What Owners Need to Know About Diversity – Dr. Chris Hunt

What Owners Need to Know About Diversity -Chris Hunt

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. What do those terms each mean, and how can you implement each in your business?

Chris Hunt, the Associate Provost for Community, Equity, and Diversity at the University of New England joins us today to talk about the power of a diverse workforce, and the benefits it brings your company.

Discover how to overcome hidden biases in your hiring practices, and create an environment that gets the most out of your team in this week’s episode.

Rich: Our guest today joined the University of New England this year as the inaugural Associate Provost for Community Equity and Diversity, and serves as a member of the President’s Cabinet. As a consultant and speaker, he offers guidance on communications, diversity and inclusion strategy, and topical area including but not limited to, unconscious bias and cultural humility.

As a scholar his research interests include college student development, critical race theory, stereotype threat, sexual misconduct prevention, generations, black students, racial battle fatigue, and identity development. His research, “When Millennials Meet Baby Boomers – Multiple Case Studies of the Experiences of Black Male College Students”, explores the lived experiences of the students of color across multiple generations.

He holds a doctorate in education and a Bachelor’s degree from East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s degree from Westchester University of Pennsylvania. A native of New York state and longtime Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania resident, he is married to Nichelle, and father of three Generation Z children, and a beagle-chihuahua rescue.

We’re excited to dive into what you need to know about diversity in the workplace with Dr. G. Christopher Hunt. Chris, welcome to the podcast.

Chris: Thanks Rich, I appreciate that. I’m excited to connect with you.

Yury: Chris, as we mentioned in the bio, you are the Associate Provost for Community Equity and Diversity at the University of New England. What are your responsibilities in that role?

Chris: My responsibilities in the role, and at other places it’s also referred to as a Chief Diversity Officer, but at a very high level my role is to make sure that there’s coordination and implementation on conversations regarding diversity, equity and inclusion.

So specifically I get a chance to work with our communications division, our academic affairs and different academic departments, as well as our admissions team and financial aid. Just to make sure that we’re being very mindful about all the different backgrounds that our students come from and making sure that when they get to UNE, even before as we are trying to attract them and recruit them to come to UNE, that we’re being mindful of the different aspects of diversity that they come from.

So, are we making sure that our campus is prepared to have students come from rural and urban communities? Are we making sure that students who have different abilities and disabilities are able to access the full campus? Are we thinking about students who have different socioeconomic needs, do they have everything they need to be successful? So that’s part of my role is to work with colleagues and students across campus to make sure that students have a sense of belonging and can be successful at the institution.

Yury: How did you discover this passion and how did you find yourself on this path?

Chris: Yeah, well it started as a college student myself. So I identify as, I’m a black man. And I went to university where the overwhelming majority of the students were not black. Men were not black, women were predominantly white or known as a predominantly white institution. I started my undergraduate degree at Westchester University, finished at East Carlsberg, and then went back to Westchester for my Master’s degree and then my doctorate at East Carlsberg. So sort of back and forth there.

I had a great time at all of my colleges, but it was because I had mentors who did the work that I’m doing. They did it for me. So they were making sure that even at a predominantly white institution, these individuals were making sure that I had full access to the university, that I was being successful in my academic pursuits. They were making sure that there were other support systems around me so that I had a sense of belonging. And I certainly felt very connected to my university because there were people who were doing that work.

So it started off for me as a college student myself, and then that was never lost on me. As I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I think originally I wanted to be a high school guidance counselor, that was my goal. And I didn’t become that, but in some ways I do similar work just at the university level.

Yury: Fantastic. Thank you for sharing that.

Rich: Chris, diversity, equity and inclusion are terms that are often thrown around these days and often bunched together, but they have different meanings. How do you define diversity equity inclusion in a way that helps us understand the differences between those three terms?

