‘Time To Act’ Podcast Ep. 6: The Allyship Imperative
Conversations around diversity and inclusion can be uncomfortable — particularly in the workplace. In this new podcast, host Y-Vonne Hutchinson — CEO and founder of ReadySet, a diversity and inclusion consulting and strategy firm — speaks with business leaders who are driving discussions within their organizations and taking bold action to advance and accelerate change.
Working with CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion — the largest coalition of CEOs who’ve pledged to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace — Hutchinson discusses topics such as allyship, intersectional divides and mental health inclusion with C-suite leaders who are showing their organizations and their industries that now is the time to act on diversity and inclusion.
Woman on Street #1: Are you someone who’s just standing in the room saying that you’re an ally? Are you someone who is actually taking the initiative to drive those things and drive that change when you see it?
Woman on Street #2: We can’t be expecting the marginalized communities to always have to be the ones to speak up and point out the inequities in their situation. We need the people who are in positions of power and privileged to be more inclusive.
Y-Vonne Hutchinson, Host: This is “Time To Act.” I’m your host, Y-Vonne Hutchinson. I’m a diversity and inclusion expert. And through my company ReadySet, I work with organizations to help them foster a corporate culture that helps to provide a sense of belonging for employees. On this podcast, I’m working with CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, the largest coalition of CEOs who’ve pledged to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Throughout the series, we’ll explore and highlight the recent steps companies are taking to tackle D&I, and I’ll be talking to leaders of industry and diving into why they act as ambassadors for change.
Today’s episode is very special, because I have two dynamic people from PricewaterhouseCoopers joining me, Shannon Schuyler and Clarissa Clark. Shannon is the chief purpose and inclusion officer at PwC, while Clarissa is a director in the firm’s Risk Assurance Practice. Looking beyond their respective roles, today’s conversation is about the relationship that Shannon and Clarissa have created. They’re sharing their stories together to illustrate how an ally-driven work relationship can greatly impact the outcomes of both parties. We spoke about the pain points that rising professionals from underrepresented groups face, and how leadership can actively remove these barriers, giving employees a seat at the table to voice their concerns.
I am so excited today. We’re going to have a conversation that’s in a bit of a different format. Instead of two of us, there are going to be three of us here, which is just amazing. So, I’m really excited to welcome Shannon and Clarissa today, and wanted to just go ahead and see if we could dive in.
Clarissa Clark, PwC Risk Assurance Practice director: Sounds good.
Hutchinson: I’d like to start by getting to know some of your background. Where’d you grow up, and who were your mentors? Clarissa, let’s start with you.
Clark: Sure thing. So, I was born and raised in Orlando, Florida. And when I think about really my upbringing, one of the people that I would consider my mentor is my mother. So, my mother was a single mom of five children, and so when I think about the representation of the kind of woman that I wanted to be and someone that was a very strong example to me, my mom comes to mind. So, that’s always been someone that’s been very present, very top of mind, as it relates to an example figure. And unfortunately, she did pass away last year, but I still remember all of the great life lessons she taught me.
Hutchinson: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that she’s passed away, but I’m happy that her teachings live on through you. Shannon, would you mind sharing a little bit about yourself?
Shannon Schuyler, PwC chief purpose and inclusion officer: Absolutely. And so, I was born in Canton, Ohio, a small town outside of Cleveland, and then moved to outside of Cleveland, Ohio, a little bit further in. And really similar to Clarissa, so I grew up in a very matriarchal family. The women kind of ruled the roost. And unfortunately, similar also to Clarissa, early in my 20s, those four strongest women in my life passed away, including my mother who passed away at 48. And they were such a guide for me and who I was to be a strong woman. And so, I’ve always carried them with me, but simultaneously, my dad really stepped in to be that voice.
Hutchinson: So, let’s dig in a little bit deeper about where you are now. Shannon, I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about what you do and how you got to your position as chief purpose and inclusion officer at PwC.
Schuyler: Sure. So, the role that I play now is really somebody who looks after our purpose and is a steward to our purpose, which is to build trust in society and solve important problems. And so, when you think of that, really, as a guide and, really, as a North Star to our organization, the things that fall under that are what we do for the society and really how we contribute to the communities in which we live and work. And so, that’s what we do from a philanthropic standpoint, from a foundation standpoint, from an education standpoint.
