Manpreet Dhillon, Diversity and Inclusion Advocate, Veza Strategy

Manpreet Dhillon is a diversity and inclusion advocate and founder of Veza Strategy.  In the show today, Manpreet provides a vast knowledge of the D&I space including her thoughts on how leaders in organizations should start a D&I program, what she’s learned from consulting for the UN, and what books and articles we should all be reading if we want to learn more on diversity, which include:

–        The Diversity and Inclusion Report from Deloitte Insights

–        Delivering through Diversity from McKinsey

–        The Culture Map by Erin Meyer

–        The Harvard Implicit Association Test

Manpreet Dhillon Veza Strategy Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast

Donald Thompson: My guest today is Manpreet Dhillon, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant at Veza Strategy in Vancouver British Columbia.  Manpreet is all about creating equal opportunities for underrepresented groups. And one thing she mentioned right away is when talking about diversity, she doesn’t really like to use the phrase “of color” when describing minorities.

Manpreet Dhillon: We use the words “women with culturally diverse backgrounds” rather than “women of color” because just as a way to not other each other anymore.

Donald Thompson: I thought that was so powerful right away and an interesting perspective that makes a lot of sense, and throughout the episode today Manpreet continues to provide such a vast knowledge of the D&I space including her thoughts on how leaders in organizations should start a D&I program, what she’s learned from consulting for the UN, and what books and articles we should all be reading if we want to learn more on diversity.

To start today, Manpreet talks about her upbringing in Canada where there weren’t a whole lot of people who looked like her.

Manpreet Dhillon: And one of the biggest things growing up was  I used to always want to be white. I thought their lives were a lot easier. I’m from a South Asian background, my parents are from India. And it was really interesting where my mom would constantly be asking me, well, what does everyone else at school doing as a way to find ways to, for us to fit in so we’re not that different. You know, she would ask us, how are they dressing? What kind of food do they take for lunch? Or what does that look like? She was learning English at the same time, so she would watch a lot of TV to help our adjustment into school. And the school I went to, we literally had, I graduated with six people, six South Asians – Indians. And we use the word South Asian in Canada, cause it’s more politically correct than, than in the States. That’s the word isn’t really used all the time. And so I graduated six people and four of us were cousins. And so it was really interesting for me. You know, when people are like, yeah. Why don’t you date that person? I’m like, we’re related.

And one of the interesting things I didn’t realize until a couple of years later was all the minorities. We actually spent, we all hung out together at school. We all were friends. None of us knew that we spoke another language cause we had just kind of, we were more focused on what did we need to do to fit in where we would let go of our culture side. So as soon as I moved back into Vancouver I started to get connected back into the South Asian side cause I knew all growing up there was always a side of me that was missing. There was a side of me that I always kind of suppressed cause I didn’t want to be associated with the culture. I didn’t want to be associated with the music, the clothes or anything. And coming into Vancouver where it’s all people, South Asian, it was very different for me. I was, I was in a culture shock, but then all of a sudden I went to the other side and it was like, Oh, so. I didn’t fit in there either because I had grown up not suppressing my culture the entire time and had different viewpoints and so over time, this internal struggle, I started looking at how that impacted me at work in terms of what kind of rules I would go for. It also impacted the role models, like the lack of role models really, who looked like me in senior leadership positions. And then I also was involved with a not for profit. We would get access to a lot of like VIP rooms and, you know, political events and those kinds of things. But around these decision making tables, we were, there was only a few of us that were visible minorities. And it would hurt me every time I’d walk into a room, I’m like, Oh, we’d look around. And all of us were kinda spend time with each other because it was, how do you create sense of belonging? So I started in the arts looking at how do we, through culture, how do we build community? How do we understand how similar we are, but different we are and celebrate that. And then in the workplace I was bringing in people’s cultures into the workplace. You know, really looking at, we had this culture day where this woman from Korea taught about her food and how they whacked in the workplace and what that looks like. And then from there she, um, others were like, Oh, that’s why you don’t speak up in meetings all the time. Cause that was something that she had been conditioned to. And it’s really started to spark this interest of mine about 10 years ago where I was like, inclusion means people, the whole aspect themselves can be in the workplace.

Donald Thompson: Let me jump in and ask a question real quick cause it’s always interesting to me, kind of the journey to where people, one, start a business, right? And we’re talking about diversity inclusion, but it’s also powerful because we want people of all backgrounds, ethnicities to feel like they can be an entrepreneur, make a difference, all those different things. One of the things that you mentioned that I want to expand on is you used the phrase that I understand, but I don’t hear in common speak. You talked about women with culturally diverse backgrounds, and that’s an interesting way to describe diversity and women of color that I haven’t heard before. Why did you choose that rhythm of wording?

