Christine McCarey, Founder and CEO, ImpactDEI
Christine is founder and CEO of ImpactDEI, a consultancy that helps companies embed diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into their DNA. Christine held three positions at RetailMeNot, Inc., the digital savings destination that connects consumers with retailers, restaurants and brands. She was the founder and head of the Diversity & Inclusion Program, she also founded and was head of the Legal Operations team, and she developed and managed RetailMeNot’s Equity program. Christine received her law degree from the University of Virginia School of law.
Getting a seat at the table – DEI in the workplace
Christine McCarey has developed diversity, equity, and inclusion programs for her former employer, RetailMeNot, and her own consultancy, Impact DEI. Describing the terms: diversity is “invited to the party,” equity is “playlist picks for everyone,” and inclusion is “asked to dance.” All three work holistically to create a fully diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. Christine discusses a range of DEI topics including leadership buy-in, data grounding, and generational differences.
Listen to more: Activate World
Getting a seat at the table – DEI in the workplace
Christine McCarey, Founder and CEO, ImpactDEI
Jon Mertz: 00:03 Welcome to the Activate World Podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. I’m excited to have Christine McCarey with us today, she’s the founder and CEO of ImpactDEI, an organization that helps brands embed diversity, equity and inclusion. Christine welcome to Activate World. Give us a snapshot of your background and what led you to start ImpactDEI.
Christine McCarey: 00:36 Thank you Jon, it’s a pleasure to be here. My trajectory is strange, essentially I’m a recovering lawyer who realizes now that I’ve always been doing this work but luckily there’s a name we can put to it now. I founded Impact DEI to help transmute my privilege skills and anger into positive change for others, particularly in the case of the company, embedding DEI initiatives that redress systemic and individual bias into the DNA of those organizations.
Jon Mertz: 01:09 Before we delve further into the conversation, help us define what diversity, equity and inclusion mean, especially in the context of a corporation or business.
Christine McCarey: 01:17 So, if you think about diversity you often hear it most easily referred to as diversity is being invited to the party. That and inclusion is being asked to dance. Those are metaphors that were first coined by Verna Myers. Equity, I often look at as playlist picks for everyone. So one example I like to use is, for equity is, if you give everyone a 1% raise but people of color traditionally are behind on the pay scale, you’re actually not treating everyone equitably, you’re treating every equally. So we need to make sure we understand the distinction between the two. When you think about inclusion, that’s often around the concept of belonging, bringing your whole self to work, not having to cover things about your life that make it difficult for you to actually be a full and contributing and happy person at your organization. Of course, most people don’t want to do that unless they feel like there’s going to be real reciprocity inside the organization if they do, for example, speak more about their own personal narrative.
Christine McCarey: 02:26 Diversity is all of the usual definitions that are used even in EEO terms, race, ethnicity, age, veterans status, ability, sexual orientation, sexual identity and cognitive approach. I think what gets lost a lot in this space is the fact that really systemic racism is a lot of what we need to focus on and tackle most vigorously first. Not to the exclusion of the others, but not to avoid the subject of racism.
Jon Mertz: 03:03 If we want full diversity, equity and inclusion it seems like you can’t have one without having all three, is that correct?
Christine McCarey: 03:10 It’s correct in that if you focused on one to the exclusion of others, you’re not going to accomplish the objective, to your point. So if you are really good at hiring what are considered “diverse candidates” but you don’t have an inclusive space and a physically welcoming space, then you’re not going to retain anyone. If you are hiring a “diverse population” and creating a welcoming, inclusive space but you have systemic bias built into the processes and practices of your organization, for example, you’re not looking at disparities in comp or in promotion track or in succession strategy then you still aren’t actually achieving the objective, which is to essentially create a working environment that reflects the shift in demographics that’s already occurred. So that you’re better engaging both your team members and your customer base, whatever product or service it is you’re creating.
Jon Mertz: 04:11 To get into some of your real life experience, I know that at RetailMeNot you started a diversity and inclusion program. What was the moment that made you realize the company needed to be more formal in its approach?
