July 12, 2021

In Conversation with... Simma Lieberman

Interviewed by Feyi Osiyemi 

Simma Lieberman is internationally known as “The Inclusionist,” because she creates inclusive workplaces where employees love to do their best work, and customers love to do business.

Today, Simma works with leaders of organizations who understand that while training in areas of diversity and inclusion is important, sustainable change only occurs when diversity and inclusion are integrated into the business strategy, and are part of the organization’s cultural DNA. She strongly believes that implementing good diversity management and developing cultural intelligence are necessary for organizations to stay relevant and competitive in tomorrow’s markets.

Her unique ability to view organizations through an inclusion lens also enables Simma to help leaders in organizations uncover employee genius, and leverage their diverse talents and skills at any level.

Publications that have featured her articles and ideas include The Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Fast Company, The Economist, Forbes, Black MBA, Restaurant Hospitality Magazine, Insight Into Diversity, Working Mother, Cosmopolitan UK, Human Resource Executive, CEO Refresher and CNN.

Question: How would you describe yourself?

Answer: with identification. okay. I'm white, I'm Jewish. I'm a woman and LGBTQ person. I'm a mother. That's, in terms of identification, I'm from New York but that might not mean anything to anybody. I am very passionate about what I do, I'm very passionate about diversity, equity, inclusion and everything else that we add, but it's really about inclusion is my passion, and I'm very passionate about issues around race and racism, and bringing people together across race. I'm really passionate about bringing people together to have conversations and to know each other, and to be able to unify together,  to stop hate and fight against racism and every other kind of hate. Homophobia, anti semitism, anti Asian hate, Islamophobia, I'm passionate about all of that. Oh, you know about really spreading love. Across the world, but understanding each other because people can say, Oh, I love everybody what you really don't because like really you're racist or you're really a homophobe but you can’t just say that you don’t love everybody. I'm over 70 but I love hip hop. Oh, I'm passionate about working out. I am passionate about lifting weights and hiking and doing anything, you know, physical exercise. I watch Netflix. I love music. I'm obsessed with music, I mean, old school, old school hip hop, new hip hop, new music. I

I think one thing it's really important that people stay relevant. I think people really need to kind of stay relevant. I don't see enough old people and young people talking to each other. And I think that is really important. But, oh and I love to laugh and I love to make other people laugh too, you know, so I really have humour.

Question: What’s your job role and what’s your favourite aspect of it?

Answer: Well, I have my own business. So, I'm actually running my business but I think my favourite part of what I do right now is my podcast which is on race because I love talking to people about race. I love you know I have real conversations, you know like I like what we get down you know what I mean by get down like we really like people really talk to each other. I love me, I love meeting new people, I love talking to people and finding out about culture, all different aspects of culture, that's always exciting to me. Plus you get to eat really cool food all the time.

Question: How did your journey to becoming a consultant begin?

Answer: Well in terms of becoming a consultant that's becoming a consultant that, like, just the way it began was actually, I was looking for a job. I had never had a salaried position. I was an hourly employee, my parents were hourly employees. I got involved in holistic health. I had a practice where I worked in medical offices Eastern or Western medicine. Then I started looking for a job and no one would hire me but somebody who I knew who was a consultant said “Well, I'm, I'm working for this company but they don't really pay enough money, it was as a subcontractor. I said well I'll take it because that was a lot of money to me at the time.”  So I took that gig and I was doing a lot of training, just training and diversity and also health and wellness. Then I got a mentor. His name was Rafael, and he taught me about actually consulting about looking at things in terms of systems and processes, and looking at consulting systems and creating changes. I really didn't know anything about that that just wasn't in my background. I didn't even know you could create change. You know my family was like “Oh, if Monday is meant to be and you know, we work hourly and then our life happens afterwards”, which is fine because they were very happy. I started understanding about consulting about changing the way organisations function by changing the way people function and how people think. 

I yeah I didn't know that I thought that I thought that people kind of like got discovered on the street or that you had to be born into it. I didn't, I really didn't know that you could decide what you want us to do in your life. I thought it was kind of all, that's just what it's meant to be, you know, my parents were hourly employees, I'm going to be an hourly employee. And then life will happen after work, but I really don't want to do that, But I didn't know what else to do.

Question: Tell me about your podcast? What have you learnt about yourself and the topic of race?

Answer: Well, I learned that, you know there's a lot that I don't know and that I'm comfortable talking to anyone. I'll ask people questions because I really want to know, I'll also share about me and about my background and my culture and my beliefs. I do what I can and sometimes I get help in terms of race, you know one topic I've really been thinking a lot about that I really hadn't thought about in terms of race is  financial legacy or inheritance legacy. I never I hadn't thought that you could have a White person and a Black person. The Black person and the White person can both go to a top school like Harvard. It's more likely that the White person will have parents that went to college. Maybe those parents had parents that went to college, they probably had discussions about networking and how to navigate the corporate world or the business world or even introduce them to their contacts. 

