“We can’t solve a problem we won’t discuss”
We can’t solve a problem we won’t discuss. We need to acknowledge there are people of difference and identify pathways to embrace them.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Yvonne Cowser Yancy.
Yvonne leads people, finance, legal, and administration teams for Understood. She brings more than 20 years of experience supporting diverse professionals across multiple industries to her role as Chief Human Resources Officer.
Prior to joining Understood, Yvonne founded YSquare Advisors, a boutique consultancy, to help developing organizations manage their human resources functions. She also previously served as Chief Human Resources Officer for The Fresh Market, and was the Commissioner of Human Resources for the City of Atlanta.
Yvonne co-leads Understood’s “Embrace Difference” internal working group, which helps empower diverse communities and perspectives. She enjoys volunteering in her community, mentoring professionals seeking careers in HR, and is an active member of SHRM.
Yvonne holds a BA in Economics from Northwestern University and an MBA in Employee Relations from Georgia State University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I am a proud Atlanta native, born and raised by my two parents who found success as activists, academic professionals and entrepreneurs. My mom was the first African American tenured full professor at GA Tech and later became a college president at two institutions and my dad was a serial entrepreneur, having founded an industrial paint factory and was the founding dean of two accredited schools of management in the State System of Georgia.
Early on, my parents championed the importance of being a “student of life,” advocated for my personal success, and understood the need to expose me to the very real and deep issues of race, gender, class, socioeconomic factors and more. My parents provided me the opportunity to have authentic conversations at home in addition to exposing me to the real challenges they and their peers faced in their routine day-to day activities. I essentially grew up on college campuses where I was typically the only child present. In turn my idea of reality was pretty grounded.
Coupled with my unique upbringing, at the time of my childhood, Atlanta was undergoing a major transformation. Today, it is very much an international city, however I saw firsthand the community’s transition in becoming the diverse and progressive place many have come to love.
I am fortunate to have my world view colored by my experiences in the classroom, at home and in society. Through my childhood and into my adulthood, these experiences have made me a fierce advocate for challenging the status quo and driving a more diverse and progressive world for all.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I first read “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois as an elementary school student, and it had a profound impact on me. It’s one of the few books I read on a regular cadence as it is still very prescient and meaningful today as it was at time of its publication in 1903.
As a black woman and working professional, each read allows me to reflect on the challenges of today’s environment and my personal experiences — and it allows me to come away with a deeper understanding of how we got here. Its exploration into the duality of race and further dissection into the roles black people have to play and how “we” have been trained to operate in those spaces helped establish and sustain my commitment to driving diversity, equity and inclusion across all levels of society, in addition to how I can empower my network and community to be part of the change.
“The Souls of Black Folk” may be more than 115 years old, but it is one of the few books that transcends time for its important context and content that can be applied in today’s climate. I encourage everyone to read it as it unveils the uncomfortable truths many do not think of or are aware of when it comes to being a person of color or a person with difference.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My father had a sign in his office when I was a child and it said, “Do not get in an argument with a fool, onlookers cannot tell the difference between the two.” The lesson in life and work is not to engage with people who are not interested in having a discussion — it is not a meaningful use of your time. Pick and choose how you engage and when you engage.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is empowering those around you to achieve more than they thought possible. It’s giving people the support and sometimes the push to exceed their potential. In my professional and personal experiences, the best leaders helped me unlock my potential and my success in ways I did not expect. They gave me early opportunities and they bet on me. I believe the best leaders are willing to bet on their people to deliver.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
As I reflect on the events of the past year from the COVID-19 pandemic to the social justice movement, the power of technology coupled with the intersection of time and space enabled us to see truths in our society through a different lens and heightened the demand for equality from a larger pool of allies.
While we were all stuck at home in quarantine, our devices became our right-hand for both work and pleasure. The amplification of George Floyd’s video across the news and social media was inescapable. As a Black woman who was raised in protest, the tragic loss was not new or foreign to me, however technology played a pivotal role in magnifying the uncomfortable truths and injustice the community has faced historically. We cannot discount the power of technology and the intersection of time and space as it led to a social awakening for more people.
On another hand, the pandemic also revealed to the various divides we don’t often think about what we need to solve to make a more equitable future. It’s no secret the pandemic challenged the world over, and we had to quickly shift from in-person activities to remote environments, including our workforce and students.
If we look at employers to school districts historically, the concept of working and learning in a remote setting was not a consideration before the pandemic. Potential offerings of remote work were only offered in specialized circumstances versus an opportunity that all could leverage if needed. The transition quickly taught us that we needed to be open and flexible to the needs of our current climate in addition to highlighting the gaps that we knew existed, but never acted upon.
If we take Wi-Fi access for example, many of us often think only those in remote parts of the world don’t have Wi-Fi at their disposal. This is not a newfangled idea, but the truth of the matter is there are many communities across our country that do not have consistent or reliable access to Wi-Fi — like my own family in the rural parts of Alabama to Chicago. On top of the stress of transitioning to the remote environment, workers and students had to get inventive to try to keep pace with their workloads, including sitting in parking lots of McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts to get Wi-Fi access. This forced change with little support is palpable as we saw a historic rise in mental health issues and financial burdens, in addition to lack of academic and career progress.
As it relates to 70 million people who have learning and thinking differences (LTDs), the population Understood focuses on, this community was vocal about the issues they were facing in the remote setting. Against the lens of remote work and learning, children and adults with learning and thinking differences too saw increased stress and pressure to deliver.
For employees, many found themselves disclosing things they never had to disclose before in order to keep their job. For parents who were saddled with remote work and helping their children with remote learning, we conducted and launched a recent survey that unveiled 72% out of 1,500 U.S. parents noticed or became aware that their child may have learning challenges or differences. It was also revealed that 59% of parents believe their children with LTDs are a year behind academically and fear they may never catch up, and 56% of those families faced financial hardship to provide the much-needed support for their child.
