levels of bold leadership, trailblazing unprecedented realities in diversity and inclusion, which will lead to greater organizational health and an even stronger movement for social and environmental change.