Manpreet Dhillon: I chose it because I was tired of othering others, I have a lot of my friends growing up were white. And I created, started doing networking events for South Asian women. They wanted to come, but they didn’t feel like they belong. And I’m like, if we, if I stay, I thought continue to create environments where, we’re kind of perpetuating of the whole feeling of people not belonging. It’s not true to who I am. And one of my core values is inclusivity, and it always has been ever since I was a child, and so women with culturally diverse backgrounds is really powerful for me because everyone has a culture. Regardless of your skin color, where you come from, you know, you can grow up in Canada, we have the Canadian culture that supports that. So the U S culture that supports us and culture influences cultures, the cities we live in, the communities we live in, the religions that we grow into. So when we start looking at people with the fact that they are just influenced by different, different systems and different thought patterns, you realize at the end of the day, again, where we can stop othering each other. And actually create more connectedness in this world as well.

Donald Thompson: So a couple of things that I took away from that, right, is really the impact and influence of social norms that really define many of us. And that actually creates, in many cases, an opportunity to be more connected because we can understand that I’m from the U S somebody who was raised in Canada, right? Somebody may be a Christian, somebody may be Hindu. And not creating an environment where we exclude anyone from a conversation we all want to have. And I think that the intent that you’re describing is powerful to me because there’s a humility in saying, I want to be recognized for my full self, but I don’t want to exclude anyone else in the process.

Manpreet Dhillon: Completely. Because at the end of the day, if people are bringing their full selves forward, we have to understand that they have different, you know, social norms that are impacting them.

And that’s where connection really happens, right? And that’s where inclusivity really happens as well.

Donald Thompson: One of the things that when I talk to folks these days about diversity and inclusion, and we focus on the inclusivity component, I get a lot of head nodding in an affirmative way. Like people are open minded, but they don’t necessarily know as leaders, as influencers, what they should do. What advice would you give to leaders in the workplace about how they can actually create that space for their future employees, current employees, stakeholders, to have that space, to have real conversations about our diverse background?

Manpreet Dhillon: One of the biggest things is like if we focus on leaders and individuals in the organizations, if we create a space where people – the conversations that we have are around understanding what people are thinking about, understanding where their thought patterns are coming from and that and creating a space where they can have a voice and they can bring their different perspectives to the table. That’s actually really how we’re going to shift, how do we really create a sense of like belonging within organizations and the How to do that is really like when you’re in a boardroom and you’re having a meeting. If someone’s really quiet, it’s really just asking them their opinion, especially if someone’s an introvert It’s like chatting someone else at the table that otherwise might not have a voice all the time. When you’re looking at promoting different individuals, don’t just promote the person who’s the loudest or takes  claim for a lot of things, but really looking at having a general, a matrix of how you are looking at doing your promotion. Also asking people to apply for a promotion or, showing someone that you believe in them makes a big difference as well.

Donald Thompson: So one, I’m super enjoying the conversation and you’re, you’re hitting on some powerful threads here. A daily issue in meetings that I’m in is that the loudest doesn’t equal the best idea. But sometimes that’s how we all behave. And one of the things that I tried to do is how do we connect diversity inclusion to the business benefit? And one of the things that’s really important is if you have people in a room that are introverted, the example you used are quiet or don’t feel like they’re included. What’s the value of missing those great points of input. And that’s pretty significant to companies. And so I think your point of pulling out of each individual is both the right thing to do so that people feel included. And I totally get that as a business leader. But then there’s a flip side that financially this person’s a well-paid professional. They’re in the room for a reason. Everybody should deliver their best self in every meeting that thy’re in.

Manpreet Dhillon: Well, completely. I mean, we was, I mean, there’s some stats out there and I can’t quote them off the number correctly, but it’s at the moment, but sometimes like some of the revenues are at between 28 and 35% increase. When you listen to diverse perspectives and new products get delivered that way, you understand your customers better. Like your customers aren’t all gonna be who’s at the bar at the top of the organization. They’re, they’re going to represent most, usually a very different, you know, sub sector. And if you’re getting, if you have diverse opinions in the room, but from your employees, you actually are getting your customer’s perspective in the room as well, which is what’s important thing. If you want to increase sales.

