“The way we think about organizations and how we design our organizations, how we design our teams, we have to start at the human level. Go back to those basics, because I think we’ve kind of gone too far into that business side and really haven’t connected to the humanity of your employees. They’re not just a resource. They are the reason that this entire organization exists.” — Busi Sizani, The Inclusion Company
How does a sports broadcaster turned award-winning filmmaker become the go-to DEI leader for emerging tech companies? The Inclusion Company co-founder Busi Sizani joins us from Amsterdam to share how her journey from post-Apartheid South Africa to award-winning filmmaker shaped her unique path into DEI. Always the storyteller and visionary, Busi shares what the next generation of DEI leadership needs in order to make true progress toward equity and inclusion while elevating their organizations to new heights in the process.
Learning Highlights from this Episode:
- What DEI 2.0 looks like and what leaders must do to get there
- What DEI champions must o to “keep the bar super, super high”
- How the Inclusion Readiness Index is setting start-ups up for success early on
- How to practice radical self-acceptance and self-compassion
Hear the Full Episode On:
Busi has 15+ years of experience in marketing, production, broadcast and technology across a number of global companies and brands. She has experienced first-hand the challenges these industries face in leveraging diversity as a resource and hardwiring inclusion and belonging for all. As a broadcaster, marketer, television executive and award-winning film producer, Busi honed her skills as an innovative content creator, strategist and leader and is a sought-after speaker, facilitator and coach for business leaders and young entrepreneurs alike.
While leading global strategy and programs for building high performing and inclusive teams in Uber’s Global People & Organisation Development team, she launched The Inclusion Company with co-founder Raashi Sikka. The Inclusion Company helps emerging tech companies create a more diverse and inclusive culture at the inception is the key to long term business success.
Jason Rebello: Busi, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s honestly an honor to meet you. Part of our inspiration for this podcast is really to be able to connect with fellow DEI practitioners, enthusiasts, and what I would consider experts, like yourself, to share your story, your vision, and insights. To have maybe different types of conversations than we typically get to have, and certainly, the larger audience gets a chance to listen in on. This is again, an incredible opportunity, and welcome. We’re happy to have you here.
Just looking at your background, it’s one of a storyteller. It’s one of the areas that I think we at Firefly have placed more and more emphasis on as we move forward with the DEI work that we do, specifically from the standpoint of companies and brands are so often trying to project this image of perfection historically. We know that historically, that’s just not the case. I think consumers now are looking for much more authenticity from the companies that they decide to do business with. We’ve been trying to encourage more and more of that storytelling.
I want to give you an opportunity to introduce yourself and share a little bit about yourself, your path to this work. To tell your authentic story and why you feel like telling these types of stories, especially as it relates to DEI, is important. If you can share how you started your inclusion company and honestly what you find most meaningful about the work that you do. I give you the floor.
Busi Sizani: Thank you so much. Thank you, Jason. Thank you, Oana. I often, actually, when I do introduce myself to a client or to a lead I’m working with, it’s actually very much in this way. I often frame it as who I am is as important as what I can do for you. It’s sort of the meeting of both things that kind of create that connection, so I really appreciate that. You didn’t just ask about what is it that you do, kind of run through your resume, but kind of who you are as well.
I grew up in post-apartheid South Africa, and that really had a profound effect on how I’ve used systems of oppression, in every context, including work. It was not something that I could choose to not be aware of or choose to navigate a world where these things don’t exist. It was very much front and center. Both my parents are freedom fighters in very different ways, but in their own way. That was sort of that first generation to operate in an integrated society and integrated is very much in inverted commerce still.
For me, I had a lot of experiences throughout my life where a person who looked like me with my background, experience and identity, was the first or the only, in many, many contexts. Whether that was at school, primary school, high school, you kind of run the gambit of that. I was also made hyper-aware, by my parents, of the responsibility that came with that. Often and fairly so, I sometimes say, no nine-year-old should have to carry all this, but it came with the package.