All in all, the pandemic compelled us to be vulnerable and face the issues we have long ignored. Now is the time to take action and drive change across all levels of society, and ensure we hold our leaders, employers and “those in charge” accountable.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I started my career in human resources back in the 90’s and have always had some degree of responsibility with recruitment and retention. Early on, I started with two to three groups in my corporate roles and played a pivotal role in expanding the groups to not only meet but exceed expectations. Today, I am proud to be the head of HR for Understood.
What separates this role versus the others I’ve held before is, now I have the capacity to influence or impact selections and exits, and I can have a truly deeper focus on diversity. It’s new territory that I’ve wanted to explore for some time, and as the HR profession has become more substantive in the last five-to-ten years.
Historically, “diversity” in my profession meant reaching metrics and tracking data. Now, it has evolved to become more meaningful and substantive. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of diversity officers, employees advocating for diversity, and companies actively tracking and publicly sharing their metrics.
I take a very straightforward approach to diversity and have challenged my colleagues to understand that if we don’t interview anyone diverse, we won’t hire anyone diverse. Controlling the interview process is an important tactic from the start and has helped me effectively generate diverse talent across every category, even when they change over time.
Across all my roles from call centers, financial institutions, insurance and manufacturing, I’ve articulated the message that in order to be an employer of choice or be the best in class, we have to recruit all of the best talent available and have inclusion at the heart of our organization. This means looking around the room early and often to see if, in fact, everyone looks the same. If that is the case, we are not meeting our objective. My function and roles have been predicated upon helping generate a company’s environment to support their mission to be the categorical leader. When I showcased the pathways to achieve this, like how and where we pull talent or transforming screening protocols, I’ve had very few experiences where I had senior leaders or hiring managers reject competent and credentialed diverse talent.
I’m still learning new ways to be more diverse and inclusive in hiring protocols, and my role at Understood presents a new opportunity in influencing how we incorporate the learning and thinking differences community into the larger workforce. Similar to existing issues around the workforce application process, a lot of organizations screen out this community through unconscious bias and regimented algorithms. There are definitely challenges from compliance to risk when discussing or asking about potential learning and thinking differences, but what I’ve come to learn is that there is a lack of flexibility and accommodations in employers’ processes to include those with these differences. We rely so much on automation to accelerate our talent searches, however we fail to thoughtfully design our hiring programs to avoid biases, whether structured at the start or through “learned behavior.”
My guidance to employers is to think about how you already select your talent and how you can actually improve. For employees, ask yourself: how do you raise your hand for opportunities that are really aligned with your skill set and how do you make sure that you find yourself in a space that really is inclusive? Both employers and employees should be empowered to ask for change in their diversity initiatives and programs, including those with learning and thinking differences. If you find yourself in a place where you don’t know where to start, Understood is here to help.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
The topic of diversity in business has been studied to death, however Harvard Business Review’s Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case puts it out best “it’s a no-brainer.” There is a plethora of data that shows having diversity on your team leads to better outcomes, period, full stop. In order to be best in class, your organization’s employee makeup can’t look the same. The business case is really simple, if an organization’s objective is to be number five, then, don’t be diverse. It’s not much more complicated than that. So, to this point, we have to decide affirmatively if being average is the goal or if we want to be a real innovator and leader in our space.
I used to work for a major insurer, one of the top national companies, where we had a senior executive who had a physical disability and another executive who had a learning and thinking difference. What was fascinating is they both talked about their challenges openly, and respectively ran thriving, high-performing organizations. It was inspiring to have leaders be open and honest about their experiences, and it helped us actively hire people who fell into all those categories. I’ve had the fortune of working for large branded, publicly traded organizations and see first-hand how leaders’ transparency and visibility, like them being open to discussing their differences publicly, can be both effective and inspiring. I would say that one of the reasons why they were successful organizations was because of those differences.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
1) We can’t solve a problem we won’t discuss. We need to acknowledge there are people of difference and identify pathways to embrace them.
2) We have to encourage and empower people who have differences to share their experiences. It is a key element in continuing to educate ourselves and ways we can improve.
3) When we build organizations or entities, we have to build them with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at the center. As we look to the reorientation of work and life, we have the opportunity to change how things operate in the space. This is our chance, and we may not get it again.
4) When people are comfortable enough to share what they need to thrive, we need to think about how we respond to it. When we talk about bringing your whole self to work, for example, it’s important to talk to and listen to people and figure out what they need.
We opened Understood’s new office in July, and are going above and beyond accessibility compliance standards was something we heard loud and clear from our employees was necessary to help them thrive. We’ve included acoustic sound masking, dynamic lighting that balances color and intensity for those with sensitivities, wayfinding for those with low vision, and quiet rooms for those who have trouble focusing with ADHD, for example, in addition to accessible workstations, reception, tables, and soft seating.
5) Achieving DEI is a continuing process; it is not a check the box process. Don’t be programmatic or focus on a workshop approach. We need to actively gauge and measure success and make sure our approaches are actionable.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am always optimistic that there isn’t one thing we can’t resolve. As the fifth-generation granddaughter of a former slave, what I truly believe is that any inclusion and diversity problem can be solved, but we must be interested and invested in achieving it. Organizations are already entrenched in creating and activating true diversity strategies, now we need to focus on how to proactively engage and include the learning and thinking differences population.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
My favorite meal is breakfast — so it would definitely be a breakfast. I would like to have breakfast with Vice President @KamalaHarris. She’s had a remarkable career and I would love to hear her perspective on so many things.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!