So they had a trajectory. They had a path that was easy for them to follow because they had inherited that knowledge and learnt things like financial legacy because you know money is usually handed down by generation. So if they had the access and had the resources that they needed to be able to move up in organisations to meet people. 

And there's, I mean that all the time is always except there's always gonna be exceptions but overall, that's not necessarily the case because of systemic racism. They haven't had the same opportunity. For example, they can’t intern at one of the top companies and that they could afford to do because their parents are helping them go to college and their parents are helping them while they do the internship. So, they're not going to have the same opportunities and they're not going to have the same knowledge to navigate the world. You know my parents didn't go to college, I mean nobody I knew went to college. I didn't know how to navigate the world. But I started reading some books. I would apply for these jobs and get in the top three, every time if I didn't know what the heck I was talking about. The people who were doing the hiring were White. They had more of an affinity to me.

So it's been, I've really been learning. I've really learned a lot. I have more than just Black people on my show. I have Asian people on my show, Latinx people on my show and Native American people. Also I learn about different cultures. You know I learned about like I had somebody from Ghana, on my show, a gay man, and he was talking about the fact he didn't have to deal with racism. However, he still had to deal with homophobia, despite his high economic class.

Question: When discussing race, what’s the most important thing that people should remember?

Answer: Don't assume everybody's going to be exactly like you because a lot of times like White people go “Oh, I don't see colour.” Everybody's the same. I always think, you wouldn’t you everybody the same birthday present. Also, don't assume that you're not going to have something in common with someone of another race. I remember, one time years ago, I was in a Palestinian Jewish dialogue group. And we had one Palestinian, there was one thing I really got. And they both discovered that they love Bob Dylan. So they started playing the guitar together. So I think it's important when you're talking about race, to look for commonalities because you want to be able to make a connection. So start out looking for commonalities, then come talk about race and be really curious. I mean, it's really important to be really curious, instead of saying, “you eat out weird food”,say “tell me about the food in your culture.” Also see the other person as a whole person. I mean, I think it can be scary for people. At the same time, don't let it stop you. Because if you don't have these conversations, you'll never know, you'll only know what you think, you know, it's probably not going to be that much.

Yeah, you'll never know. I mean, and, you know, one thing that a lot of people do, is if somebody looks like them, and they have a disagreement with them, they'll say,“Oh, that's just Joe, that’s just his, that's his personality.” But if somebody is different from a different group, a sudden you'll blame it on the whole group. So you see yourself and people like you as individuals, but you see people from another group as a whole group of outsiders. So it becomes me against them and I think that that's really important to let go of that. 

Question: How would you describe race relations in America?

Answer: I got horrible. Well, I say horrible. We have a problem in the United States of white supremacy. I mean, we have a problem with institutionalised historical racism. That is in our system or in the systems of our country because in Texas, they just passed a law in the schools that you can't talk about race. The reason they do that is under what they consider equality. For example, critical race theory is just looking at systems in the United States historically, that have that maintain that have created and maintain racism, just slavery, that reconstruction, all the things that happen that by people were denied the right to vote or anti Asian laws that were passed. And that these are the things that are the fabric of our dictates our billing, if you can look at the history of racism, if you look at the structure of racism, then you could do something about it. You can't do something about it, if you don't look at it in this country, that is why there's a lot of white supremacists in power in the United States. 

I mean, you look at the laws that they're trying to pass, voter suppression laws, voter suppression laws are really aimed at Back and Brown people. If there was no power attached to voting, they wouldn't spend so much money and time trying to stop people of colour from voting. So they are really threatened. 

Question: What does ‘EDI’ mean to you? 

Answer: Creating a space where everyone does belong, a community that is inclusive. Everyone wants to feel like they are a part of something greater than themselves. We all want to have a purpose and feel like we belong. Diversity means not only including one dominating culture, like in the tech sector for example, everyone is the same. Real inclusion emcompasses different sexualities, genders, races, ethnicities. Equity to me is giving everyone the same opportunities to do well at work, remembering the little things. For example, if you are in a wheelchair but the office only has steps, no one has thought about being inclusive. Or if you only have meetings at lunch, during Ramadan, that’s not fair to your Muslim colleagues. Even in terms of neurodiversity, people learn very differently. Bias is what stops a lot of careers, everyone has bias but it’s about what you do with it. 

Question: What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in EDI? 

Answer: Talk to people in the field, that’s what I did, I was already doing this type of work on a community level. To get started, I spoke to the former Head of Diversity at Apple and he was so encouraging. He introduced me to the psychologist Price Cobbs who actually wrote the book ‘Black Rage.’ He founded the idea that you need to take into account someone’s race and background when they are in therapy and spoke about the role of racism on mental health. Then I got a mentor who helped me go from training to consultancy, he taught me about systems and processes.

It is important to talk to people and learn as much as you can about yourself. Read more and identify your biases, why are you interested in EDI. Sometimes people think I’m gay, I know everything about being gay but you only really know about your particular group. You have to know about everyone and know what is happening in the world. If you don't, your views will be very limited. 

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