Donald Thompson: That’s exactly right. And I think that when we talk about this topic, a lot of times people will focus. On the typical, right, your gender, ethnicity, ethnicity, excuse me, religion. But we’re also much more complex than that. And you mentioned our personality styles, the introvert versus the extrovert and different things like that. And it’s, it’s really interesting as we start to unpack these things, how deep it can go and how fun it is, right? So learn. One of the examples that I’ll use is as I’ve become more educated and I’m trying to become better, I’ve naturally become more self aware. And so I’m reflecting that millisecond before I say something, to have at least a more healthier filter to observe the people in the room and I’m talking to and just be a little bit more mindful. Now, that doesn’t mean as a guy that I still don’t see, say, gum, things that my wife and daughter don’t need to correct. It just means it’s certainly not as frequent. It certainly, uh, not as, as, as terse because as a man, I don’t know how things sound to a one. So I have to be open to hear that kind of feedback so that I can be better and, and Rosen individual. And so I think it’s powerful that we all kind of get to speak our truth a little bit stronger in this environment. Uh, because there’s a lot of people that want to get better. They just don’t know how.

Manpreet Dhillon: Oh, completely. And the other thing is women also don’t know how we sound to a man. One of the biggest things, like I’m doing a TEDx talk a couple of months, but the biggest thing I’m talking about in it, I know that I will possibly get flack for this is as women, we also need to learn how to speak in a way that we will be heard and we can change the organizations systems and everything else. But women, we need to step into those roles as well. And unfortunately, we’re not at a place where we have, can completely ship, you know, break down the entire system and be like, you know, the thousands of years how business has been done that we can change that in one go. Unfortunately, we need to learn that, you know, the feminine masculine leadership principles, which exist in all genders, are really important to harness for all genders. With feminine leadership principles, the empathy, the collaboration, the communication are really key for when you’re talking to a masculine leadership style. And that’s where their dominant style is, regardless if they’re a male or a female, if their masculine leadership style is their dominant side. They are not going to really connect with the empathy, collaboration, relationships side. They’re going to connect with the numbers. They’re going to connect with, looking at how are you meeting your targets? And that’s what’s, so you have to learn how to speak to the different styles as well. And then the masculine leadership styles need to be able to speak to the empathy communication, you know, that side as well. So we need to understand that people are different and we can’t expect everyone to function the same way. And that’s the biggest thing as like leaders in front organizations is really understanding your people and how to best connect to them and communicate with them. Cause that’s what’s gonna bring out the best in them.

Donald Thompson: Oh, that’s powerful. Let me pivot a little bit. You’re doing some amazing stuff with the UN. I’d like to hear a little bit more about that. Tell me some of the initiatives and how you got involved there and bring me up to speed on your work with the UN.

Manpreet Dhillon: Yeah, so  I took a risk. I left my, uh, I had my company going, I left a large contract to go volunteer for the UN. It was always a dream of mine to go volunteer. And so I had the opportunity, so I took it and I went into volunteered for the organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons, and I went and develop the HR strategy and gender diversity strategy while I was there. And. It was really amazing because it was a volunteer contract turned into a consulting contract. And then now I recently just did a project with UN Women Georgia, where we developed a mentorship program for women to introduce to their private sector. All of these things I’m really proud of because it’s really neat to work with individuals who are, self-sacrificing in many ways. And they’re really thinking about the greater good and to be able to support them in their career journeys and to support them in the workplace so that they are the best version of themselves is amazing. Developing out a mentorship program was really neat  as it’s being introduced. It’s gonna. you know, we’re addressing sexual harassment, we’re addressing, you know, leadership, but we’re also addressing just the internal way of like, how do you show up, in the workplace and, you know, kind of take care of your own, positions and take care of your own self, while you’re pushing these patriarchal societies.

Donald Thompson: Yup. One of the things that you mentioned as we had went through a couple of the different talk threads is women learning how to speak and communicate in that masculine, tone or perspective, independent of the gender that you’re talking to. And one of the things that we typically do is pigeonhole one another into one slice. And people can be very different in their personality types based on the situation they’re in. And so for example, and I’d like your feedback on this, a lot of times we talk about gender equity in terms of compensation. That’s a, that’s a major thread in business when you talk about D&I. What is the responsibility of the individual to make sure that they speak up and they don’t say yes to the first job offer, that they speak up and that they negotiate? It’s one thing to, as a company, make sure that your infrastructure is not being detrimental to any one group. What is your perspective on how we need to train and teach people to get what they think is fair and push the envelope?