This is the people that you’re going to be interacting with on a day-to-day basis. This is the first time they are interacting with a person like you, as an equal, as a peer, as a friend, as a sister. I had many of these friendships kind of grow deep as a colleague, as a manager. It will be very different for you and you will be scrutinized in a way that others will not be. You will also carry a representation of all of the other faces they don’t get to meet, all of the voices they don’t get to hear. That impressed upon me very early on to, one, be cognizant of how I’m showing up as an individual, but also be careful about how I include and share more stories, more voices, more perspectives. Making it very clear that I am not the standard. This is not what blackness is. I am not the black Rosetta stone. As I have said before the meeting, I refuse to be the black Rosetta stone of what the black consumer might feel or think in this or that context.
The sort of storytelling aspect came from that. I wanted to understand all the various layers and levels and complexities and intersectionalities that make up a black south African’s experience because I had the opportunity to be in spaces where I could represent that. I need to represent it authentically, which means I need to know more.
I grew up very much focused on production. I have a very interesting academic background because I studied engineering and theology, and then went into broadcast. (Laughs) I just kind of abandoned both those things, but they do play a really important role in my kind of future career. As things progressed I found myself using my engineering degree again. I found myself seeing how anthropology kind of played a part in how I do my work today.
I was a producer for many years in South Africa. I was producing live sport, cricket, which I know is not very popular in the U.S., but in the other parts of the world, football. I did the FIFA 2010 world cup, which was actually my very last big production that I did. A little bit of rugby, not too much. In all of those spaces, I was one of two female producers that there were, just anywhere around. We were kind of recycled into all these different productions, production companies, et cetera. I think as any producer’s dream is one day, or at least for me it was, to make a film. Eventually, after the 2010 world cup, I quit and went on my own and made a movie which was called Ayanda.
I didn’t realize it until much later on, but at that time, my passion for diversity and inclusion had really crystallized. I was so firm in making sure, in that film, it was female only, female directors, female producers, female writers. I wanted brand new faces. I wanted people that were never given opportunities. Being in that position as a producer to make the call of whose the lead, or who gets hired for what role, I really wanted to make sure I used that responsibly. I didn’t believe I wasn’t calling it diversity and inclusion work at the time. To me, it was just a conviction of unearthing voices that don’t get the platforms usually. It worked, people loved the movie. Actually, Ava DuVernay loved the movie and bought it and a distribution deal, which was amazing. She put it on Netflix. It was just an amazing journey that kind of ended my production career.
I then got a call from Uber to say, “We are starting this new company. We’re looking for someone who has a bit of marketing, brand and business development background, are you keen?” I was there for six years, where I kind of ran the gambit of operator, marketer, business development, sales, and then in the final three years, really on people, and people development. That’s my very long story. (Laughs)
Jason Rebello: It is a fantastic story. Thank you so much for sharing that insight. I mean, Oana has known you for a while. I, meeting you for the first time, I’m truly, truly happy to have met you, given the space that you’re in and the work that you’re doing.
Oana Amaria: Busi, you and I have talked about this a lot, but we’ve done this work, whether it’s the learning space or the DEI space where we hear a lot about the shortcomings and the barriers to DEI and DEI networking, for those of you listening I have my fingers up in quotes. You and I have spent a lot of time talking about the next level of work in the inclusion space for real impact. In 2020, I call it 2020 plus, because I feel like 2021 is just a continuation of that, made it very clear to leaders and organizations that check the box, DEI is not working. We’re not going to do unconscious bias training. We do a lot of work through the lens of transformation, which is, I know a big part of the coaching work that you do as well. What is your vision for what DEI 2.0 looks like these days? What is the thing that you would ask organizations and leaders listening to this podcast to keep in mind as they are, re-imagining the future of their organizations, the future of their careers, the future of their teams?