It also oversees all that we do around the environment. So, our commitment to net zero and to carbon neutrality, and what we need to do to be better stewards of the planet. And then also it includes CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, which was really spearheaded by our CEO, Tim Ryan, to lead an organization that now has 1,400 CEOs signed up to be committed to diversity and inclusion in their workplace. And also then is somebody who oversees diversity and inclusion internally.
Hutchinson: Oh, that’s great. Similarly, Clarissa, I’m really interested to hear about your path. You’re also at PwC, so, I’m interested to hear about your path to becoming a director there, and more specifically, some of the challenges that you faced in that journey.
Clark: Sure thing. So, I’ve been with the firm for 11 years, and when I think about my path and my journey, I always say one of the most impactful things is in my first year at the firm. So, I got with the firm, I started my career in New York, and one of the things that stood out to me is when I looked around, there wasn’t a lot of people that looked like me. And so, I struggled with the concept of do I really fit in, do I deserve to be here? And one of the things that really shifted and impacted my career was a diversity program the firm had. It was all of the African American new hires, and in that session, I really was poured into and I was taught not only do you deserve be here and are you good enough, you can be the best.
And so when I think about the life lessons that I learned, I really took that back to the office, and I had a work ethic like none other. And so when I think about my career, I think about the fact that if I didn’t have that program and if I didn’t have those people that spoke those encouraging words to me, I might’ve left the firm. I might’ve given up. And I said, “Well you know what, if I can’t see it, I’ll be it.” And that really gave me encouragement to really stick through with the firm as different challenges came up, some being around the notion of the angry Black female and different feedback around my communication styles. And my mother really taught me how to be very direct, so when I think about some of the challenges as I progress, that was things that I had to work on and really also continue to be encouraged that I can do it. I can make it to the top. I can continue to reach behind me. But when I think about my journey, my journey is so impacted by the people that poured into me.
Hutchinson: You say the phrase, “poured into.” People poured into you, and you want to pour into other people. Can you give me an example that sticks out in your mind of somebody who’s really invested in you and how that impacted your career?
Clark: So one of the people is… We’re on this call, yes, Shannon. I call her my everything. She’s my superhero. When I need to just get someone to just hear a different perspective, I will literally just pick up the phone and call and text her. So, as busy as she is, the fact that she always makes time, she always calls me back and she gives me perspective, that matters to me.
Hutchinson: And you mentioned that you did feel like you faced some challenges as a Black woman, progressing throughout your career. And I’m just wondering if you could say a little bit more about those.
Clark: So, when I think about my career, I’ve always been a high performer. And to me, it’s almost ingrained in you when you’re you’re Black or you’re African American, that the bar starts at excellence and it goes up from there. So, when I look at some of my counterparts and the opportunities that I’m given and what’s on my workload, sometimes I’ve often felt that my workload is heavier than others, or I felt that if I spoke up it would be perceived negatively on me. So I can’t say that that was directly shared or someone told me that, but that was the perception that I felt. And that, it’s almost the concept I share this, that if you’re not aware, there is a plight where more African American women are dying in childbirth, or more Blacks are dying at a higher mortality rate. And it’s because of this concept that Black women are so strong and they can just take it all, take it all.
I feel like that has translated into work, where I often struggled to communicate boundaries. I often struggle to say, “No, I’m at capacity. I need help.” And so tying back into when I say Shannon has been helpful, in last year, when my mom passed, I was still grieving, still trying to go to work, still trying to show up for others. And I literally was at my breaking point, and I reached out to Shannon. I have a similar relationship with Tim, who’s our CEO. And, you know, those were outside parties that saw what I was going through, felt the plight and they reached out and gave me advice and helped me. So, I think that that’s critical, is having those sounding board, when things come up, such as, “How do I handle a different situation, or how do I navigate through things?“
Hutchinson: That’s great. I’m curious now to hear from you, Shannon, especially given Clarissa’s journey through the organization as a Black woman and the different experiences of Black women and white women. Can you tell me how you started to understand that difference, and how you started to appreciate that, and maybe how that impacts the way that you think of your mentoring relationship?
