Houston entrepreneur tackles diversity and inclusion challenges through new book
HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 39
If you went to school in America, you might have been taught that George Washington's teeth were made out of wood. While this information might have been effective in promoting oral health as a kid, it's important for you to know that George Washington's dentures were not made of wood. They were made of ivory, metal alloys, and other human teeth — usually pulled from slaves.
History seems to have been rewritten in this case, and it's not the first — nor the last — time that's happened. Denise Hamilton wants individuals to recognize moments, acknowledge them, and move forward toward the truth. That's why she's publishing a thoughtful journal entitled "Do Something: An Ally's Guide to Changing Yourself So You Can Change Your World."
"I feel really strongly that we all have these challenging stories in our minds that we have to identify and release," Hamilton shares on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I give that example so that we all are clear that we don't have the full story for a lot of these topics. To me, if you allow yourself to be humble and be open to the fact that you really cannot believe everything you think, we can make so much progress in this space."
Hamilton founded her company, WatchHerWork, five years ago to act as a platform for women seeking career advice and mentorship.
"I had been an executive for many years — around 25 years at this point — and I had been the only woman or the only African American in so many situations that people wanted to pick my brain or take me to lunch," she says. "Frankly, there weren't enough hours in the day."
The company evolved to more, and now she's focused on diversity and inclusion consulting and leadership.
In the months following the death of George Floyd, Hamilton has seen companies react in various ways to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement with marketing campaigns and initiatives for improving workplace conditions.
"The biggest challenge is the same thing that's the biggest opportunity," she says. "Every company has the opportunity to reinvent their approach to how they handle systemic racism in their organizations, and they are terrified by it."
As Hamilton has seen first hand, companies are navigating a minefield of how to react. In her consulting with companies, Hamilton has advised business leaders to be transparent and recognize if they haven't been an ally in this space — and to not act like it. Disclose the things that are being improved and amplify the work that's already been done — don't reinvent the wheel, she says.
"And if you turn this moment into a marketing event instead of a true seed change, we can spot that a mile away. Lead with authenticity, be sincere, and be honest," she says.
The other ongoing challenge Hamilton is navigating with her work is the effect COVID-19 has had on women in the workplace. The pandemic has amplified existing gender issues in the workplace and created new challenges as well. In the past, female executives have been able to climb the corporate ladder while hiring services to help on the home front, but COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under these women's feet.
"Women are starting to opt out because they are overwhelmed," Hamilton says, adding that this thought terrifies her. "We shouldn't live in a society that penalizes you for having children — that's just the bottom line."
What employers have to realize — and this is a cornerstone of Hamilton's work — is that inclusion in the workplace isn't treating everyone the same. It's factoring everyone's differences.
"I don't want you to treat me the same. I want you to look at my situation and treat me the way I need to be treated based on my situation," she says. "And that can be difficult to navigate, but that's what we help our clients do."
As challenging both the social unrest and pandemic has been, it's an opportunity to move forward and make a difference.
"It's a bittersweet experience when there's lots of change — there's always a lot of opportunity as well," Hamilton says. "Never waste a good crisis."
On the episode, Hamilton shares more details about her forthcoming book, advice for female founders, and more. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.