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Stop Waiting For the CEO To Diversify Your Office

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Anjuan Simmons, a former Accenture and Deloitte technologist now in the start-up world, has been making the rounds at tech conferences with a revolutionary message: If you want to build a more inclusive workforce, don’t wait for the C-Suite to help you.

“We’ve seen Facebook, Google, all the big tech companies, publish their diversity numbers with no net positive change in three years,” he says. “It’s going to take people demanding inclusion for it to happen.”

Simmons says that inclusion – the quest to help a diverse set of employees thrive in a welcoming environment – will not work if it’s just a set of lofty, executive mandates. What does work, he says, is when everyday people with everyday power adopt a set of leadership behaviors that help them notice and “lend their privilege” to people who don’t.


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His latest presentation, this time at GitHub Universe, is here. He explains all aspects of privilege in a really clear way. (Bonus: You’ll also learn a lot about the history of the open-source movement, and a cool fact about Star Trek, too.)

Simmons breaks down the idea behind “lending privilege,” into three identifiable types. Here’s the quick version:

Credibility lending (at 15:03) – happens when you provide visibility for someone that helps draw positive attention to their work. He uses the theatrical example of talk show host, Stephen Colbert, swapping seats to let activist DerayMcKesson sit behind his desk. But inviting someone to co-present an idea to the boss would also work, or acknowledging their contribution in an important meeting.

Access lending (at 17:04)– happens when you provide access to information, locations or experiences that can help someone else grow their knowledge, or get a better sense of how your company works. A good example is an invitation to an executive meeting or access to specialized research.

Expertise lending (at 19:15) – happens when you acknowledge someone else’s expertise by giving them an opportunity to shine, like taking the lead on one of your projects.

These all sound like fairly straightforward things, until you consider how rarely they happen. We mostly lend privilege to the people who are already visible to us – people like ourselves. “The person with the privilege has to know they have it and notice when someone else doesn’t,” says Simmons. And that exercise alone is valuable. “It triggers empathy for the experience of others that benefits everyone.”

Especially since it helps white allies find a natural way into the conversation. “What we’re really looking to do, is create a grassroots movement of individual people making changes based on their sense of fairness,” he says. Lending privilege is an act of generosity that amplifies everyone’s strengths. “And everyone, even if you’re part of a marginalized group, has something powerful to lend someone else.”


Ellen McGirt writes Fortune’s raceAhead, a daily newsletter about race and culture.