Schuyler: I think that I grew up in the time in the firm where being a woman was hard. And so you were the only woman that was in the room with a sea of white men, and what that looked like and how it was to have mentors. And I had some great mentors who focused on making sure that I had a strong voice, making sure that I really knew my audience, that I owned who I was and that I can control that. And it was something that you can be emotional, and you can be your genuine self, but you had to do that within the context of — at that point — what was expected from a white woman to be in those rooms. And I kind of grew up under that philosophy. And I think, as white women have the ability to do more and to get into those higher level rooms, we inadvertently — and I, certainly, myself — started to bring in other women who looked like myself.
And so I very clearly remember exactly where it happened, it was at a conference. It was talking about the progress of different people within the communities and I said, “Women have come far.” And a Black woman stood up in the third row and said, “Let me be very clear. Are you talking about white women have come far or women of color?” And she was incredibly right. And I realized that I was doing what others have done before, where they’re trying to pull people up that look like them, and realized that I needed to do something fundamentally different. And it wasn’t just having a coaching-mentoring relationship where you talk every once in a while, but you actually have to remove the barriers that are there.
Hutchinson: How did you two meet? Who wants to take this first? I want to hear from both of you.
Schuyler: So, as Clarissa said, yeah, Tim, our CEO, was talking about different individuals. And as I was getting involved more and more in diversity and inclusion, Clarissa’s name came to me through several different people. And I’m one of those people that I’m like, “Wait, this is a pretty cool chick. I got to meet her.” I’m like, you can’t have a number of people call and go, “Hey, this is an individual that we really see as a leader in this firm.” And, as you can tell, she’s dynamic and she speaks her voice. And to what Clarissa said, it took me a long time to be comfortable in my own ability to say what I would say and to walk away owning it. Now I could walk away and wring my hands and say, “I can’t believe I did that,” but I can feel good in the moment of doing that. And so I met Clarissa under that guise, and immediately, when we met —
Clark: We were two kindred spirits.
Schuyler: We knew nothing about each other, other than we could tell from the first conversation we were these dynamic, bold women that were going to get it done.
Hutchinson: You know, in my organization, we work with a lot of companies with a similar dynamic, and there’s always a question of what do we do? And I think we’ve moved beyond mentorship, to talking about allyship in general a little bit. And I’m curious, how would you want your white colleagues to show up? Or what would it mean to be a good ally? What are some tips that you could give or some insights that you could have for somebody who was looking for something, and maybe didn’t get it at first.
Clark: The absolute worst thing to do is stay silent because when you stay silent, someone can perceive that to mean lack of care, right? And so what I say, and I use the analogy is my mom passed away. I said, my mom passed away. People were just around me, “Clarissa, anything you need, we’re here. We’re here to just listen, whatever you want to say. Don’t worry about work.” You almost have to have that same mindset when a tragic event happens, as it relates to race, because we all are triggered by that. We all feel that because we live with a fear that something could happen to us, and we feel such sensitivity when we see it. So, the first thing I would say is definitely just be there. You don’t have to have a point of view. You don’t have to agree with [what] the person [is] saying, but listening is absolutely critical.
But then also, asking the question, “What can I do?” Being informed, too. So, there’s this heavy burden. And I said this to a lot of people, that it’s our jobs to educate everyone. There’s so much information out there, versus putting all that burden on us Blacks to teach you guys about the experience of being Black. That’s a heavy burden.
And so, when I think about being a good ally, it’s definitely the listening. It’s definitely asking, “What can I do?” but then it’s the follow through. That’s critical. It’s the action behind it, because you’re now just now demonstrating that you’re not just putting words out there, but you’re also willing to put action behind it.
Schuyler: We had these conversations, and you’re right, in many cases, especially early on, we had our Black colleagues have to stand up there for years. We’ve had, as Clarissa knows, our Black colleagues stand in front of the room and say, “This is what happened and this is why I feel this way.” And this was the first time that we had white colleagues say, “And this is something that I’m trying to learn more about.“
Hutchinson: After the killing of George Floyd this summer, Clarissa found herself conflicted, as many of us do, about how to show up in the workplace.