Busi Sizani: That’s a great question. There’s a lot of different ways that we can sort of start this work and think about this work when we work with leaders. I think we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the business case, the moral imperative, the mitigation and risk factors, really speaking from the head because that’s business-speak, that’s, what’s expected. Your feelings have no space in a work environment. What we’re seeing is that the human beings don’t think so. I think that the way we approach this work moving forward has to be human-centric. The way we think about organizations and how we design our organizations, how we design our teams, we have to start at the human level. Go back to those basics, because I think we’ve gone too far into that business side and really haven’t connected to the humanity of your employees.
They’re not just a resource. They are the reason that this entire organization exists. Taking them and putting them at the center of your work, at the center of your design, at the center of the products that you want to create, or the service that you want to provide. We do such a great job of that in terms of having a customer-centric approach to product design and service design. We don’t think about the actual human force that has to make that happen. The individuals in our teams and how we as organizations need to show up better for them to ensure that we are considering everything about who they are to make work more fun, more engaging, more connected to their values, more compassionate, and just more human. The best way I know how to do that is through storytelling. It’s surfacing those stories and keep creating a safe space where people can be fully authentic. Bring their full selves to work and share of themselves through the work. I think that would go a long way. I know that’s difficult to do, and it’s certainly not my first conversation that I have today with my leaders. I do hope for a world where that becomes the first conversation. I don’t want to become a more inclusive organization because that’s good for my brand or that’s good for my business or that’s good for my bottom line, but because I genuinely care about the human force that makes all of that happen.
Jason Rebello: I think that’s an incredible refocus of DEI work. It certainly resonates with me as a Buddhist. There’s this underlying core that just seems to kind of be running underneath all of the diversity equity inclusion work that I do. It’s to this point of the first step is to connect with and acknowledge the humanity in another human being. We can strip away all the terms, all the labels, all the categories, and not to remove them or the structures or the historical context that comes with different identities. We’re not throwing that away. We’re kind of cutting through it to the deepest point at this root cause, is that we’re struggling to view the humanity of other human beings and to create environments, workspaces, organizations that acknowledge the dignity of the human beings that we’re working with. We’ve set it up for specific human beings in that environment and not necessarily for other human beings.
Jason Rebello: If we can start with that mindset of, you set this up because it was just our little family and our family kind of all starts in the same space. As we expand our family, we have to create things that make everybody feel welcome and happy and can show up. Let’s examine how we’re not doing that or all the ways we’re falling short in doing that, and make that the driving force for the change, which will make it hopefully easier to connect to some of the historical elements or the systemic elements that need to fundamentally change. We don’t need to argue history we need to argue humanity.
Jason Rebello: That’s how I feel. Even for myself, as we continue to do the work now, it’s something I want to shift in even the way I facilitate, present and show up in these spaces is that our goal is to connect to the humanity of our teammates. If we do that, they’ll show up, they’ll be their authentic selves. They’ll bring their full genius to work. I’ll enjoy being around these people because they’re happier, I’m happy. If we’re going to spend all this time together why not create a space where we can all flourish and thrive. That’s not utopia. We all want to be in the same house. Let’s make it work for us all. Let’s figure out what we got to do to make it work for us all.
Busi Sizani: The interesting thing is that, the systems don’t even work for the group that they were originally designed for. It does serve them a little better than it serves the rest. Everything has changed. Why are we so resistant to revisiting,(laughs) because everyone has changed. Therefore, everything has changed. We have to take a re-look at how our systems are created. How they serve us now for who we are today and where we’re going as an organization.
Jason Rebello: Absolutely. I think that’s a very important point to make that, even though the systems aren’t even working for the people that they think it’s working for. Again, if you connect them back to if you want to be a better human being, a more connected human being, a more fulfilled human being, you have to be able to connect with other human beings in a healthy way. Our systems are set up to prevent you, me, everybody from doing that. Let’s make that the thing that we’re trying to transform and change, I think that’s going to be one of my many takeaways from this conversation with you. Speaking of what I have been able to take away, I want to be able to ask you what do you envision, or what do you feel is a request for inclusion champions and practitioners in this space?
