He simultaneously holds leadership titles at two signature US brands. For Philadelphia native Rashaad Lambert, that is a metaphor of his life’s calling: building bridges and creating connections to open higher doors for people of color. When he eschewed the anachronistic term “minority,” his advocacy led Forbes to agree, recently announcing that this word would be banished in reference to race. In preparation for PRSA Boston’s Diversity Zoom Conversation on Oct. 19, Rashaad spoke with longtime board director Loring Barnes about the need in the current momentum for building diversity across corporations, higher ed and entrepreneurs, the Boston roots for his popular For(bes) The Culture online business resource community and his view that all Philly cheesesteaks are not created equal.
Q: We’re talking about the coming of age for diversity in America and globalism. Is there something that communicators or C-suite executives need to understand about applying practices of inclusion when applied to communities identified by race versus LGBTQ?
A: One of the reasons I pushed to raise the inappropriateness of the disparaging word “minority” is that LGBTQ was being postured as a minority population, when it’s not. Trying to compare or equate these struggles did a disservice to all. Diversity does include everybody, or as the Broadway song says, our “coat of many colors.” But for authors of press releases or website content: trying to hijack or latch onto a movement of oppressed people is unfair if you try to lump them as one. We don’t know if someone identifies as LGBTQ, but you can’t strip my ethnic identity from my skin. This pejorative visual makes for a vastly different employee or customer experience and organizations that aim to be thoughtful about their DE&I intent need to acknowledge these distinctions when developing their messaging as a code of conduct.
Q: In your role as content curator and leader of For(bes) The Culture’s online community of 21,000 business influencers and emerging entrepreneurs of color, you formally announced that the word “minority” will no long be assigned to racial topics by this important media outlet. Public relations professionals help organizations to align actions to words, and words to actions. How do you look for this action to change more than language?
A: I have been passionate about ending use of this term for as long as I can remember, and it underscores how words truly matter in our society. This term was absorbed and mainstreamed without question. I don’t want Forbes using inaccurate statements. I am worried about my community. One person spreading false narrative has a snowball effect on the rest of the world. Convincing one group that they have less standing than another group unequally elevates one community while denigrating and devaluing the other. It also encourages harmful judgements and behaviors. I applaud Forbes for leading this change. Hopefully it will bleed into the US educational system, entertainment, media as it has with the LA Times, and employers of all stripes. It’s a cancer in our society that has become a tool of white supremacy.
Q: You advocate that understanding an organization’s DE&I practices serves as a barometer for its growth and revenue because values matter. Can you elaborate on points of confusion that communicators can help to resolve when sharing this aspect of a brand’s story?
A: We need change across the board. Turn on the news. The violence against blacks and LGBTQ is real, demanding that leaders take bold and meaningful actions to end it. When a company or association states that they are committed to achieving diversity in hires, validating this requires that we can discern between the quality and quantity of those positions. These jobs should not be subordinate, such as warehouse jobs, but rather are true positions of power where talented, qualified people can steward influence while contributing to organizational goals and societal benefit. Even boardrooms are unclear about how “equity” compares to “equality.” They aren’t interchangeable terms. Equality is opinion-based, whereby people are snap-judged, often on their basis of racial cues, gender identity, accent or education. Equity by contrast signifies the action of offering a seat at the decision table, where one has true influence, their ideas considered and valued, and they can open the door to this room for others who haven’t had this opportunity.
Q: Can you share trigger questions for vetting the diversity philosophy of a person or a business, particularly as would inform professional communicators about how to advise organizations to align their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts?
A: My internal screening questions may be different in detail but in general I run a three-point check. I look for evidence of effort. Are the representatives of a brand or cause authentic or is this a façade? I just need to know what I am working with. Is it worth my reputation if the relationship goes south? I won’t gamble with my reputation. And I look for shared philosophy and intent. If I can’t find this affinity, then even the most polished enterprise may not be a risk worth taking. You want to know that you can be collaborative with equal energy and integrity.
Q: We’re headed into an election. Does America need to create a Secretary of Equality as a cabinet position in order to change how we interact and engage across all sectors of industry and society?
A: As promoter Don King famously said: “Only in America can you find so many angry people claiming to love their country, while hating almost anyone in it.” For individuals and brands, I think that to pursue change primarily through legislative channels is too limiting. Together we will achieve more if we become more mission focused as a global society with more independence than politics allows.
Q: You are adjunct business faculty at Temple University. I also teach an entrepreneurship course and have included a book by Daymond John, a successful self-made black entrepreneur known from “Shark Tank” and his founding of apparel company, FUBU. From your experience, is there something about how university coursework needs to evolve that will increase student command of the business advantages of building and joining inclusive organizations when they graduate?
A: Absolutely! Our entire education system needs to be overhauled to be more relevant and applicable to careers of all kinds. Content needs to be diversified and more integrated beyond one required African American Studies course, which is far too limiting. College graduates arrive to their employers and they don’t get how racism relates to them. Business is about doing business with people of different cultures. The lessons of Juneteenth and Black Wall Street need to be mainstreamed because it shapes how we conduct commerce today.