Chris: Yeah. So it’s a great question. And you’re right, DEI, or sometimes folks just say D and I – diversity and inclusion – but they are distinct. So when I think about diversity, not to be cute, but I think sometimes we’re not diverse when we think about diversity. You know, sometimes when we think about diversity we think about maybe one or two or three aspects of diversity. You know, race and ethnicity, maybe gender, maybe religion or some other mix. And so when I think about diversity, I think about if you reflect on all the different things that you are, whether or not you’re a father, a husband, a son, a construction worker, an educator, whether you went to college or didn’t go to college, whether you’re white, black, Christian, Muslim. Whatever your identities are, you think about all the different parts that you are that encompasses diversity. So everybody is a diverse person, if we can think about it that way.

And that’s important because when you think about all your different parts of who you are, I think that gives us fewer opportunities to say the diversity conversation doesn’t include me, that’s nice to dabble in when we can get to it, but it doesn’t really refer to me. And indeed it’s quite the opposite. This thing is about everyone and all the different, because we’re all very complex people. And so we should lean into those different identities and talk about them.

And where there’s overlap, when we have conversations we’re unconsciously trying to get to some sort of common denominator, whether it’s talking about the weather or where we’re from or wherever it is, we’re trying to get to some sort of commonality. And then there are some emerging things as well that we should talk about. So that’s diversity.

Inclusion is the act of making sure that those different identities that we have are included in whatever exercise, organization it is. So the fact that I am a New Yorker who is working at a school in Maine, I shouldn’t feel some other kind of way or ostracized just because I’m not a native of the state of Maine.  

Rich: Unless you’re going to start rooting for the Yankees because that really I can’t get past. I’m sorry, I interrupted. But I just wanted to make that very important point.

Chris: Fair enough. Fair enough. And there’s no threat of that Philadelphia market. So for Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, Eagles, that’s the one exception. But yeah, I should feel included, wherever I am based on whatever identity I bring. So that’s the act of inclusion, it’s a process.

And then the equity piece, so if there is something about being from New York that is going to in some way impede my ability to be successful in Maine, then I would look to maybe you or other colleagues to say, “Okay, let’s give you a tour of Maine. Let’s get you oriented to Maine”, because you might not do that for someone else who is from New Hampshire or some other part of Maine, they might be more familiar with how things go in the state. But as a New York or Pennsylvania, I may be less familiar. So you’re going to make sure that I am sort of brought up to speed on all things Maine. And that’s the equity part. It’s understanding that people are coming from different backgrounds and in order to be successful you may need to do some additional outreach to make sure that the playing field is level.

Rich: If I’m hearing you correctly, diversity is about having a wide range of different people from different backgrounds, different races, colors, creeds, sexual preferences, whatever it is in this instance in your workforce. Inclusion is about making sure all of those people feel welcome, not ostracized. And equity is the recognition that maybe everybody didn’t start from the same place. Certain people may need a little extra help or a little extra information so that they can be part of the team. Does that sound like a fair definition?

Chris: That’s fair. That’s fair, yes. Whether it’s your sexual orientation or some other identity, that’s the diversity piece. The inclusion part is the act of making sure those different identities are welcomed. And then the equity piece, like you explained, is making sure that there’s a level playing field and we all have opportunity to be successful. That’s right, Rich

Yury: Chris this podcast is meant to help the leaders of growing Maine companies. So how do you feel that diversity can help to grow business?

Chris: Well I think it opens us up to a wider market when we’re able to think about, like I said before, all these different things that if we’re able to really have some deep conversations and thought exercises about that, then I think there’s an opportunity for us to appeal to more people and to include –  again, not to be cute – but so if you think about the diversity of Maine and the people who encompass the state or who make up the state and all the different things that they represent, that’s step one. Step two is, okay, how do we bring them in? How do we include them into our business model? I think you’re going to appeal to a wider market. I just think not only are you including more people, but your bottom line is looking better as well.

But it starts with conversations. It starts with the questions. You may not get to those answers immediately, but just the idea of how do we do this, what do we need to think about, who do we need to think about, who’s not being included, who are we not speaking to? Those are the kinds of things that I think can give us, if we’re thinking about ways to distinguish ourselves from other companies, the companies who are thinking about all the different possibilities of people that are out there, I think, are the ones that are going in more business opportunities.

Yury: So it can range from the products and services we designed to the target segments or demographics that we want to offer our solutions as well as the way we communicate to the demographics. That would allow us to be understood and maybe supported by those audiences that we have not previously thought about. Am I hearing correctly?