Clark: When everything happened with George, I just stayed quiet. I said, “You know Clarissa, you’re always vocal. You’re always the one. Let somebody else take this one.” And I just sat in pain. I sat in silence, right? Everyone around me is acting normal. I literally just watched this man get killed, publicly executed, and he’s crying out for his mother. It broke my heart. And I just immediately thought of my own siblings, thought of my own brother and how that could have happened to him. That could have happened to any of us. And that’s a fear that we carry all the time.
And so at first, I just kept quiet. But then Tim sent emails encouraging people to have the dialogue and that’s exactly what I did. I got on calls with my teams, on video. I looked them in their face, and I told them I was hurt. I was hurt that they’re just acting like this is something that is not a big issue. And it was a great discussion, but it took courage. Because again, you’re taught you shouldn’t care about things at work. The emotion, put it in a little compartment, don’t bring it up. But I felt it was very important for them to understand the impact of this, to understand how draining and exhausting it is to watch what’s going on the news, to come to work, to be on video all day and pretend you’re OK when you’re not. That is one of the most exhausting feelings ever.
And I know that we were talking about it, as Blacks in the organization, but then nobody who didn’t look like us was talking about it. And that was offensive to us. And so, as I had the conversations, more and more of them started occurring, and we were educated, and it was a very heavy weight lifted off me. And so I appreciate that the firm facilitated those conversations, but it’s just something that I refuse to be quiet on that.
Hutchinson: I’m curious, because I think that this is so interesting. It’s a rare opportunity to have both of you in conversation at the same time. I think that there are a lot of people who want to have a good mentor-mentee relationship, but don’t necessarily know how to do it. We often just tell people, “mentor!” and that’s all, that’s all we say. So I would love to hear from both of you, what are some of the things that you think that has made your relationship particularly fruitful? And what advice would you give to mentors or mentees who were thinking about building these bonds with others in the workplace?
Clark: One thing I would say is not having fear, right? So, the way I actually met Tim is I sent an email to him, and I wasn’t intimidated by saying, “This person is high up in the organization.” I think by putting yourself out there and being vulnerable and saying, “This is someone that I want to have a connection with,” they recognize that. And they’ll be willing to have the same and maybe be vulnerable and really open up to an authentic relationship. And so when I think about Shannon and I, there was no fakeness in it, right? She would tell me exactly how she felt. I did the same and I think that allowed us to build the relationship that we had. And it’s really about trust. Trust is the key thing. If you have a trusting relationship, you can always go far. And so by — when you want to connect with someone — being open, being honest, and just really putting that trust until they prove a reason not to trust you, I think is critical.
Schuyler: I will never forget, Clarissa, the day when so much was going on after the passing of your mother and you were sitting on that bench. And you called, and you couldn’t, basically, move. You were done. At that moment, you were so spent emotionally, physically, you were being taxed by the things that you were asked to do in multiple geographies, you were mourning the loss of your mother, you were working through grief with your sister. All these things were happening, but she was able to let me know how she felt and in a time that was a great pain. And I could feel that. And that letting down both of our guards and saying, “Okay, this is where we’re starting from, and how do we build up, to now get past that into something else” was something that’s very different than, “Hey, go mentor this person.” Because that wouldn’t have gotten us to where we are today, where we can call about anything, and we’re going to figure it out. And I think people don’t realize that that’s what it actually takes.
Clark: I remember that day. I felt so overwhelmed at work. I’m getting emotional thinking about it. I was just back at work, trying to balance everything. And I just felt like, I miss my mom so much and life is crazy. And I literally was just sitting in a room, and I couldn’t breathe. I felt overwhelmed, and I walked out, and I called Shannon, and she just was there. And she listened. I told her how I felt. And then not only did she just listen, she helped me come up with solutions, right?
And so to me, that part about being vulnerable is so important, because you’re so taught not to be emotional at work, not to share, not to — just talk about the project, just talk about that. But so often of what genuine relationships is, is that sharing and being your authentic self and being vulnerable and putting yourself out there, saying this is what I’m really going through. I kept so much in, and I felt like I couldn’t tell my team. And consistently, when something would happen, Shannon would check on me. “Hey, I see this happen. How are you doing? How are you feeling?“
And I felt so alone and I felt so hurt that my teams weren’t reaching out to me. But again, Shannon always checked on me, always was there. And then she encouraged me to share with others how do I feel, even Tim. Tim encouraged us to take the time you need.