Christine McCarey: 04:24 At the time that this kicked off, the company probably had approximately 500 people. The impetus was I noticed at a company off site that there were not enough women leaders on the stage and everyone has an aha moment and I’ve had several throughout the course of my life, and I’ve acted on each one of them, frankly. Even all the way back when I started as a young lawyer in the late ’80s.
Jon Mertz: 04:56 How did you approach the CEO or other executives in the company about this issue?
Christine McCarey: 05:01 This is nerdy, Jon, but I’m just going to tell you the truth. The first thing I did was I studied behavioral economics and I knew already that you need to have leadership buy in to even start that conversation and I wanted to make sure I would be pitching something that had a lot of freedom in the framework. I started by studying behavioral economics, not everyone needs to do that. The studies and it’s well documented that what you first need is leadership buy in, you also need access to data, which is the second thing I did and you also need if possible access to capital, but that’s not always necessary. And you definitely need to engage middle management.
Christine McCarey: 05:42 You also want to make sure that you are not asking people who already carrying the burden of systemic bias to do this work upfront. So I knew I would be expending my social capital to do it, it was worth it. So I pitched to the executive team. Initially, to create a taskforce to study these issues in a women’s taskforce but quickly realized that it could not be just about women. I needed to create an entire program that met the concerns and needs of the whole population.
Jon Mertz: 06:15 It sounds like data was really important to this process.
Christine McCarey: 06:18 By looking at the data, I could more quickly use data as a way to speak in terms that the executive team would resonate with. So, making sure that we understood our own data, how to be transparent about it internally in a meaningful way, how to create metrics around that data was quite important. But I do hesitate a little bit because people who just focus on data aren’t really focusing on the larger picture.
Jon Mertz: 06:49 As you were starting this process within the company, what were some of the bigger challenges you faced?
Christine McCarey: 06:54 I think one of the biggest missteps I made initially and of many I’m sure, is that I didn’t properly emphasize with the work that had already been done to a certain extent by some of the technical people in our organization. They hadn’t made as much headway as they wanted to but they had certainly organized and were making an effort, often unsupported at a broader level. And because I had worked on the back end of so many things, I understood what it took to get those things done at scale and I didn’t do a good job initially communicating my intentions and why I was trying to do this work. I just sort of started doing it. So I think probably my biggest misstep was that and I’m eternally grateful for them, to the technical community in the organization, there was initially a small diversity committee, and it still remains to this day, it now is a ERG and they do excellent work.
Jon Mertz: 07:55 Give us a little more insight into what the process looked like as it unfolded.
Christine McCarey: 07:59 I would say that I’m eternally grateful to my last employer for giving me the landscape to run with my colleagues. I’ve been many places where people talk about, “We’re going to allow change and innovation to occur,” but when they actually start to do it, it gets bombarded in one way or another and you just ultimately dishearten the folks that were trying to make the change. I think the negative side of that is that I had to really continue running another full function, Legal Operations which I also founded. That’s too often the case in many organizations is this is considered somewhat soft and something people can do in their free time and it actually is not and it wasn’t a smooth ride.
Christine McCarey: 08:50 I wouldn’t do it again, but I did learn a lot going through that process and in my mind I liken it to folks I cared about saying, “You know, we look forward to seeing what you do because you’re going to have a little more free time since we’ve moved the equity program off of you,” and me saying, “Okay I want to make this pie,” and them saying, “Well, but we didn’t expect the pie to be quite that big.” And me saying, “I want to open a bakery.” And when you want to open a bakery and you’re really just supposed to be making a pie, you have to move on.
Jon Mertz: 09:25 How do you see diversity, equity and inclusion unfolding as Millennials and Generation Z take on more leadership roles within companies?
Christine McCarey: 09:33 I’m hopeful, looking at cultural norm shifts and demographic shifts. And we should add there’s a couple of things to think about there, too. You’ve probably heard of the Silver Tsunami. Because these issues are already embedded in the DNA of Millennials and post Millennials, and so is the importance of a purpose driven organization where economic value and purpose can meet in the middle and create real change. I don’t think the conversation will be the same because as folks move into leadership, and often these folks are creating their own businesses, so I do think if large organizations don’t shift now they’re going to have a more difficult time being tenable in the long term.