Q: Organizations, including the nonprofit PRSA Foundation, are looking to public relations for help in opening professional gateways for leaders of color. Do you have any practical guidance that will enable these efforts without them being received as patronizing?
A: They should have been doing all along, which is to accept the most qualified candidates. If you put the wrong person in a position, you will impede progress for your organization. Being inclusive for a search is important but be sure to hire on the basis of the big picture, not just to try to make up for lost time. You will be creating new problems for your brand and its economic or societal mission.
Q: Financial services is a major US business sector, particularly across the Northeast. Can you tell us about how your DE&I work is creating change for TD Bank or its relationship with customer markets?
A: They have an untold story: the company’s investment in collectible art. I’m working to introduce them to a younger, more diverse profile of deserving but possibly undiscovered artists. These acquisitions can make an economic impact in new neighborhoods and fund important preservation of social and cultural storytelling as chronicles history. What is lost about art is that people don’t realize is that artists are not born, but rather are created through teaching and self-learning. Artists are Latinx, Black, gay, and blind, but the fact that they are young or aren’t represented by galleries or brokers puts them at a disadvantage that thoughtful engagement can remedy. Preserving art is an important facet of documenting history.
Q: OK, where we have both lived in Philly, I have to ask if your favorite cheesesteak is Geno’s or Pat’s?
A: Ha! It won’t surprise anyone that I don’t follow the flock. I miss Jim’s in West Philly the most, but I will go to Larry’s or Ishkabibbles to find a solid cheesesteak. I should mention that For(bes) The Culture began three years ago this month at Anthem Kitchen & Bar in Boston. There’s a food thread here: consultants need to feed their ideas. I hope Anthem returns from COVID because their food was delicious. The pandemic has been relentlessly hard on the restaurant industry.
Q: I don’t have to tell you that this is a tumultuous time for the global economy on so many fronts: workforce displacement, the reckoning of racism and the pandemic. How would you advise public relations practitioners about how to navigate these issues when counseling an organization and carving out thought leadership space for them that is genuine?
A: I have learned through years of consulting and government work, including the White House and Congress, that it is important not only to advise leaders about hot button issues, but to craft authentic messages that make sense for them around these topics when it is not detrimental to their organizational character. PRSA espouses what I practice: always speak their truth. Trying to “be” the voice of an executive or a brand is counterproductive because it’s transparently inauthentic. I work in the other direction: I learn what the views of a client is first, in their voice, and then help them to bring those positions into relatable, clear messages. If you are too worried about being on either end of politically correctness or racy, I would say stop: just make sure they are on the right side of history.
Q: Do you have a favorite podcast for someone who wants to do private introspection on the broad and expanding movement that is diversity, equity and inclusion?
A: I should be on his payroll for the number of times I’ve recommended Malcomb Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History.” The content is highly relevant to the moment, but even the audio quality is attention-grabbing for you feel like you are hearing the audio of a video and can visualize his conversation. He puts important current issues into historical context. He questions the moral grounding of authority, such as the decision makers at universities that spend more on dining programs than to investing in scholarships for underserved communities. Powerful stuff, and very applicable to today.
Q: You are an acknowledged expert in ways that DE&I intersects with marketing. How do you inform your insights as a model for communicators who must stay educated for themselves and the organizational leadership they advise?
A: I think keeping an advisory circle from different sectors connects you to strategies for economic prosperity and social impact that are grounded in experience. This is a model that can be easily replicated. Philadelphia tech entrepreneur Dean Harris, developer Lamarr Kendrick and musician Chill Moody have become ambassadors for our home city and admirable ambassadors for entrepreneurism. The pandemic has put a spotlight on outlying centers of business opportunity, and Tayyib Smith is all over it by building a five-story entrepreneurship hub outside of downtown Philadelphia. The stories these guys tell in three to five years should be fascinating. I should say that it was my mother Joyce Lambert who gave me my sense of duty to serve others and to make a difference. She serves in government-funded Lambert Legacy Charities, which has fed and clothed over 5,000 people in need. She embodies entrepreneurism and service.
Rashaad Lambert (Panelist): Dir. of Culture & Community, Forbes and Strategic Partner of Social Impact, TD Bank
In an industry where diversity and racism have become part of the narrative among high-profile pro athletes, Rashaad has been immersed in creating pathways for addressing racism, equity and inclusion for their success during and outside of competition. Today, he wears two hats: as Strategic Partner of Social Impact for TD Bank and as Forbes’ Director of Culture & Community, through which he leads diversity initiatives targeting entrepreneurs. Through his For(bes) The Culture #CultureTalks platform on Instagram, Rashaad has galvanized a collaborative online think tank committed to improving access to more revenue and impact opportunities for communities that are marginalized when confronted with the uphill climb against bias or discrimination. The multicultural engagement inroads made by this proud Philadelphia native who attended Temple University have been recognized by the NAACP, Forbes, and the US Congress. He holds the distinguishing Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification for coaching and organizational change leadership.