group of five women in front of a photo screen, Melissa Waggener Zorkin, WE Communications

ColorComm: Three Key Steps to Cultivate Belonging

In June, ColorComm hosted its fifth annual conference in Maui, Hawaii. It was an honor to join the 300-strong community of women for a second year, along with three colleagues and our CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin. Three themes emerged from four days of candid and energizing conversations, workshops and presentations: Seek and build community, stand up and speak out, and make room at the table


Seek and Build Community, Inside and Out

At a breakfast celebrating the ColorComm Circle Award winners, Jackie Gagne, vice president of multicultural marketing at HBO and a board member of ColorComm, stressed that it’s important for women of color in communications to “build networks outside your company in addition to inside it.”

The value of community outside the walls of a company mitigates insular thinking and biased ideas and opens a new world of possibility, including perspective and stories of adversity that individuals face. As leaders and managers, it is incumbent on us to open our eyes, to experience a world different from our daily purview.

During the past several years at WE, we’ve increased the programming, resources and opportunities for our employees to expand their horizons and experience new contexts. Our first employee resource group, WE Pride, just celebrated its first anniversary after an intense year of learning and activity, including guest presentations from the Gender Justice League, Entre Hermanos and others.

Community partnerships are a cornerstone of our diversity and inclusion strategy. In addition to sponsoring ColorComm, Kass Sells, president of North America, champions and advocates for minority students, as a board member of The LAGRANT Foundation — a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students of color majoring in communications. WE recently celebrated more than 60 students — and The LAGRANT Foundation’s 20th anniversary — at scholarship dinners and receptions in New York and San Francisco.


Stand Up and Speak Out

Soledad O’Brien’s interview with ColorComm founder Lauren Wesley Wilson on building community, the past, present and future of ColorComm, and how to impactfully network captured a central theme at the conference. One thing Lauren said stuck with me: “It’s important to share what you specifically need, ask what others need, and then tangibly help each other.”

This may seem like obvious advice, but in practice, establishing that kind of clear communications channel can be tough — especially in a workplace full of diverse points of view. What one employee assumes to be true is not what his or her neighbor assumes, and it can be easy to misinterpret and miscommunicate when you don’t understand where another person is coming from.

It’s important to bring assumptions into the light so they can be understood and acted against. Until we face our own vulnerabilities and blind spots, it’s sometimes difficult to connect in an authentic way with people who don’t share our backgrounds. This year, many WE employees are undergoing unconscious bias training. We believe that starting a conversation about how we engage and connect with each other is a critical step toward being more effective communications professionals, better employees and more understanding people.


Make Room at the Table

Discussion topics at ColorComm spanned the gamut — from entrepreneurialism to body language, and from the #MeToo movement to networking. It was illuminating to be part of discussions on evergreen topics through the lens of the women in the room. For example, in a discussion about the power of networking Amanda Enayati, the Iranian-American writer, columnist and communications strategist from the 3% Movement, discussed failure. “If you’re afraid to fail then you need to keep your world constant,” Enayati said. “But the world is changing, and we need to reframe and take charge of helping to redesign that world.”

Failure is a potential outcome of innovation. Innovation is an ingredient of change. How can we ensure all employees bring their full selves to the workplace and contribute their best work and brightest ideas to innovate in ways our clients require? We need to nurture courage, confidence and belief in employees, and we need workplaces where diverse ideas and perspectives are valued, fairly assessed and celebrated. We need to make room at the table for new voices and different work styles that challenge the status quo. It may be hard and take time, but it is necessary. It cannot be an aspiration, idea or showpiece.

For WE, fostering a culture where everyone belongs is the ultimate outcome. This starts with each employee — no member of the organization can underestimate their power and influence as a change- maker at the team or office level. This is one reason why we established our WE Employee Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Council. The D&I Council is not a silver bullet solution, but it is a brain trust for companywide initiatives, and its power is in its multiplicity of views. We don’t believe any one person has all the answers — and we believe answers can be found anywhere in the company. Recognizing that WE is a group of passionate, unique people with different experiences and perspectives aims to help the agency effectively identify and prioritize challenges, targeted solutions, and most important take actions to continually improve our culture.


Journey On

As an independent, female-owned company, WE has put gender equity at the center of the dialogue since its inception. Yet, we have much work ahead to broaden the equity and include other dimensions of diverse talent and ultimately a culture of belonging where diverse people, ideas and perspective can live in harmony with the defining DNA of our company and business success. Diversity and inclusion is part of the fabric of our agency rather than a single program or outcome. In some aspects, WE is ahead of the curve, and in other ways WE has a lot of work to do, and we’re committed to the journey ahead.