My personal story...
When people meet me for the first time, they see an ordinary white blond girl with an unusual accent. Most of them probably question: “Why does she care so much about #BLM, Social Justice or Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Belonging?”
Here is my answer.
I have always been different everywhere I went. Living in five countries and absorbing all those different cultures has shaped me to think and act unlike anyone else. It might seem amazing at first, however, it didn’t always feel that way. I hated being different, and sometimes was even shy or trying to hide my origins. Throughout my journey, I have realized the high importance of an inclusive environment, how letting people be their authentic selves will make them flourish and make positive impact. Here’s my story.
When people ask me where I am from, I always reply: “It’s complicated”. I was born in Soviet Russia, grew-up in Israel, studied in the UK and France, married a French man, lived in Paris for seven years, and, eventually, moved to the US four years ago.
Living, studying and working in all those countries has given me a huge cultural richness and ability to think differently, and to that I’m grateful to my brave parents, who left the USSR, as political refugees, with no passport and only $200 in their pocket with a 4-year-old me. Their courage and openness to the world has always inspired me to continuously learn by stepping out of my comfort zone.
That cultural richness also came with a heavy price to pay. The price of being an outlier everywhere you go.
Growing up in Israel I was often bullied because I was “the Russian”. Remember how Russians were portrayed in American detective movies from the 90’s?
The main villain, a russian mafia-man, dressed in an oversized sports tracksuit stuffed in his socks, chain-smoking cigarettes while demonstrating his golden teeth? Many people had that strong bias towards the russians, and as the only russian in my class, it didn’t skip me.
However, the hardest part came when I graduated university and joined a large Management Consulting firm in Paris, France. Even though at first I was excited to dive into my first professional experience and start learning the ropes, very soon I started struggling, because I couldn’t really be myself in this environment.
My colleagues often made fun of my accent, imitating with exaggerations the way I pronounced the word “Bonjour”. I was often called upon by the way I was communicating explicitly that didn’t fit the french culture. I didn’t have client-facing roles, and wasn’t invited to team lunches or breaks. When I was proposing new ideas, they were quickly shut down by the phrase “we don’t pay you to think” (in that culture, an entry-level consultant wasn’t considered as someone who could potentially have good ideas, and was simply wasting their time). I became sad, bitter and unmotivated, which eventually impacted my performance. I tried to get rid of my accent, by taking lessons, I started dressing and talking differently, preventing myself from speaking-up — everything to fit the mold.
However, it didn’t work out for me. As Albert Einstein said:
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. And that’s exactly how I felt back then.
As an extrovert, I absolutely enjoy being around people and connecting with them. However, at that point in time, I was disengaged and actively seeking a way to escape this environment.
This experience made me truly understand the importance of an inclusive culture. The company I worked for didn’t implement organization-wide initiatives to foster Diversity and Inclusion. Most of its managers were white suited Frenchmen, who were risk-averse, and unaware of the value a diverse workforce can bring if hired and managed well.
This is why some of my colleagues were perceiving “different’’ as something wrong, when, actually, it was a positive thing. In fact, it is scientifically proven that performance, culture, innovation and employee engagement are directly correlated with diverse and inclusive workplaces.
When I came to the US, I also went to work at a large management consulting company (Slalom). Their culture was on the other end of the spectrum. The workforce was very diverse, they have implemented high quality ongoing programs, ERGs and networks to foster an inclusive environment. The leadership valued ideas over hierarchy and focused on people’s strengths and uniqueness. My “difference” was seen as an advantage. And I thrived there! I was one of the top performers and made a lot of positive impact for my team and my clients.
My personal journey has taught me why it is so important to care about Diversity and Inclusion.
If I haven’t convinced you to care about this topic, here’s a reason, even if you don’t see yourself as different: It’s not just me, EVERYONE thrive in an inclusive environment!
All of us pay the price of inauthentic interactions, and all of us have a better chance of thriving in inclusive environments which fosters authenticity. In other words, Gender bias is not just a woman’s problem. Systemic racism is not just an African-American/ Black or Latinx problem. Each and every one of us deserves to be our authentic selves in our workplace.
It is crucial, from a moral and an organizational perspective, to create workplaces where the burdens of being different are shouldered by all of us. After all, we will all benefit greatly from eliminating them.