Chris: Absolutely. I mean, that’s 100% correct. So imagine a company that has an advertising strategy that looks one way and is appealing to whatever audience it’s appealing to, but then can also pivot and market the same product or service or whatever, but they’re trying to tap into additional markets. And, and that versatility, I think, is not only intriguing, I think, it’s intelligent. I think it’s smart. I think it’s prudent and I think there’s opportunities there. I mean, all things being even, how do businesses distinguish themselves from other companies who are doing the same thing? Especially now, right? I mean, the businesses and organizations that can make that kind of pivot and be more inclusive and thinking about how our full landscape looks, I think are the ones that are going to be more successful in today’s environment.

Rich: One thing I’m hearing from you is that by having a more diverse workforce, we’re actually able to reach a more diverse client base or customer base, right? That’s one element at least of what’s going on.

Chris: Right. Yeah. You know, if you can bring in people who have different lived experiences, Rich, and who have different aspects of diversity and race, ethnicity is one of those things, that’s a very important aspect of it.

Rich: Because I don’t want that to get lost, but it’s also a very visible element of diversity. Things like religion or sexual orientation, those things aren’t necessarily racial or nationality, says my Russian friend.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That’s right.

Rich: So if we’re down with this, if we believe in this and we’re looking to have a more diverse company, obviously there’s a challenge in Maine. It is very homogenous here. What are some things that we can do to encourage a more diverse applicant pool when we are in the hiring position?

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. So again, number one I think is to start off by asking that question, right? Because you’re right, you have to say if we believe in it well, yeah, that’s right. And to my point earlier, if you believe in business opportunities, there are different ways to think about this. You know, what’s our moral responsibility to appeal to a wide range of people? And then quite frankly, what’s the business argument? And so once you get past that, asking the question is step number one.

I think the next step though is, there are opportunities for us to build organic networks. And so to be intentional about that and to try to tap into local community organizations that may lead us to different networks of people.

I think a big part of it, Rich, is the idea of building trust and relationships. And so if we’re trying to make our workforce more diverse, and if communities really understand that there are opportunities in different businesses and organizations, if they really truly understand that and see that, of course I think they’re going to be knocking down doors. And then the opportunity to get a job. Who doesn’t want to advance their careers and provide for their families? So I think it’s an organic grassroots effort, and it’s not a quick fix. You know, we’re talking about building trust and relationships and building organic networks. That’s an arc, that’s a long game. And it starts with asking the question and having the discussions on a regular basis. I mean, this has to be embedded into our business strategies and our regular conversations. I don’t think it can be necessarily like an initiative. I think it has to be kind of a part of our way of doing business.

Rich: So if we really do want to open jobs, you know, I’m thinking as a business owner, how do I develop a more diverse work force at flyte? What are some specific steps that you would recommend I take? Like if I asked you, “Hey, you’re my D&I guy, what should I do, Chris?” What would you tell somebody like me running a company here in Maine that I should start to, not just for my next hire, but for my next five years of hiring?

Chris: Yeah, so, I mean, so several things or a few things. How can you bring in different ways of thinking? Are there consultants in your network that can help you at least get the conversation started, help you structure some very specific action items? Once again, facilitating conversations. I think that’s a really big step.

I also quite frankly think, and I know we’ll get to it later on, but when I think about Maine as a state and how to enhance different opportunities to grow business, I think about all the thousands of students who come to Maine every year by way of our colleges and universities. Which we have some of the top nine universities in the nation, quite frankly.  UNE is certainly one of them with a very strong health professions curriculum, if I can plug my institution. But we think about some of the other ones, Colby, Bates, the UMaine system.

Yury: Husson University, in particular.

Chris: Yep. There you go. See. So every one of those institutions have students who are going to graduate and be looking for jobs. To what extent can we compel these universities to help us tap into underrepresented students, students of color, students from other diverse backgrounds, and say, “Hey, when you get your credential in four years, you might have a job waiting for you the very next day”, or whatever that conversation is. And that can build a pipeline, perhaps. I think we want to think about things that are sustainable.

