You never know where inspiration will strike or what form it will take. I was surprised to find myself getting a valuable lesson in equality, and taking my own small step to fight bias, at Dreamforce, the massive technology conference sponsored by Salesforce that took over San Francisco’s Moscone Center in early October.
I was not the typical Dreamforce attendee. I went because I wanted to hear one of my personal heroes, Congressman John Lewis. I had read his graphic book, “March: Book One” (co-authored by Andrew Aydin and fantastically illustrated by Nate Powell) earlier this year and was moved to tears by his raw, humble accounting of his painful experiences during the civil rights movement. He shares his history from childhood through his adult years, including being inspired by and meeting Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rep. Lewis was joined by tennis legend Billie Jean King and Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, on a panel titled “Equality Summit: Road To Equality Through Business, Sports & Government. Pattie Sellers, executive director of Fortune Most Powerful Women Summits and Live Content at Time, Inc. and a three-decade veteran of Fortune magazine, moderated the discussion. (You can see the panel discussion here.)
For me, John Lewis was the anticipated and real highlight. Billie Jean King was a nice surprise and Bernard Tyson was a breath of fresh air. Part of John Lewis’ history includes leading protesters on the infamous bridge in Selma, Alabama; he was the first to be struck by a police officer, a blow which resulted in a concussion. He has been arrested 40 times or more for civil disobedience and said he anticipates more arrests. He cannot be silent if he sees injustice. He said, “Leaders must lead.”
Billie Jean was lively, genuine and heartfelt. When asked how she felt after she was outed in the early 1980s, she paused and said it was devastating. She was about to retire and counted on advertising sponsorships for her future livelihood. They were all retracted the next day. She was one of the original proponents of equal pay in tennis, which came to fruition in 2007. To this day, tennis is the only sport with equal pay for men and women in its marquee events. Billie Jean said professional athletes are in an influential position and must speak out.
Bernard was admittedly humbled by being on stage with John and Billie Jean. He chuckled when it was his turn to tell his life story, saying he didn’t feel on par with the other panelists. He said he joined Kaiser to effect change in the disparities of medical care. He garnered attention for posting two articles on LinkedIn about Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri and about the striking difference between how he is treated in his C-Suite, top floor office and when he leaves the building and heads onto the streets of Oakland.
In addition to hearing those inspiring speakers, I had a personal experience at the event that I’d like to share with you. Arriving more than an hour before the panel began, I was guided to a section with a side view of the panelists’ chairs. The rows of seats were filled until about eight rows back, where a young black woman sat in the end seat. The seat next to her was empty and a diverse, young group filled the rest of the row. I asked the young woman if the seat was free but it was not. She was part of the group and they were waiting for a friend to join them. The next row was mostly empty, with a young white woman in the end seat. The row after that was also mostly empty; a black woman in her 30s or 40s was seated on the end. I could feel myself drawn to sit in the row with the white woman, and if I’m being honest, I don’t think it was just because it was the next closest row to the stage. It was because I could feel the comfort of seeing someone who looked like me. I pushed past that and asked the woman in the next row if the seat next to her was free. It was, we got to talking, I learned she is a software engineer living in Oakland. We chatted about Dreamforce’s U2 concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco the night before which I could hear from my home. When she shared her dilemma that her phone battery dies at critical moments such as these, I volunteered to save her seat while she went off to charge it. She left and trusted me with her belongings. She returned when the panel was in process and soon thereafter received a text message and suddenly had to leave to catch a ride with her husband. A missed opportunity for a business connection, but our brief interaction left me feeling warm, calm, and uplifted.
My intention is to continually, consciously connect with people of color to acknowledge and step away from my comfort zone, which I believe is my unconscious bias rearing its ugly head.
I want you to step out of your comfort zone as well. Throughout your day, wherever you go, reach out to someone who is not like you. It may seem like a small step and it is. Not every step has to be with John Lewis across the bridge in Selma. Small steps evolve into big steps. I look forward to the day when we will be sprinting towards equality.
Kim Clancy is founder and CEO of search firm Hampton O’Bannon Partners, LLC (HOP, LLC). She helps public and private companies attract and hire women and minorities to their boards.