Photo credit: iStockphoto.com (Yulia Petrova)
“History just repeats itself” is the first thing Carol Fulp says when we lay eyes on each other over a Zoom call.
I’ve read her brilliant book, Success Through Diversity, and said something about how struck I was to read her reference to dealing with setbacks in efforts to advance diversity and then realized she wrote this book a few years ago.
It seemed to shine a bright light on what many people—perhaps especially women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and others fighting for equality—have been feeling. It sometimes seems like we’ve been dealt blow upon blow, year after year.
“We think victory will just continue to build,” Fulp continues. “We don’t think rights will be taken away. But we’ve been here before. We are resilient, and we will prevail.”
“The Civil Rights Movement was obviously a breakthrough for Blacks. But women also gained from that,” she continues. “Then we saw the building of LGBTQ+ rights. And we have learned that while we may win, there are always those who don’t want us to win and are as resilient as we are. We need to be cognizant of that. It’s the maturity we need to have—to understand that.”
A Child of the Civil Rights Movement
Speaking from her office in Boston, she recalls several moments in a life brimming with pivotal experiences. She recalls marching on Washington, D. C. with her parents as a child and seeing many doors open for Black Americans like herself after that.
“I was able to go to integrated schools. Able to move into a white neighborhood and attend a white school. The whole world changed. Where we were excluded, we were now included. I had the good fortune of going to camp in Switzerland. I had the good fortune of working for companies when initially only teaching and nursing were available to me.”
As a result, she added, she is always aware that many others fought and died so she and others could live as they do today. “There is always a challenge being one of difference,” she added. “But I took with me the resilience of those in the civil rights movement.”
Her work of advancing diversity in the workplace is small in comparison, she said, the gift of perspective evident in her tone.
A Decisive Moment at the U.N.
But what made a decisive impact on Fulp’s decision to focus on advancing diversity in the workplace resulted from former President Obama’s naming her as Representative to the Sixty-fifth Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. This was in 2010 when she served as Senior Vice President of Brand Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility for John Hancock.
“For me, the aha moment was standing at a podium at the U.N. looking at a sea of ambassadors. I knew intellectually that most of the world is Black, brown, and yellow, but seeing it visually hit me. I came back to Boston and wanted to help it be more reflective of the U.N.,” she said.
After that, she became CEO of The Partnership, the premier New England organization focused on attracting, retaining, and developing professionals of color at all levels of leadership.
From this experience, she wrote her book Success Through Diversity, arguing that advancing diversity is a matter of winning in business.
Why Creating a Welcoming Culture Is Critical in Business
Her book is full of data to support this. Consider one point she mentioned in conversation: “Statistics indicate that when an individual feels they belong, they are 30 percent more productive.”
The bottom line, Fulp says, is this: “If you don’t diversify, if you don’t create cultures that enable the best talent of all kinds, your competitor will. And they will win.”
But given how clear the evidence is, I asked Fulp why more businesses have yet to do more to create welcoming cultures.
“We are creatures of comfort,” she said. “We want to be around those who bring comfort to us and are known to us, so we hire people like us. We have affirmative action, frankly, and that is white males who say, ‘Johnny reminds me of me. Let me take him by the hand and help move him up the organization.’”
But we all need a diversity of perspectives to make better decisions and appeal to a diverse marketplace. And to achieve that, she added, what becomes important is learning to be comfortable with difference—something she has found more comfortable than the alternative.
“I’m uncomfortable in organizations with people who are just like me,” she said.
That’s why when she began working at The Partnership, which was then primarily staffed by women, she made her first hires male. She also ensured that, though the mission was to advance diversity, she surrounded herself with white people.
“I wanted a more diverse and more inclusive organization. Plus, I wanted to hear from individuals who didn’t think like me.”
How Demographics Are Driving Change
Asked whether she sees the business world making progress in this direction, Fulp says absolutely. Not only is there progress, but she also says much of it is happening naturally due to demographic shifts.
“Baby Boomers are no longer the largest segment of the workplace. It’s Millennials, and 40 percent of Millennials are of color,” she said. “Plus, GenZ is the most diverse generation in the workplace. The talent of yesterday looks very different from the talent of today.”
As leaders experience this shift in the talent pipeline, they become more interested in making their work cultures more inclusive because they don’t want this new talent to leave. “They know how much the revolving door costs,” she says.
But as Fulp cautions in her book, we remain far from achieving the promise of diversity and success–both in business and as a society.
An Excerpt from Carol Fulp’s Success Through Diversity
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged Americans to value diversity and its truest form by judging individuals according to the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Today we know the work of diversity and inclusion is never over. While the country has made considerable progress since King’s era, current racial inequalities … demonstrate how far we have yet to go. The same holds true for organizations everywhere. Your group might have made progress on diversity. You might have hired more leaders from underrepresented groups, increased or diversified supplier spending, or enacted community-based social impact programming. But even with such noteworthy accomplishments, I hope you’ll resist the urge to declare victory. Increasing diversity remains an ongoing challenge, and our organizations must constantly measure, reassess, recalibrate, and nurture their efforts. Only if we recommit ourselves to inclusion and treat it as a permanent project can we truly unleash diversity’s full promise. Then and only then will our companies and our society succeed.”
Carol Fulp will speak about advocating for yourself and others at the 2023 Massachusetts Conference for Women. Hope to see you there!