Jessica Bantom is a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEIB) practitioner and workplace strategist whose goals are to help organizations develop customized strategies for transformational change and to enable individuals to take immediate action to become more inclusive. Author of the ‘Start Where You Are’ blog, she is a skilled management consultant with over 20 years of experience, a dynamic speaker, and a certified facilitator and coach with a passion for helping people and organizations activate the values of DEIB to become more culturally competent and thrive in our increasingly global economy.
Jessica is the Director of Operations and DEIB Officer at Steele Strategies, providing key leadership and strategic direction in the development and integration of DEIB practices in all aspects of the consulting firm’s business. A graduate of the University of Virginia and Marymount University, she is also active in the interior design industry as an interior design and color consultant and as an engaged advocate committed to promoting DEIB in the industry and in practice. She describes herself as a multidisciplinary designer of human-centered solutions and uses her specialization in design thinking to develop and apply innovative approaches that transcend industries.
Finish this sentence: I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for ________________.
My mother. She loves me unconditionally and never stifled my independence or judged me for creating my own paths. She’s always supported me with subtle (and not-so-subtle – ha!) words of Mom’s wisdom along the way. She has also been one of my biggest role models in terms of conducting myself with pride, strength, and empathy. She showed me what it’s like to stand up for yourself and how to assert yourself and still be heard as well as when to listen and how to care and really show up for others in meaningful ways. One of the gifts she’s given me that I use daily in my work is the gift of curiosity. She always challenged me and my siblings to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and to not jump to conclusions. I do my best to remind her regularly of my gratitude for all of these things.
Resumes highlight professional and educational achievements. Which one of your life or personal experiences deserves to be on your resume?
Honestly, I would have to say thriving as a Lived Experiencer and maintaining my sense of self-worth, my belief in my capabilities, the determination to accomplish anything I envision, my spiritual grounding, and my compassion despite being in settings and environments that don’t typically signal that I’m welcome or expected to excel. There is a strength of spirit I recognize in others like myself who manage to navigate and triumph in spaces as members of marginalized groups and emerge with their sense of self and a centeredness intact that I call the Lived Experience Quotient. I believe that’s something we should be able to recognize in ourselves, that others should recognize and value, and that we should claim as an asset both professionally and personally.
What qualities do you look for when hiring someone on your team? What qualities do you avoid?
In my experience as a leader navigating the recruitment and hiring process, it became clear to me that the qualities that matter most are not usually spelled out on anyone’s resume. If someone is resourceful, intelligent, and resilient, I believe they can handle any task. Resourcefulness means you can independently figure out ways to get things done and implies a level of humility to know when to seek out skills or tools you don’t possess. Intelligence doesn’t always mean book smarts (it’s actually more of an extension of resourcefulness) and it’s demonstrated by being able to draw not only on knowledge you possess but also being able to make connections between disparate information. Resilience is about having the capacity to try again when one solution doesn’t work and not getting completely derailed or defeated.
I avoid qualities like arrogance, entitlement, and pridefulness because they are antithetical to teamwork and a mission focus.
These times call for leaders to tap into their vulnerability, accept that it’s going to be challenging, open their minds to hear – and accept – different perspectives, and be comfortable saying, “I don’t know but let’s figure it out.”
Is there a time when you were told to change yourself, or hide some aspect of yourself to be accepted or successful in a situation? How did you react?
For my first job out of school, I managed a company’s trade show program, which required me to coordinate with executive-level staff. I will admit it felt awkward because I had to task very senior people, I was the only person of color in my department interacting with an all-white leadership team, and I was very young but I also had confidence in my ability to communicate effectively and appropriately. One executive wasn’t pleased with the tone of a message I sent him and he came to my cube – with my whole team in earshot – and said I should be more mindful of the tone of my emails (mind you, I had never seen him approach anyone else this way.) And I simply said that I’m very mindful of the language I choose. There was an awkward stare-down and then he left. He reported it to my VP, who then mentioned it to me – and we both chuckled. He commended my response.
Which three books, podcasts or news sources do you think everyone should read? Why?
I recommend the book ‘We Can’t Talk about That at Work!’ by Mary-Frances Winters for leaders who want to know what to expect as they launch their organization’s DEI journey and for beginning DEI practitioners who are trying to figure out the first steps of their organization’s DEIB journey. The guidance in this book is critical for people who just need to figure out where to start. I also recommend The Inclusion Solution blog, which is produced by the author’s firm, The Winters Group. It covers a broad range of relevant DEI topics. Finally, I recommend signing up for the NAACP newsletter and publications from other BIPOC organizations to stay on top of topics that are relevant to us that may not be covered or presented from our perspective elsewhere.
Diversity, equity and inclusion is front and center right now. How do you express your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in your personal and professional life?
Personally, I am very intentional about networking with other people of color and sharing or creating opportunities for them to explore new pursuits, get in front of new crowds, and/or collaborate to support one another. I have sponsored BIPOC students to participate in industry conferences to make connections and prepare to enter the professional world. I introduce individuals with similar backgrounds or missions to help them build their networks. Professionally, I model inclusive behavior and create opportunities for as many people as possible to have a voice, whether that’s through activities like design sprints or inviting them to meetings to weigh in on decisions they’re typically not involved in. I also write a blog (Start Where You Are) that provides prompts for all people – regardless of background, level, industry, etc. – to think and act in ways that exemplify the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
What do you find most frustrating about corporate DEI initiatives and what’s one tangible step every employer should take to help build a more representative organization?
In many instances, DEI initiatives never really get off the ground because leaders are too afraid to engage in the dialogue and self-reflection they require. I find this extremely frustrating because the global majority is forced to endure discomfort and in some cases outright threats on a daily basis because those who have the power to do something about it are putting their personal discomfort before any and everyone else. These times call for leaders to tap into their vulnerability, accept that it’s going to be challenging, open their minds to hear – and accept – different perspectives, and be comfortable saying, “I don’t know but let’s figure it out.”
To build a more representative organization, employers should engage with the underrepresented groups within their organization, ask what’s working and not working for them, and use those insights to address pain points that would make the organization more appealing to diverse candidates and more inclusive as a workplace so existing employees might refer their peers.