The Contently Interview: Dani Belgrave on DEBI in the Workplace

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September 6, 2022

In March 2022, the Biden administration announced their commitment to advance pay equity and close gender and racial wage gaps. One month later, Mississippi became the last state to enact its own Equal Pay Act.

But is the pay gap the only place equity can make a difference in the 21st century? And what do we need to do to keep moving progress forward?

Contently CEO Pearl Collings sat down with Dani Belgrave, Head of People + Culture at Contently, to talk about DEBI (Diversity, Equity, Belonging, and Inclusion). Belgrave discussed how it’s not only affected her life and career, but how she’s been able to empower others to find their voice and place in the community around them.

Let’s start with a basic question: What does diversity mean for you?

For me, diversity means “differences.” We often think primarily about race and gender when we talk about diversity, but it extends way beyond that. Think about those in the military. They have all this experience, but when they retire after serving our country, they aren’t always presented with new opportunities. Or consider those with learning or physical disabilities or neurodiversity. They may be different from you and me, but they have a lot to offer.

How do you feel that diversity, or more specifically, female empowerment, has evolved?

We’ve definitely seen marked shifts in female leadership in powerful positions. Michelle Obama is an incredible example of supporting her husband but also having her own personality. She is a mother of two and branded herself as a strong, powerful woman, which is incredible.

There has been a shift around what diversity means. And there are more conversations about how we’ll move forward. Consider both the Me Too and the Black Lives Matter movements. The #MeToo movement helped shed light on some injustices that have been systematically ignored for decades. And the Black Lives Matter movement has brought injustices to the forefront—injustices shared not just within the Black community—but across other underserved, marginalized communities.

This shift has created many opportunities for us to have strong dialogues and define, “What does this mean for us?” It can’t be just a buzzword. “We have diversity, equity, belonging, and inclusion.” It sounds great, but what does that truly mean, and how is it applied in the day-to-day?

We can’t really move forward in the DEBI space if we’re not actually doing something. So yes, we need to identify diversity, we need diverse talent. Okay, box checked. But that’s not inclusive.

If we’re not accommodating certain sectors of society or meeting the needs of everyone in our scope, if we’re not inclusive and equitable, then we’ve still missed the mark.

As a leader and someone who’s learned to use their voice, how have you grown over the last ten years?

Dani Belgrave Head of People + CultureI’ve taken time to be introspective and consider my story and vantage point. It’s important to uncover biases I didn’t realize I had. I facilitate workshops on DEBI, and there are times when I’ve realized, “Wow. This is an area I need to grow in myself.”

We all have biases. We must acknowledge them and then collaborate with others, learn from them, and move forward.

And one of the best ways to uncover biases and learn from them? Be presented with an alternative argument, position, or thought process. We can either learn and grow or become defensive.

I’ve also learned that we don’t really have that many differences. There’s this game called “We’re Not Really Strangers.” I’ve introduced it to the team here at Contently. This game shows us how many commonalities we have. You learn that you can speak to anyone and find some commonality. There’s beauty in that.

Can you share any specific moments where you’ve helped someone have a reflective moment?

For sure! My first mentor in one of my early corporate roles had preconceived biases based on my presentation. One day, she commented, “Wow! You’re so articulate and such a good writer!”

I remember not wanting to emote in the moment, but I was so overcome with emotion internally. I was very frustrated. I didn’t really know how to identify my feelings, so I sat with it.

I met with her the next day and explained exactly how I internalized her comment. Of course, she was so understanding and apologetic. It was a learning moment for her. It wasn’t something she immediately understood or felt was offensive. So we had a discussion where I explained why these types of comments couldn’t persist and the underlying reason why this comment just wasn’t okay.

I’ve had several of these types of conversations. And they’ve allowed me the opportunity to share from my experience. And it’s why I’m so proud to be in this DEBI space. I can speak to being a woman in the corporate space, and a Black woman, and a Caribbean woman. I’ve given a lot of time to educating and helping others understand the importance of this space, and I know I have a lot left to give to it.