Manpreet Dhillon: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m such a firm believer in that. We do a lot of training up here in some of the events that we do in negotiating for yourself, because we, I mean, there’s, again, research shows that women are more likely to accept the first job offer that they are given. And it is a responsibility to counter offer. It’s their responsibility to research and see what  is market rate? I mean, I’ve been in that space too. Like I, I happened to me a couple of years ago, someone was like, Oh, what’s your salary expectations? And I even do the work. I thought stuck and I’m like, Oh, I don’t know. And I wasn’t prepared, but that’s why it was such a good reminder for me. Always prepare before getting on any of these calls because someone’s going to ask you and you need to have your number ready. Even while I was on the call, it was two situations happen with him, like back to back. At that time, it was a contract negotiation. And the first one, they were surprised that I gave a lower number and I was like, Oh, interesting. This is, why did I do that? So just kind of diving into that a little bit more. And then the second one, I worst negotiation technique ever. I was more, I thought that I was like, Oh, these are all the factors why they can’t pay me what I think I should be paid. And so I gave them a number of what I thought they could afford, which the person came back to me and she’s like, that was a worst negotiation that I’ve ever seen. She goes, come back to me. Give me the number that you should be being paid, you have money that you don’t know of. I was like, Oh, okay.

Donald Thompson: That is a great story and I appreciate just the. candor in sharing it that way, but it also reinforces the point that, like I, from a male standpoint, like for whatever reason, culturally, negotiating, I got to get the win, I’m going to ask for more. Even if the first offer was super fair, right? Like I’m going to be like, yeah, I need 10% more or whatever, right? Just because you’re chasing the win. But when I think about as a husband and a father of three daughters. I want to make sure that it gets ingrained in them, what that value is so that it is more natural for them to ask the question, Hey, listen, this is what I’m thinking for a starter standpoint, but I’d like a little bit to do some research just to make sure that we both feel fair. Is a phrase that I’ve given to people that I’ve counseled in groups, so they don’t have to feel on the spot if they’re not ready, but that they can at least pivot and say, thank you so much for asking that question. I’d like to do a little bit of homework on market value, and I’d love to get back with you in 24 hours on that call. What you’re describing and what I like very much is there’s both an opportunity for a corporation or organization or nonprofit to be aware. But there’s also that individual responsibility for us to make sure that we’re improving ourselves to where we don’t put ourselves in situations, whether it’s financially or a day to day working environment that we don’t have to take being, anything less than our full self. And I think that’s such a great message.

Manpreet Dhillon: Yeah, it’s uh, it was always, it’s always a fun story, but every time I cringe, I’m like, Oh, I can’t believe I did that. And it’s made me stronger in the work that we do now.

Donald Thompson: Absolutely. What advice would you give? So if you’re talking to a group of professionals that are looking to start their diversity inclusion practice, they’re serious about it. They want to put some budget behind it, They want to move past just the head nodding. What are some things you would have them read, research and do to actually build out a diversity inclusion programming, throughout a company.

Manpreet Dhillon: So I’m going to do a little bit of a plug. Our company, we did developed this great assessment tool where companies, it takes them an hour, it bench marks them against the maturity model. That’s based on, we based it on Deloitte’s, but it really gives them next steps on how to move forward in the DNI journey. And if they’re doing really well, it tells you exactly what you can go to go deeper. If you’re just starting, it tells you how to get started. And so we have this assessment tool, which really allows organizations to benchmark where they are currently, and it gives them actionable steps on how to move forward and they can develop a strategy from it. This assessment tool takes like an hour and it’s really low cost. It’s like the a hundred dollars Canadian. But that’s actually a great way to start. Otherwise, if someone’s looking to start reading Deloitte’s, diversity inclusion report, reading that really helps to understand where things are at with the trends. McKinsey releases some great reports as well. And then also just think about, I always start off with how does your candidate pool look like? Do you have enough candidates from diverse backgrounds? How are you recruiting them and where are you recruiting them from? Cause if you can solve the candidate pool problem, then who you bring into the organization if you need to focus on retention as well. That’s one, that’s one direction. And the other prong at the same time is focusing on the people who are in your organization, what’s gonna keep them there. And just even asking them the question of like, what would keep you here. And that itself is such a powerful question just to get started on the D&I practice within any organization.

