When Michelle Edgar founded the XX Project in 2016, her primary goals were to empower women to form collaborative partnerships outside the traditional networking conferences.
Since then, XX Project has featured many industry leaders, including Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone, iHeartMedia’s Gayle Troberman, journalist Soledad O’Brien, Suzanne De Passe and Eve and Equinox founder Lavinia Errico, in conversation.
“It’s not just about how to get more business done, but how do you also be your best self,” Edgar, who also serves as Epic Records’ VP Brand Marketing, tells Variety.
But, like most businesses, Edgar says that the XX Project’s strategy had to pivot after the pandemic struck. The team didn’t just change how they reached their membership — shifting to virtual meet-ups via Zoom, which Edgar says helped the group engage more of its membership than usual — but also what topics they needed to discuss. This allowed the members to drive the conversation from questions about how to find work in a pandemic-depressed job market and how to effectively promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“I think a lot of people right now are looking at what does our work culture look like [moving forward],” Edgar continues. “Because that’s changing in so many ways — from career retention, to recruitment, as well as making sure that diversity is being really looked on and also communicated the right way. How are companies really shifting their diversity and inclusion strategy? These are topics that are critical right now and that are really going to be looked at, under the microscope in the coming year.”
As a result, the group hosted two discussions as part of their “Power Breakfast Series” focused on diversity and inclusion in November, featuring leaders in business and expert voices in the diversity and inclusion space within their companies. The first discussion included Columbia Records’ Phylicia Fant, the Recording Academy’s Valeisha Butterfield Jones, Sony’s Tiffany Warren, Endeavor’s SVP of Brand Marketing Justina Omokhua and moderator Sade Muhammed of Forbes. The second discussion, titled “Making Diversity Actionable” featured Big Answers’ and the Blackhouse Foundation’s Brickson Diamond, Endeavor’s Chief Inclusion Officer Alicin Williamson and SVP of Social Impact Romola Ratnam.
“It’s just such an innovative agency in the business. They really represent everything that’s going on, whether it’s fashion, social impact, sports or marketing, plus entertainment and music. They’re just so advanced in their growth,” Edgar says of partnering with Endeavor for the discussions.
Williamson is Endeavor’s first SVP, Chief Inclusion Officer, and leads all diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across the company, while Omokhua serves as the company’s SVP of brand marketing. Ratnam oversaw the launch of Endeavor Impact, the company’s social media brand that focuses on equity, democracy, industry inclusion and sustainability. Ratnam also revamped Endeavor’s Fellowship Program to a virtual Summer Series, which fosters opportunities for the industry’s next generation.
Speaking of having Williamson and Ratnam share their expertise, Edgar adds: “It’s rare that you see both of them on sitting on the panel together, and I really wanted to give them the opportunity to share where the company is headed. A lot of people are looking to Endeavor, tied to innovation, creating long-lasting scalable impact and making an imprint not just in culture, but society and community, and that’s exactly what those two women are building for the company.”
During the livestream event, Diamond, Williamson and Ratnam focused on the way they’ve seen companies adapt their strategies regarding diversity and inclusion in the workplace in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, as well as what it takes to make those pledges mean something more.
“I think that was a real commitment to make things actionable, for individuals to not only learn — the personal responsibility part of it — but then there was such an influx of dollars towards changing things,” Ratnam offered. “In my role, I work really closely with nonprofits and organizations on the front lines and I do see a big difference, especially in our industry, just by the level of financial support that organizations have received from the industry.”
“The inequality we see at work is, yes, a result of personal bias and a lot of things, but fundamentally it comes back to the barriers that were in society for [certain] groups for centuries,” Ratnam added. “So, for me, I look at how can we — in addition to promoting great storytelling and ensuring that we’re buying from businesses of color — put our money where our mouth is? How are we also supporting in our community? Supporting policies, candidates, movements to bring more equality, more equity across the board, because I think that will fundamentally change the trajectory for a lot of people in this country.”
The candid conversation ranged from discussions on pet peeves in the D&I conversation — “There isn’t a diverse person, there is a diverse community, there’s diverse group of people, there’s a diverse slate; a person is not a diverse person,” Williamson explains — to the need for diversity to extend to include levels of education and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as the mistakes that occur when companies say they’re committed to making change.
“We have seen lots of efforts around diversity where there is just a rotating door. And the reason there’s a rotating door is because it there is not really an appreciation for the incredible amount of skill and knowledge that can come through the door. Then [the candidates] sit and look around and say ‘Wait a minute, I don’t see me reflected anywhere in the leadership. I have no idea how my career path grows and there’s no one who’s telling me what the rules of the road are here,’” Williamson explained. “So part of what we want to avoid in thinking what diversity is and what it is not, is it’s not good enough just to decide that you’re going to have a huge recruitment effort and get people in the door, if you’re not willing to make sure that you cultivate and you take care of and you ensure success and that people can thrive and the environment and the culture that you’re creating.”
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