So those two specific things. Bringing in outside voices to at least help you structure some initial conversations, consultants or whoever else that is, connecting with colleges and universities. And then I would say, depending on where people are sitting in Southern Maine or other parts of the state, understanding who those grassroots community organizations are who are on the ground now. It’s not lost on me that COVID presents some challenges in terms of networking on one hand.

On the other hand, it does make some things more accessible, depending on who has the technology and all those things. So it’s complicated. So I don’t want to act as if things are so easy right now, because they’re really not. But there are still organizations out there who are doing work in COVID, and then obviously once we get through this, that are on the ground and have networks that can be tapped into.

The faith community is another example. And specifically the black church congregants. They are strong members of the community in terms of their ability to organize and pass along words to other people. So those are some specific things I think that we can think about as we’re trying to make our workforce more diverse.

Yury: Chris, quick question. What are some things that are keeping us from hiring people who are different than us, and what can we do or stop doing to ensure a more diverse workforce at our companies moving forward?

Chris: Yeah. Well I’ll use myself as an example. When I have a key position that I’m trying to hire for, I have to resist the urge to do the easy, fast hire. And so I have a job that’s available, I need to get that job filled. Otherwise, I’m going to be doing the job and then I’m going to have less time to be sane. And who can I hire fast is a knee jerk reaction. And unfortunately what’s going to happen is if I go into my regular quick network, I may or may not be missing all kinds of other people that are qualified to do that work and who can add a different perspective into my organization.

So I think that’s one of the barriers that we have is the built-in bias to go straight to what we know. And so a lot of this work is about pausing and just taking a step back and recognizing that the way we’ve done things in the past Isn’t necessarily an indication of what we should be doing moving forward. So really sort of interrogating businesses, I guess.

Yury: No, it’s an interesting observation. It’s when we are thinking about moving forward, but instead of diving into the action and actually we’re talking about slowing down and being mindful, being present, being reflective. And only after those steps are in place, we actually start charting the path forward. That is a very interesting way of doing business and a lot of times, even on this podcast, we were talking about bouncing back. But we don’t really want to bounce back, we want to bounce forward. So that’s the way to do it. So thank you for sharing this observation, Chris.

Chris: Absolutely. Thank you.

Rich: Chris, I want to follow up on this because I think this is really interesting. We do all have biases. I mean, if we think that we don’t, I think we’re being very naive. I see it in myself, even if I try and think of myself as a very forward-thinking person, I catch myself with thoughts or actions, anything like that. A lot of them are invisible to us on a day-to-day basis. Do you have any recommendations on how we might identify some of these biases, and how we can counteract them or nullify them either during the hiring process or once we have a more diverse workforce in place?

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’m going to dovetail off of what Yury just observed is what I said before, it’s tough. Because I’m suggesting that we, in a fast paced world, I’m suggesting that we try and slow down just a pace. Because bias is our way of ever getting through a day. And what I mean by that is it helps us make some very fast decisions. You know, I don’t know what the science is, but I think we make something like millions of decisions every day. And they’re judgments and they’re based on information that we have consumed or learned at some point in our lives so that we can make very quick decisions. Sometimes those decisions have more implications than other times. It’s like whether or not we’re going to hire somebody or not.

And so the idea of unconscious bias is what you said before, sometimes we don’t even know that we’re doing this. The exercise is to when you’re making these decisions to pause for 30 seconds and ask yourself why. That’s it. Why am I looking at this applicant and not that one? And just try to, I try to be more aware of those sorts of judgments that we’re making. When we can do that on a regular basis where it’s sort of we’re holding ourselves accountable and we’re kind of checking ourselves. Because bias doesn’t make us, I have all kinds of bias myself. Everyone does, like you said.

Rich: It’s how we get through the day.

Chris: Exactly. Exactly. But the exercise is how do we sort of slow that down, reflect and be introspective. And perhaps we’ll arrive at a different decision or maybe we won’t, but we’re at least having that lens of, I know I have bias. It doesn’t make us bad people whatsoever. I know I’m biased, but is this the best way to think about it? And if you’re not sure, that’s why you bring in some other voices to try and balance that out.