Jason Rebello: What would you ask of us to do differently or to bring to the table, or just in general, how can we at Firefly help you in the things that you’re moving forward? I know that’s a big kind of ask, but it’s the purpose of the question. That’s the purpose of it. You could throw out anything that you want, whether it’s we as individuals on this call that can support or our listeners that can support it, it’s worthy of making it big and bold. That’s a call to action. I’ll give you the floor again.
Busi Sizani: I think the very first thing that I think about is, don’t lower the bar, keep raising it instead. The pressure is there right now to create a kind of okay state, and maintain states, where we at least talk about, we at least have this goal. We at least have these one or two things in place. We’re working towards the rest and making that okay to just stay there. What’s going to be important as DEI practitioners as more and more organizations and that positive pressure keeps building from the employees and the human beings that drive our productivity as a society, is that they’re going to be asking for more. We got to be ready for that. We got to keep the bars super, super, super high, and no organization should feel comfortable today. No leaders should feel a sense of comfort. You can feel a little bit satisfied with the direction you’re going, but you should not feel happy with where you are as an organization.
Busi Sizani: Not just because hardly any organization is there, but because the bar keeps going up. We will have to be, all of us as DEI practitioners, custodians of that standard and be the mirror that keeps saying not yet, you’re not there yet. (laughs) Every time we think, we just made this massive radical change, this new policy, we’ve added this new benefit, we’ll celebrate for one second and then we shift the bar again. I think that’s very important.
Busi Sizani: I told you guys I’m from South Africa and I think in many ways as a society, we made the mistake of thinking that freedom on paper was the answer that we were searching for. When we got it, it was actually, no, it’s not enough. All these other things need to change, and we are seeing still continued resistance in pushing for more. That’s why the status quo in so many ways remains the same, even though technically, we’re all free and we’re all equal. That would be my ask from us as industry professionals, from all of you. It’s going to be a heavy burden and then I’d be the bad guy a lot of times.(laughs) You’re going to be the negative Nelly that’s insatiable, but please keep being insatiable and push us further.
Oana Amaria: I love that so much. It kind Of scares me a little because I feel it’s already so hard for the medium version, as my daughter would call it. I think that’s such an important call to action for each of us because there’s no other way to do it. It’s actually not even a choice. You can have a moment and take a deep breath and keep going because that’s just the only option there is. Busi, what I would love to hear from you, because I know you’re working on a lot. I know a lot of change is happening in your life right now, and you’ve gone through a lot of reflection and really taking a pause right in this point of choice for you. I’d love to ask what’s something cool that you’re working on right now that you are willing to share with us to leave us inspired and energized. That’s also a big ask. If you could share something cool that you’re working on, that would be wonderful.
Busi Sizani: I’ll check two, because I’m always working on something, but I’m also always working on someone, and that’s me. We’ll start with the something first that I’m working on together with my co-founder Rashi. We established the inclusion company as a way to support founder CEOs, startups, and scale-ups who don’t necessarily have the infrastructure, the resources, the way with- all to even to think about creating an inclusive environment and climate in the organizations ground up. That often then leaves everybody with the work of the cleanup. Inevitably, when you don’t codify inclusion at inception in an organization, it tends to create exclusion in lots of different ways. Now you have to transform and fix things down the line. For the last couple of months, we’ve actually been working on an inclusion readiness index that will help startups and scale-ups specifically, think about the building blocks of inclusion that they need to focus on as they build. Not at, we’re ready to scale, not at, all of this problem.