Christine McCarey: 10:28 As this continues to happen, I don’t think we’ll really be talking about programs. So, for me, even though I help organizations embed it, it’s not just around programs it’s around the real bottleneck that occurs with middle managers who still have difficulties often with communication skills and empathy. It’s understanding that racism is really systemic and gender bias is really the world we’ve been operating in so long and trying to figure out how to move the conversation forward with those currently in power is, in a productive way that doesn’t make people shut down, is important unless you’re going to create your own thing which many folks are doing and you don’t want to have to deal with that.
Christine McCarey: 11:15 So that’s always been interesting to me that organizations don’t seem to always be embracing the idea that people are creating products and services in ways that they think make sense more and more and they are going to be more open minded to this Silver tsunami than the silver Tsunami really was to them.
Jon Mertz: 11:37 It seems like having grown up in more diverse environment, Millennials will have an opportunity to try and bring some of the older generations on this diversity, equity and inclusion journey, too.
Christine McCarey: 11:46 Yeah. I believe it’s, Nielsen’s latest report is that Millennials are 42 or 43% multi-ethnic. If you’re working with who you perceive to be white folks, you don’t necessarily know if they have children or grandchildren who are mixed race. This is very common. I do think there is some movement with Baby Boomers, but not enough out loud because a lot of them are still thinking around age issues and they don’t realize that the generational wealth privilege that they’ve had is different than what Millennials and post Millennials, even when it’s their own children. I don’t think they still necessarily see the gap there.
Christine McCarey: 12:28 And I also think that my generation, because I am a young Baby Boomer, always recognizes the age discrimination that goes on with young people. Assuming that they don’t have the wherewithal to get something done, I mean I just came out of a majority Millennial population and I was there six years and they were incredibly, incredibly inspiring to work with. And I feel much more comfortable with these generations than I do with the complacency of my own, and that makes me sad.
Christine McCarey: 12:59 I don’t think we’ll see business the same way in the next five or six years, and I don’t think that negative connotations around generations is a productive conversation, or even putting them in generational buckets, which we’re clearly doing for the ease of conversation today. I believe we’re all connected and us not recognizing our roles in that connection is the same as being blind, turning a blind eye and a stupid blind eye to the fact that we’re all going to die, too. There’s some obstinacy going on around the fact that the world has changed and what we’ve created for these generations is incredibly unattractive and we need to figure out ways to be part of the solution to that.
Jon Mertz: 13:49 Whether you’re a startup or a bigger organization, what should companies get right about diversity, equity and inclusion from the beginning?
Christine McCarey: 13:56 Sure. No matter what size you are, there are a lot of excellent free resources to look at online, and probably one of the ones I would recommend the most is ProjectInclude.org, which is a nonprofit started by Ellen Pao, which breaks down the topics in a very clear and concise way. I do work with folks in the startup community a lot, and also mid sized to large organizations, for profit and nonprofit. I think one of the first things to do is to start building community. A lot of times, women leaders have never been in a room together. The whole population in an off site has never had an opportunity to interact with one another in a meaningful way around these conversations. There are ways to do this just to start the conversation and start building community so that people recognize they’re not alone on these topics that frustrate them.
Christine McCarey: 14:53 And through that, you essentially get word clouds of, “This is where we need to focus first,” and you need to be really intentional in how you go about that. There’s really four buckets to think about. There’s attracting, hiring, developing, and retaining. They’re so focused on attracting that they aren’t thinking enough about the other three buckets. So, making sure that you’re not front loading your concerns and then wiping your hands and moving on as if that’s taken care of. There’s so many different places you can serve and by building community and serving your own community, you start to create an intangible goodwill inside the organization so that as you start wading into the tougher topics like, “This is what our current internal demographics look like versus our customer base in our own city that we’re living in. These are the gaps that we need to close. These are the things that we think we can do around that. What do you think?” Make sure there’s a lot of reciprocity and transparency around those communications and outlets for people to raise their concerns in a safe way.