Rich: It reminds me, uh, one of my favorite books is called Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion. And in this book, Dr. Robert Cialdini often talks about these shortcuts that we take that allow us literally to live our lives. We’d be unable to make all these decisions every day. It’s not that these shortcuts are necessarily bad, but sometimes they can have negative consequences like you were talking about. And just taking that pause to think about, am I making this shortcut decision? Is it helping or hurting the current situation? And maybe just by being aware of that, we’re going to be able to make some better decisions for the health of our company and for the Maine economy as well.

Chris: Yep. Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I’m not familiar with that particular book, but that’s the takeaway. There’s another book that I like, it’s called Biased by Jenna Eberhardt.

Rich: Yury is showing this on our Zoom call and it looks like he’s got about 74 tabs that he’s added to it. So he obviously has devoured that book a few times as well.

Chris: If I can plug mine, it’s called Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt, Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think and Do.

Rich: Nice. We’ll have those in the show notes as well.

Yury: Okay. Chris, I have a keynote question. So how do we help a person of color rise up through organizations? And how can we be more intentional to allow people of color to advance through our organization?

Chris: Yeah. Once again I appreciate the question just because we’re thinking about it. And so once again, not to be repetitive but sort of to be repetitive, it starts with asking that question. And the question that you’re asking, I think, is about equity and how do we make sure.

So back to my corny example about being from New York state. How do we make sure that this guy from New York state understands how we do things in Maine? And we should also, whatever he’s bringing from New York State that we’re not doing in Maine, maybe there are things that we’re missing. And so he can help us in that endeavor and make things even more inclusive. I think it’s the same strategy, the same idea is true for people of color, for black people, for indigenous people and Hispanic, Latinx people.

And so getting to know the person, getting to know the people, because what we do for one person might not be the same thing that we do for other people. And so it’s a question of equity and getting to know who our people are. It could be, just an example, when we talk about media and we’re going to be very technical about lighting, right? The lighting that works for some folks with lighter pigment might not be the same lighting that works for someone like me who’s a bit darker. And so to be receptive to that kind of feedback when I say, “Hey, my lighting might need to be tweaked.” That’s inclusion. And when you actually adjust your lights to make me look good, that’s the equity piece.

So I think starting off with the question, getting to know what the person and the people need, and then moving forward from there is a good way to start.

Rich: Chris, first of all, your lighting is on point today. Where meanwhile, I look like Casper the ghost. It’s just terrible, but that’s beside the point.

To point on equity, I want to share a quick story that you and I talked about when we kind of ran a pre-interview. And it was the idea that I’m part of an agency mastermind. I talked to other agency owners and right after George Floyd’s murder, we were having this discussion about what are we doing as white owners of companies. And he was sharing a story with me that a lot of the people he works with, they’re white, a lot of them are down South and they’re white. And one of the guys had never hired a white installer. These are people who go in and install high-end security and sound systems in houses, tend to be luxury homes, and he realized he had only hired white males his entire life. And then he said, “Well, it’s not really my fault. We’ve only had white applicants because those are the people who go to school for this.” And as soon as he said that, he realized that might be the problem right there. And he found a local nonprofit that worked with people of color to get them into the sound industry. And he actually started making regular donations so that he would have the ability to have a more diverse workforce down the road. And I think that’s a perfect example of equity

I’m sure that there’s some people who listening says, “Well, why are you giving advantages to certain groups over another?” And that’s not really the point. I think the point is that what we’re trying to do is balance the scales and give everybody an equal opportunity. We always treat our children differently. We always treat our employees differently, because certain ones need certain help in areas and other ones need help in other areas. If we’re a good boss, if we’re a good parent, then I feel that we need to identify everybody as an individual as well, which I think is one of the points that you’re making.

So equity is not like a quota system. It’s not like giving somebody benefits that other people don’t have. It’s really about making sure that we’re getting the most out of everybody. At least that’s what I’m hearing from you and what I believe in my heart.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that’s a perfect example of what we’re talking about. And quite frankly, it goes back to something else at the very top. I mentioned all companies and all organizations being equal. Your friend, your colleague’s company is distinguishing himself presumably from other companies that are not thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion. And so as a consumer, as a potential customer, I’m going to go to that one that I see is speaking to everyone, versus just some segment of the population.