Busi Sizani: We notice this trend, we notice it and under-representation here and there or attrition levels higher here and there, but well before that to actually make inclusion a part of your business plan, a part of your culture and the founder’s mindset. It’s been really fun because, we of course studying indexes around the world, we saw this gap that although it’s really great to benchmark yourself against the Googles and Facebooks of the world, we know are not perfect in this space. We don’t have those bank accounts. We don’t have those resources. We don’t have those formal DNI teams and infrastructure internally if we’re a 50 person team. Those, whatever their learnings, are highly transferrable to that type of organization. We are aiming for a V1-mid by the summer to actually start testing it out with some VCs, some startups and scale-ups that are within our network and get some input and be able to really help them prioritize.
Busi Sizani: That’s the number one question we actually get from, where do I start? What can I do with within my limits and parameters? What’s going to make a difference long-term if I do it now? Which of these things can wait? It’s been really interesting work so far. We’ve got some really interesting feedback as well. We’ve seen some trends, we’ve seen some connections, as well, some of which are unexpected connections between. There’s a trailing effect of that founder, the first 10 that join an organization, or that founding team, and what the culture looks like down the line. Who they are and what they value is extremely important and informative for the kind of organization they will become. If we can help them at that 10 person stage, we can avoid a lot of problems. We can also really add a lot of value in the broader industry and then as a person.
Busi Sizani: I truly, I am a huge believer in growth mindset and the ability for all of us to learn and to grow and to get better at things. I’m always checking in and asking myself, how am I doing on this versus where I was a year ago. One really interesting thing that I recently learned about was one of the best predictors of achieving a sense of high belonging in an organization is actually not something external. It’s something about the environment, but it’s something internal in the individual. It’s a personal skill practice of radical self-acceptance and radical self-compassion.
Busi Sizani: If I’m about to go into this new chapter in my life where I will be leading this work in an organization, I need to get myself together. (LAUGHS) I’m doing a lot of work on myself, really getting to know who I am. Peeking into the dark corners of my heart and head and mind and past experiences to really understand and shine a light from those places that I don’t like talking about, I don’t like,`and just give them a big old hug and accept them because they are a part of how I will show up for my organization moving forward. I hope to impart that same knowledge and share my experience with others.
Jason Rebello: Thank you so much Busi, for your energy and what you shared. I was taking notes again. There’s so many things that resonate with me. Even your concept of the best predictors of belonging are not external, but internal skills of self-realization and self-acceptance and this constant focus on growth, again in Buddhism we call it human revolution. This constant goal of transforming the things within yourself that caused you to suffer, and manifest externally. If we all as individuals, to your point, make that the work that we have to do in every sphere, whether it’s in our homes, whether it’s in our places of work, whether it’s in society at large, we’re constantly focused on that, we’ll really be able to shift some very tangible things. Some very substantial, tangible things as well, if nothing else, our own sense of belonging, connection to the people that we’re around. That’s fantastic. Thank you so much, Busi.
Oana Amaria: Jason, I don’t know if you feel the same, but I feel like every time we do one of these episodes, it’s almost like our personal development time. Right? I don’t know if you realize this Busi, you leave people feeling full. The way your intentionality and your thoughtfulness, the way you answer questions, you have a way of leaving people full. At least that’s how you leave me. I wanted to share that with you because I think that’s not a small thing. So many people leave you feeling empty because they’re taking, in the old days, Jason has heard this before, the emotional vampires. So few leave us full. Share that with the world like you have been. Just like you have been so gracious with us and reminding us of the impact, just know that the gift you give to the world is so incredible. You’re the only one that can do it. I think it can get very tiring and very old sometimes to be the only, and the first, but you are such an incredible human being. I can’t imagine what the world would look like if you didn’t do your thing, if you didn’t show up in your purpose. Thank you for that.
Busi Sizani: Thank you. Thank you so much. I think what you guys probably don’t often give yourself credit for is the transformation of the humans that you touch, the individuals. That’s hard to quantify because of course you’ve measured on the organizational metrics. There are many who will never come back to you and tell you how you changed their lives. All these conversations, every time I speak to Oana, in whatever context, she has a coaching mindset. She does this naturally and it really, really is a powerful gift. And thank you for using it responsibly, both of you.