Schuyler: We have to be able to share those things that are adding up inside that we don’t understand, that are causing emotional distress. And it takes a ton of courage. And that puts a ton of strain and stress, and it’s not fair to our Black colleagues to do that, but for those who are able to help us to understand, it’s simply invaluable.
Hutchinson: So, I want to zoom out a little bit, and, you know, inclusion almost feels like too broad of a word to talk about this stuff, but I’m going to try. I’m going to try it. When we think about inclusion generally, with all of this in mind, and also with the evolving demands of the world in which we live, what then does inclusion at work and inclusive workplace look like for you? And I’m asking that to both of you.
Clark: So, when I think about an inclusive workplace, I think we’re making good strides on that in terms of looking at the raw data. And so when I think about the firm, while I’m very proud of the things that we’ve done, I still think we have a lot of areas to improve when it relates to the progression of Blacks at the manager level, right? Manager plus. And when I think about what an inclusive environment is and what it feels like, I always say it’s hard to fix outside of the firm. In the firm, we have control.
So, what are we going to do if we know the stats are not where we want to be or should be, as it relates to diverse individuals. And that’s not just Black, that’s diversity as a whole. So when I think about an inclusive environment, it’s something where it’s really a more level playing field, right? And we’re not asking for preferential treatment. Even though the relationship that I have, I don’t leverage them to get any special treatment. I just want to be treated fairly. And so when we think about an inclusive environment, I think it’s really breaking down the layers of what are the barriers and making sure that we are giving people equal opportunities. And we’re also making sure that they have the right network to really help them navigate.
Schuyler: And I completely agree. For us, it’s really looking, as Clarissa said, at the parity of experience. We, through data, certainly anecdotally, but you can look at data and say from the time someone is recruited to this firm to the time that they are promoted, make partner, retire, whatever it is, are we at parity of experience? Does everyone have equitable opportunities to be successful at this firm and to be able to progress?
Hutchinson: In some ways, it’s sad that we need this work to be done, but it is energizing to hear that it’s happening. I want to thank you both for the time that you have spent with me today. This conversation, I think, has been just so inspiring, and I really, really appreciate you both sharing your stories, so thank you.
Clark: Thank you.
Schuyler: Thank you.
Hutchinson: We covered a wide array of topics, and I am struck at how emotional the conversation felt. You know, I think you heard that in Clarissa’s voice when she was talking about George Floyd and how when she came to work nobody mentioned it, and how that really hurt her. And again, it goes back to the fact that she couldn’t check that part of herself at the door. And it’s so easy to think it’s just a corporate initiative. It’s a program here, it’s a program there. No, it’s reframing our way of thinking, so people can bring their selves, their authentic selves, to the work that they do and feel like they belong and feel like they are being seen.
When we started this series, the world looked very different than it does today. We didn’t know that COVID was going to happen. We didn’t know that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were going to enter into the national conversation. We didn’t know that there was going to be social unrest. And, you know, I think what has been driven home to me with every conversation we have is that now is the best time to be doing this, because now, it just really drives home the importance of creating environments that are equitable and inclusive for everyone. The world’s changed and we need more. We need more support. We need more acknowledgement. We need more to be able to show up.
So, thank you for these amazing conversations and thank you for tuning in. And I say it for one last time this season, let’s keep the conversation going.
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“Time To Act: A Podcast About Diversity And Inclusion,” presented by PwC and CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™, features CEOs and C-suite leaders from multinational brands and regional businesses discussing why diversity and inclusion are defining factors in a company’s growth and success at scale. It’s more than checking the boxes — together, business leaders are listening, understanding and taking action for real change.
With more than 1,400 CEOs that have taken the pledge, CEO Action is the largest CEO-led business coalition focused on advancing diversity and inclusion in the U.S. To learn more, visit CEOAction.
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This article was paid for by PwC and co-created by RYOT Studio. HuffPost editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.