Yury: Chris, these are incredible insights and ideas, and we really appreciated the fact that you found time to be here today with us on the podcast. At the end of the show we usually ask – well, not usually, this is our staple question – and I hope you’re ready for this. So what one thing would you change if you could, to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?

Chris: Yeah. So I sort of previewed this earlier. I think there are some, so when we think about the landscape of colleges and universities in the state, obviously there are some that are state institutions, state affiliated. And there are others who are private colleges where folks come in from all over the country and indeed the world, particularly for those institutions. I think there’s an opportunity for us to try as businesses and organizations, I think there’s an opportunity for us to try to get those students to start thinking about what would it be like to stay in the state. What would it look like to actually start my career here in Maine?

Can businesses and organizations build more intentional pipelines for first year entering students, freshmen students, on college campuses who are coming from all over the globe, all over the country, and say, “Hey, listen, when you finish, there’s a home for you right here in this state.” Because sometimes I’m fearful that there is some incredible talent that’s coming into the state, who are earning their four year degree, and then leaving and going back. And potentially that was always a part of the plan. So I understand that, but can we get students to at least think about careers in the state of Maine and make it attractive for them to want to stay. And then, thus building more of a pipeline. And so I think that sort of exercise would be really helpful for our businesses.

Rich: That’s a great idea, and definitely keeping a lot of different perspectives here in the state. And more perspectives is always a good idea.

Chris, this has been fantastic. I really appreciate your time, we both do. For people who want to reach out to you, learn a little bit more about you, where can we send them online?

Chris: The best way to get in touch with me is probably just my email address, if that’s okay. Which is just [email protected]. And I also have a LinkedIn profile if you just Google my name and LinkedIn, you’ll see a profile come up. But yeah, I would love to connect with anyone who wants to connect offline.

Rich: Sounds good. And we’ll make sure that we put that in the show notes as well. Chris, thank you so much for coming by today and sharing your insights.

Chris: Thanks, Rich. Thanks, Yury. I appreciate it. Good to talk to you.

Rich: That was a really awesome episode. Really a lot of important stuff, a lot of things to think about. If you want to take a look at the full transcript from today’s interview with Chris, head on over to our website, you’ll find it at fastforwardmaine.com/68.

Now this is the part of the show every week that we get into our “fast takes”, and our big takeaway from the interview. So Yury, what was your “fast take” for today?

Yury: I really liked what Chris said at the very end, when he was talking about the students that come to Maine and decide to stay. So my “fast take” is that it’s very important to identify the difference in the processes that happen by default, versus those that happened by design. And when you become intentional, it also helps you to identify biases. When he said that all you have to do when you make a decision is to pause and think ‘why’.

So I think my “fast take” for everyone is, there is a difference between things that happen by default versus those that happened by design. So be intentional, be the designer of the decisions you make and the designer of the path that you chart forward. So Rich what is your “fast take”?

Rich: So I struggled this week and I think I’m going to have to go with actually two that I had. So one is the idea around diversity, inclusion and equity, where before talking to Chris, those terms were really kind of blurred in my mind. And I hadn’t really given a thought to what they mean individually. So the idea of diversity, having a diverse workforce inclusion, making sure everybody feels okay, that they’re part of that team.

And then the equity piece and recognizing that some people are coming from a different background, a different path that they might need help in certain areas, but not in others. And making sure that you’re really giving everybody that opportunity to advance within your organization. Those three ideas are really critical and they are different and distinct, and you really need to make sure that you’re hitting all the right notes in all three categories. That was one “fast take”.

And the other one was just the idea of, we do live in a sometimes homogenous state and to bring in a wider, more diverse applicant pool that we are going to have to do a little extra work. And that means reaching out to outside consultants, reaching out to the colleges here in the state, and also maybe even going to some of the leaders in black churches and letting them know, that these jobs are available. So I thought those were some really interesting things. And those were my two “fast takes” for today.