Growing up in a working-class family in the Boston area in the early 1970s, during the forced integration of Boston schools, Timothy F. Ryan, now U.S. chairman and senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), learned valuable lessons in diversity and inclusion.
In those turbulent times, marked by violence and protests, Ryan remembers seeing his mother in tears after talking to some former neighbors. Just a second grader at the time, he asked his mother what was wrong.
“And what my mother told me is, what was wrong was that people all didn’t have the same opportunity to go to the best schools,” said Ryan, keynote speaker at Lehigh’s Summit for Inclusive Excellence. “What my mother told me is, what was sad was the violence that was happening, because people were trying to do the right thing and give everybody a fair chance. It was at that point in my life that I understood the first reason why inclusiveness was so important. As my mother said, it was just simply the right thing to do.”
While the Boston experiment failed, he said, it had the right ambitions—to give everybody an equal shot at a good education.
Ryan, who is well known around the country for his well-articulated messages on the importance of diversity, spoke at the Summit on Friday afternoon (March 31) in Room 101 of the Packard Laboratory. The Summit was designed to bring together the campus community—along with industry and healthcare executives and educational leaders—to discuss strides being made in the space of diversity and inclusion at Lehigh.
The event also familiarized attendees with Lehigh’s current work in developing and rolling out a Certificate Program for Inclusive Excellence for undergraduate and graduate students.
In addition to Ryan’s keynote address, additional speakers in a panel discussion included:
James B. Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh and associate professor of English, moderated the panel discussion.
In his keynote, Ryan said he learned another lesson in diversity and inclusiveness at a young age, while working in the produce department of a family-owned grocery store, Roche Bros. A sophomore at Babson College at the time, he said he was making fun of another boy, behind his back, who was working at a slower pace than he and his friends. Hearing him, the store manager stopped in his tracks. “And he pointed at me, and he said, ‘Hey, knock it off. He’s giving you 100 percent of what he can give you. What more do you want?’
“And folks, I learned more in that moment than I ever learned at Babson,” Ryan said. “And what I learned is that every single human being is different, and all we can ask of people is that they give the very best they can. And if they’re doing that, at their level, that’s all that we can expect of people.”
Ryan commended Lehigh for pursuing a Certificate Program for Inclusive Excellence, saying more programs are needed across the country around inclusivity and leadership. He said companies and institutions also need to create more opportunities for all employees and redefine success so that people or groups of people don’t feel excluded from advancement. He also stressed the importance of leadership and the willingness to take risks.
Ryan talked about becoming PwC’s U.S. Chairman at a raw time in the country’s history, July 2016. In his first week in his new role, the fatal police shootings of two black men—Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota—laid bare the deep divide in the country over issues of race and policing. Then, a black Army veteran who said he was angry about the police shootings gunned down five Dallas police officers.
Ryan sent an email to the accounting firm’s employees to let them know that its leadership cared about them and were there to listen. Though PwC prides itself on its commitment to diversity and its progressiveness, Ryan said, he was struck by the common theme in the 1,000 emails he got in response from employees—that there was an uncomfortable silence in the workplace around the issues of race.
“I spent the next two weeks listening to our people,” he said. Concluding that the employees needed to talk about the issues of race and to better understand one another, he scheduled a daylong, company-wide discussion on race.
Though risky, he said, the day was a huge success, with more tears shed that day than in the firm’s cumulative history. ”We began to learn things about one another we never understood,” he said.
Ryan, who met with employees in Atlanta that day, said he learned: That many of the company’s black professionals teach their children how to get pulled over by police—“My dad never showed me how to get pulled over”; that many of the firm’s younger black professionals keep their business cards in their pocket in case they get pulled over, so that police understand it’s their car; that one black professional felt safe in his suit—he called it his cape—but not as safe when he leaves the office dressed in a t-shirt and cap to join in a softball game.
Ryan said the firm’s journey continues, but that listening and understanding are at the foundation of dealing with the discomfort around issues of race.
“I’m incredibly optimistic,” he told the students and others at the Summit. “I actually believe I’m standing in front of the generation that’s going to solve this problem once and for all.”
Ryan offered this advice to the students as they begin their careers: Work hard, be honest, and as he learned early from his mother, treat everyone fairly.
“You only have one reputation and make sure you act with integrity in everything you do,” he said. On the issue of fairness, he added, “Every one of our individual actions is what makes up society…If your actions go to fairness and inclusiveness, we address this challenge once and for all.”
A lively question-and-answer segment and panel discussion followed Ryan’s talk. Peterson, who moderated, opened the discussion by asking the panelists to address what it takes to have the courage to succeed around the areas of diversity and inclusion. The panelists said they looked at failure as an opportunity to learn and to grow. And rather than becoming despondent, said Mecklai, of Intel, renew the commitment to achieving the end goal.
MacKinnon, of Air Products, said what’s important in the risk space around diversity and inclusion is to admit when something hasn’t been working. “I feel like we have been on a treadmill,” she said. “Any of us who have worked in this space for a little bit of time will say, we keep just trying the same things and getting very similar results. And anywhere else in our business world, we’d do something different. But somehow we’re afraid to let go of whatever practices we’ve tried to put forward. So being able to say, what we’re doing isn’t working, let go of it and try new and keep going on that. And I think that’s a little bit of the hard work, and it’s a little bit of the lessons learned, and it’s a little bit of courage.”
Lopez, of Thomas Jefferson University, advised leaders to try to create a workplace environment that lets employees know that it’s okay to fail and to learn from those failures.
The “best practices” that have guided employers in the areas of diversity and inclusion are no longer the “best practices” when considering the future work force, Farmer, of KPMG, said.
“You’re going to be the change agents that we will ultimately need to respond to,” she told the students in the audience. “When you come in for interviews, challenge us [to make sure] that the work environment is one that reflects your world views, the inclusivity you expect and that diversity is present. For us, we need to start thinking more transformationally to make sure we’re ready for you and the change you’re going to expect from us.”
The panelists also reflected on the 2016 presidential election, which further exposed the racial and cultural divides in the country. People need a grieving period, Mecklai said, then the conversations must start.
“I truly do believe that the polarization in the country is a reflection of the fact that we left a large part of the population behind,” he said, referring to those who lost manufacturing and mining jobs and who can’t sustain the lifestyles of their parents and grandparents who came before them. “I think we need to…have basic conversations. Where did we lose you? And how do we include you?”
Added MacKinnon: “If there’s a silver lining to where we are right now in some of the diversity and racial issues and the gender issues we’ve got in our country right now, it’s that we can finally have the conversation that we should have been having for the last 10 years or so, but we pushed away.”
Donald A. Outing, Lehigh’s Vice President for Equity and Community, said Lehigh continues to explore strategic ways to enhance the campus climate and better prepare its graduates for careers in an increasingly diverse world. In addition to the Summit and the Certificate Program, the university also has translated “The Principles of our Equitable Community” into four other languages—Hebrew, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic.
Photos by Christa Neu