Christine McCarey: 16:01 It’s really common sense if you think about it, but you do need some structure around it. And again, with freedom in the framework, accountability. Ground yourself in data. Have, I think access to capital is particularly important so that you can reinvest in your own community and reinvest in the individuals who step up to lead in these initiatives.
Jon Mertz: 16:24 One of the activities that you’re trying to create community around is a marketplace where organizations can find out more about DEI type offerings. What’s inspiring you to create this marketplace and what’s been the community response so far?
Christine McCarey: 16:38 I recently posted just an open note and asked for feedback in LinkedIn, because when I left my old company and started doing this work as a consultant, I quickly realized that many of the folks who are doing the work for profit didn’t necessarily know one another, didn’t necessarily know that organizations were giving them different price codes for the same work, were actually not feeling inclusive even amongst themselves. And because I was so already embedded in the community with the organizations, I’d hear from the organizations, “We don’t know what to do first. We don’t know where to look. We don’t know what we should charge. We don’t have any money,” it goes on and on. And then you see organizations that really are, for business development reasons for themselves, large organizations who aren’t DEI practitioners, using DEI as a way to elevate their brand equity by just hosting panels.
Christine McCarey: 17:37 And I would see my friends consistently speaking for free on these panels and not being paid, and these panels would sometimes be a mix of people who actually knew the work and those who didn’t. So, this is really trying to just solve a problem at scale in my own community, which is to create a transparent online marketplace where people who do the work, whether it’s through LND or whether it’s through auditings, payroll, or whether it’s through creating program development or serving on panels, or hosting and producing panels, all of which we all do, a lot of us do. Or I do. I wanted to make sure we tried to solve that problem.
Christine McCarey: 18:18 It won’t be beautiful. It’ll be a little clunky at first. But it’s the creating that bridge that we need to see so that startup communities that I work in can’t say, “We don’t know where to look.” Practitioners I care about who aren’t able to make a living and have to go back into large companies can start to actually make a living doing this work. And at an even meta level, so that Austin can start to be recognized for the deep bench of talent it has here and the desire to be part of the conversation around ending embedded bias in our systems, in our cultures, in individuals. We are real stakeholders and I don’ think my town yet, which I love, has done a good job on a broader scale saying that.
Jon Mertz: 19:08 Whether you’re a community leader in your city or a business leader in your company, what’s your best advice on how to ensure that there’s complete diversity, equity and inclusion within both your community and your workplace?
Christine McCarey: 19:20 First and foremost, particularly if you’re white, you must educate yourself. You have to do that by looking at not just texts and periodicals, but looking around at your own social circles and how homogeneous they are. Are you friends with anyone who’s differently abled? Do you understand what the perspective of that is? Are you spending time with people who are black that are, or brown, that are really struggling to try to find career pathing that makes sense? Are you a white man who doesn’t understand that women are promoted on what they’ve actually done and you’re typically promoted on your potential?
Christine McCarey: 19:57 Educate yourself. Don’t be overwhelmed. Just the smallest steps add up to a lot. And second, after educating yourself and looking at your own social groups, I think understanding that no one’s asking you to change the world. We’re not asking you to boil the ocean. But we are asking you to do something. Do something with what you’ve learned. You’re going to make mistakes, but as somebody who started doing something and so vocally when it’s not really my nature, at 54, I can tell you that people are quite forgiving when you make mistakes if you’re at least trying. There’s a lot of empathy in this world because folks have already been struggling for a long time and they’re so relieved to see other people taking up an oar with them.
Jon Mertz: 20:42 All great points. Well, Christine, thank you so much for your time. Your depth of experience and passion is something that we can all take to heart and apply in our communities and workplaces.
Christine McCarey: 20:52 Thank you for this opportunity.
Jon Mertz: 21:00 Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.
If you’re considering starting a diversity, equity and inclusion program, where would you begin?
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Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World I’m Jon Mertz.