The business case for expanding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) is there. More diverse companies can enjoy higher cash flow per employee, while 43 percent of companies with diverse boards see a nearly 20 percent increase in revenue compared to their less diverse counterparts.
But what does the road map look like for companies that strive to improve DEI&B? Two members of Mursion’s leadership team, CEO Mark Atkinson and Head of People and Culture Sara Bokhari, were recently interviewed by Gender IDEAL’s CEO Flory Wilson about Mursion’s achievements in this area. Gender IDEAL provides data-driven performance insights and recommended actions to workplaces seeking to become more gender equitable.
Atkinson and Bokhari talked about how Mursion’s DEI&B work has evolved over time and shared advice on how organizations can quickly move forward in their quest to become more diverse and inclusive. Some companies might find their answers surprising. As Atkinson and Bokhari explain, DEI&B isn’t about just checking boxes or playing a numbers game. It’s about establishing a model that corporations can use to apply DEI&B values in everything they do.
WILSON: Mark, the first question is for you. Why is it important to you as a CEO to prioritize gender and race equity at Mursion?
ATKINSON: I’d like to start by talking about what Mursion does, because while my commitment would be the same as many other leaders, I think it’s particularly important in the context of our work. We create simulations that enable learners to practice challenging professional conversations under stressful conditions, and we do this by blending AI and human performance. Learners practice with digital avatars that show up in human-like ways through their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. So they have to react just like humans do in the real world, while machine learning is continually building a better AI and encouraging learners to tune in to their inner empathy.
Imagine if all of us looked like me. We would have dysfunctional learners and a dysfunctional AI that could only represent what white men think, and then those learners would fail. We’re in the empathy business, so our journey began by recognizing if we’re helping other organizations build more empathetic leaders, we have to walk that talk. It started with building a set of cultural values and graduated into a deep commitment to who we represent in the world as people. So when we think about building that AI, building those avatars, designing those scenarios, and delivering them and measuring their outcomes, we need to represent the diversity of the world to do justice to our learners and clients. It’s both a moral and business imperative for us that we fully reflect the intersectionality of the adult world today, and so as an organization, we are deeply committed to doing that.
WILSON: Let’s talk about the process. How did the organization prioritize and focus your work on equity and inclusion? I’m happy to hear from you Mark, but then also Sara, let’s hear your perspective on this process as well.
ATKINSON: I will throw this to Sara because she’s played an extraordinary leadership role in developing our plan, organizing a team to inform that plan, and deputizing that team to actually carry it out. So Sara, I’d love for you to take the lead on that answer.
BOKHARI: Sure. I’ll start by saying that the thing I say to my team constantly as people and culture leaders is that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging don’t live as a pipeline in our department. It’s not a project. It’s not a side thing. It’s a lens that you use to approach every aspect of the work. So if we’re not thinking about equity when we’re creating compensation bands, doing talent acquisition, or planning employee engagement, then there’s probably something wrong with our model, and there’s probably something we’re missing. We’re not being as strategic or effective as a business as we could be if we haven’t included that as part of our perspective,
So Mark is right that the work really started with knowing who we are and defining our company and cultural values and then ensuring that those were made really transparent to all of our staff members. Because if you don’t know the rules of the game, you can never win. So we wanted to ensure that all of our staff members understood what it meant to be successful at Mursion and what’s important to us as an organization, and then from there translate that into business objectives and priorities. Things like performance reviews, comp analysis, and so on. So I would say it starts with knowing why you’re focused on what you’re focused on and then making sure that it’s integrated into everything you do, as opposed to a standalone project or training experience that lives outside of the day-to-day functions of the business.
WILSON: I’m curious if we could get down to even more brass tacks and talk a little bit about how this work has evolved over time. When you picked up on this work, what was already in place, and then how did you build on it over time?
ATKINSON: We began building simulations for educators and so our avatars were of children, and as you might imagine, there is enormous sensitivity to the risk of stereotyping children in preparing teachers for this. Our early staff, including Sara, came to us with a very deep background and knowledge around effective pedagogies in classrooms and cultural sensitivity around instruction, and so in the early days there was a team of staff that, on their own, began work around talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, principles, values, how it would show up. Seeing that work, inspired me to elevate Sara to the role she’s in now, and Sara should tell the story from there, how it matured from that place, because she has led it.
BOKHARI: I started on the client-experience side and through those informal networks, I started to realize what was important to the business and how to make connections. It was before we had a clearly articulated commitment to the why of the DEIB, as well as the what and the how. And when Mark made a very public commitment to us, focusing on diversity, it allowed us to really galvanize the work and rally around the fact that this was a business priority that Mark had made very clear to all of us was something that was worth investing our time in and was as important to the business as hitting your OKRs or bringing in new revenue. So the fact that we had a CEO who was public about his own commitment made it easier for the work to start taking off in more formal ways and in a more rapid fashion. We also got Mark’s support in being part of DEI committees that had a very clear charge of defining our values or looking at how are we attracting and retaining excellent racially diverse talent at this organization, or what is our approach to scenario design, and how do we ensure that we’re mitigating as much risk for bias both for our learners, but also for our delivery staff. And having Mark be at the table and then also pull in other voices to the table like mine, for instance, has been a way that we’ve been able to really push this work forward. But I think that it does take executive sponsorship in order for work to move faster, and for it to feel as important to everybody in the organization as other business priorities do.
WILSON: What advice would you give to other CEOs and leaders of organizations that are not as advanced as Mursion is on doing this work? Where would you encourage them to start? What approaches do you think are most effective and helpful?
ATKINSON: Given the intense polarization in the world today, the thing I have most admired about the approach Sara and our internal committee have taken around this work is that it’s squarely focused on inclusion and belonging, so all of the nurturing of what it takes for people to feel heard, for their voice to matter, for them to feel supported and welcome. It’s a holistic process. These various aspects of unconscious bias that we all have where we inadvertently keep people out. It’s not just about the numbers. “Did we get this many people in the pipeline?” Yes, we pay in the right ways, and that’s great. But the focus on belonging is my first piece of advice.
My second piece of advice would be patience. Because I also think that there is something intergenerationally going on that those of us who are on the boomer side of leadership still have not experienced, that we have to understand that younger people don’t want to talk about this for the next decade. They want to see action, and we have to show a commitment to act, and we have to be patient with and recognize the authentic place where that frustration comes from and that it’s going to be real work for a long period of time. It’s a journey. We’re all going to learn a lot and it’s good to just listen and learn for a while.
BOKHARI: One thing I really respected about Mark as our CEO is that he didn’t wait for the message to be crystal and perfect and ready to be plastered on a billboard. Instead, he showed in his day-to-day actions that he supported me professionally but also personally in recognizing that I bring a lot of things to the table besides just being an HR professional. My identity as a mom, as a Muslim woman, as a person of color, and honoring that in our management relationship. It gave me confidence that even if the message wasn’t perfect, we had the right people at the table and the right hearts in the work to get it right eventually, even if it took multiple iterations. And I think a lot of people just wait to try to get it perfect before they start taking action, and by the time you do that, you’re so far behind the starting line that you have to come up with an entirely new plan. So taking action even if you don’t have it perfect, but bringing the right people into the conversation to help you get it perfect is really important.
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