Let’s switch gears a little and talk about equity. Do you think there’s a difference between equality and being equitable?

Definitely. We need to understand there are systematic challenges for different groups—physical challenges and hurdles that still need to be addressed.

A great illustration to help us understand that everyone deserves the same access, but access looks different for everyone, is the visual of three individuals at a six-foot fence. Everyone is given a step stool that’s the same height. One gentleman is 6’3″ and could easily see over the fence already, so he didn’t need the step stool. The second individual is a 5’2″ woman who still can’t see over the fence when standing on the step stool. The third person uses a wheelchair. They’re at the greatest disadvantage because they can’t even get onto the step stool in the first place.

I often have this conversation with other leaders when thinking about how we encourage and lead our teams. Our conversations must be tailored, especially when we consider the opportunities granted to others.

Think about the groups of people who have not been set up for success for generations. The support and lean-in we provide looks different than it does for those born into a system that gives them a step stool, even though they’re already six feet tall.

Equity is where we can all start in the same place, and everyone can see over the fence.

You started your own company designed to help bring equity and inclusion to others around you. Tell us a bit about the organization you started and how we can participate.

I started Absolutely, Maybe to encourage people to share their stories of strength and how they’ve overcome obstacles.

As I navigated the corporate structure, I often found myself frustrated or not feeling seen or heard, and definitely not confident. But I also knew I brought something valuable to the table from my unique experiences.

I have a wonderful female mentor who told me my sparkling personality doesn’t necessarily tell the world what I’ve experienced. People comment all the time, “Well, you must have had a great life. You know, you’ve never been through anything. You can’t understand what I’ve been through.”

But I can empathize because of all the things I’ve overcome and learned through my experience or through mentors.

I also started the organization to help de-stigmatize therapy across communities. We help pay for therapy services because it’s super expensive. I haven’t always been able to afford it, and I want to ensure others get the help they need.

I want to encourage others to share their stories and find their voice so we can help each other along this journey. Healing and growth aren’t linear. It’s two steps forward and one step back sometimes. It is such a journey.

You have a website as the primary vehicle for Absolutely, Maybe. How does it work?

I sell products geared to the healing space on my website, like the Zen AF care kit. The proceeds from the product sales help pay for therapy. In addition to the website, I connect most with members through social media. People in need will DM me, and we’ll pay for their therapy services if they’re going to miss a session because they can’t afford it. I also offer different workshops and meetups.

Dani Belgrave Company

People can help not only through purchasing products but through spreading the word and sharing stories. I love that our tagline at Contently is “Tell great stories.” That’s effectively what I’m doing through Absolutely, Maybe—telling great and encouraging stories, and reminding others (including myself) of all we’ve overcome.

I used to say, “Tomorrow’s always a new day.” But really, the next hour’s new. You don’t have to have a bad day. You can command the rest of your day to be just as sunny as you want it to be. It’s a mindset.

As we wrap up our conversation, what’s the next chapter for the DEBI space?

I think the next step is for DEBI to no longer be a buzzword. We’ll have enough data in the next few years to see the difference we’ve made. We’ll see more pay equity. We’ll see more access to opportunities. We won’t fall out of our seats when we see a female CEO or people of color at the C-suite or executive level.

What are one or two specific activities we can start doing now to help us move towards that next phase in DEBI advancement?

For one, I encourage everyone to lose their prescriptive biases. For example, let’s say there’s a woman in the workplace who’s a mother. The assumption may be that she’s not able to work long hours. But you haven’t asked, so you don’t really know. Whatever biases we have, we need to start to recognize and unlearn them.

And two, we need to have those tough conversations and understand that things will be uncomfortable. As we move forward, we need to get comfortable with uncomfortable moments and conversations.

We are diverse; we’re all different. We’ll have to face those tough moments and be receptive and open to feedback. Even if something doesn’t resonate with you, really listen to what the other person is saying.

We need to truly work towards a model where we leverage and celebrate the differences in everyone. We have so much to learn from each other.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.