Companies large and small across the US are signing up to Awaken’s workshops, which are designed to develop inclusive leaders and teams by addressing often uncomfortable questions on diversity and inclusion, leadership, and culture. Co-founder and CEO Michelle Kim explains how Awaken is changing perceptions on diversity, inclusion, and equity.

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Awaken takes a very different approach to traditional diversity and inclusion training, why is this?

I started our company Awaken because I saw that there were so many surface level check-the-box initiatives around diversity and inclusion, and we wanted to go deeper and really think about how we change people’s hearts and minds and ultimately their behaviours that impact building an inclusive and equitable culture. What we are known for in the market, is providing more thoughtful and deeper experiential learning opportunities for folks to understand topics that maybe sometimes uncomfortable to talk about.

Which types of organisations do you primarily work with?

We work with a lot of different industries, but we primarily focus on industries that we think are really critical to driving cultural change more broadly in our society: tech and media. No matter the size and the stage of the company, what we are finding is that there is a huge gap in terms of people’s level of awareness all across the board.

It doesn’t matter if we are working with a small, early stage start-up in Silicon Valley or a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate based in New York City and Los Angeles, the level of awareness that varies within and from entry-level positions to C-level executives is pretty astounding to look at. We are starting to bridge that gap little by little by having difficult and important conversations. We create a space for people to go into their growth zone. It can be a little bit uncomfortable, but they are stretching and they are learning about topics that they had heard about, but never really given deeper thought to.

One thing that we make sure to vet before partnering with any organization is the level of commitment on the part of the leadership team. Without genuine executive sponsorship and commitment, it’s difficult to make a lasting impact.

What sort of topics make people feel uncomfortable?

It’s not that we make people feel uncomfortable intentionally, but when you are starting to wake up to the reality that so many people have been living in and you aren’t aware of your own blind spots or privileges, it naturally brings up emotions that may be activating.

No one really feels at ease when we’re talking about systemic injustices or privileges that people hold and yet those are such important conversations for us to have beyond the typical ‘diversity equals innovation and more profitable businesses.’ That is a convenient narrative for us to have without giving people a real chance to look at why it is necessary in order for us to achieve equity at a much broader societal level.

Are you in favour of diversity initiatives such as the CEO Pledge?

I have mixed feelings of both hope and cynicism about CEO Pledges. We work with some companies where the catalyst for them wanting to reach out to us was those types of pledges. The CEO signed on to do something, but they didn’t know where to start. So they reach out to us and say they really want to do something not just as a check-the-box initiative, but to go deeper to create real change within their organisations.

If it can be a catalyst for people to actually follow through on their commitments, rather than have that be an empty promise, then I am all for it. But I think there needs to be some type of accountability measures so that people are not just signing their names on these pledges and feeling good about themselves and their companies being represented in a positive light without them actually doing anything.

What is the format of your Awaken programmes?

For so long diversity and inclusion training has been this check-the-box exercise and a lot of people also think of it as compliance-driven training, where people are essentially thinking about how not to get sued and wanting a checklist of ‘these are things that you are not allowed to say and these are things that you are allowed to say.’ These trainings typically come in a presentation or lecture style format, where someone is talking at you for an hour or two and leaves you feeling bored and uninterested.

What we are doing is trying to build the foundation and empathy that is required for us to build a truly diverse and inclusive equitable company. We use mixed methods of presentation, self-reflection, group dialogues, activities, and more to keep our audiences engaged and interacting. We combine multiple disciplines, from sociology to leadership principles, to provide compelling data, historical context, and current events that relate to the learning outcomes.

Instead of offering a one-off training model, we take a more programmatic approach to diversity and inclusion education. Typically, we work with organisations that are really committed to seeing real culture change over a course of time.

We have a curriculum that we have built that begins with basic foundational understanding and includes a lot of empathy-generating sessions around identities. We talk about how identities are the foundation from which we can understand the different experiences of people, and why it is so important for us to understand that in order to build a high performing team that is rooted in psychological safety. We focus not only on the diversity of representation, but also inclusion, equity and belonging and how these topics tie to building high performing teams.

We then discuss unconscious bias, which is the hottest topic in the industry right now - everyone is wanting unconscious-bias training. We talk about the impact of biases in the workplace and given our audiences in tech, we also talk about how biases impact the ways in which we build our technologies and how algorithms are also not immune to the biases that we hold as humans.

Once we complete these foundational sessions, then we can move onto more specialised topics such as Inclusive Language, Inclusive Interviewing and Hiring, Debiasing Feedback and Performance Management, Empowering ERG (Employee Resource Group) Leaders, etc.

Many companies have seen success integrating our program into their existing learning and development journeys, where foundational inclusive leadership skills are seen as core competencies, rather than nice-to-haves.

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