Donald Thompson: No, that is, that is really great in that it’s both from a D&I perspective, but employers and the talent wars are looking to build that retention base regardless. And one of the things that we’re doing at our company Walk West is each week we just send out a quick little survey with three or four questions and it’s amazing the feedback that we’re getting from our employees, but we get to action on things about their work environment while they’re still here, relatively happy. Then finding out feedback on the exit interview, which is the absolute worst time to get feedback where the person has already decided that they need to make a move, and so that understanding of why do you stay here and what would keep you here from a retention standpoint is great. And also leveraging some of these large consultancies, Deloitte, McKinsey, in terms of their D&I reports. I love the assessment tool. That’s just tried and trued because it gives a kind of a foundational benchmark for people. That then is backed up by other work that you’re doing. And so even post this conversation, that may be something that we want to talk about for some of the D&I work that we’re doing, of how do we leverage that tool and your expertise in Canada because that price point is perfect because it’s not free but it’s low enough that most companies of all sizes could fill that out and get some benefit from it. And so I love that, that advice on those threads.

Manpreet Dhillon: Yeah. Thank you. It’s easier than we think. That’s the whole thing though.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s cool. One of the things when we look at the challenges that we all face is unconscious bias. It’s something that, you know, I’d say to my team that we’re working on some of these initiatives. How do I know my unconscious biases because they’re unconscious, So, so like how do you, and, and I’m kind of making a joke, but I’m super serious. Like how do we help people dig into the things that may be holding us back?

Manpreet Dhillon: Well, one of the biggest, one of the first places I tell people to start is doing the Harvard implicit bias test. And it’s a free test that you can do online. You just search Harvard implicit bias, and it really allows you to give you a real understanding of how much we live with bias all the time. So that’s the first thing I always tell everyone to start with. And even with all my clients, that’s the place that we start all of our client work with as well. It’s also knowing that if you have a brain, you’re going to have a bias. That itself helps to alleviate a lot of pressure when people are like, Oh no, am I doing this wrong? Or, you know, how is this how, how is my thought patterns going to impact someone else? It’s like, it’s okay that the fact that all the conditioning you’ve had for since you’ve been a baby is going to impact you and you are going to have tons of biases. We all do. The most important thing is when you see that bias coming up is about taking a pause, acknowledging it, and moving on and  choosing something different the next time. And then when we’re also like, when it’s up with asking yourself the question, what lens am I looking at the situation from? What are the assumptions am I making, well, I’m looking at this as this situation? One of the easiest exercises we do with clients is we will say, okay, you’re going to hire someone with the diversabilities. What’s the first things that pop into your mind? What’s the things that associate you associate with that? It’s from just even from that one question and within like that one minute of like what pops into their mind. They understand so many of their biases. And from there, they’re very aware that that’s what they think about. They’re like, okay, if that’s the lens, then we start kind of diving into a deeper. But if that’s a lens that they’re approaching this with, then they also are, you know, they can move forward with it being aware of that and the whole thing is about being aware of your bias, right? So I think just implicit bias test, asking yourself the question, what’s my assumptions? What, what lens am I looking at this with? And what do I believe about what’s presented in front of me?

Donald Thompson: That’s powerful. And one of the things that I would add to that for our listeners and those that are looking at improving, especially when we’re interviewing candidates, we want to make sure that we have diverse representation in that interview selection process, both from the reviewing of resumes all the way through the interview process and the feedback loop. Because even knowing our biases doesn’t mean we can fix them all at once, but if we have a team that’s reasonably diverse, that’s looking at candidates, and we have an open environment for communication, we can back each other up, along the way. One of the things as we finish up, I wanted to just give you space to just share any other things on your mind that you think would be helpful in terms of things to read or do or just thought processes, things you’ve learned  about really moving this conversation forward from a diversity inclusion, perspective?

Manpreet Dhillon: One of the best books that I’ve read recently, it’s called that the culture map. And it’s by Erin Mayer, even though I’ve been doing this work for number of years, but just reading this book and understanding the cultural differences really made a difference for me. The more that we like, you know, it’s also like if you hear of a culture, like I, I talk a lot about culture because that’s the easiest way to start researching or to start thinking about things. But it’s about understanding different people’s experiences. Like talk to the people that you’re surrounded with, go and, you know, put yourself in situations where you might meet someone new outside of your regular circle. And just from that it makes, that’s how to further the conversation. That’s how to further take action on it. And I’ll just, quick story is, I was presenting at a workshop a couple of years ago, but two years ago, I guess, and one person in the room came in. She was like, I’ve never had anyone other than white be my friend. Like I don’t even know how to have a conversation with anyone who’s not white. And she goes, I know that’s really bad to say, but I get really, it’s really hard for me and I get a lot of anxiety cause I’ve never had to talk to someone who’s not. And the fact that she was in this workshop admitting that was so powerful and it was really great because what we did is during the conference, all of us like set up different times to talk to her just to make her feel more comfortable. But not because we wanted to make her feel comfortable, but just so she understands that we’re not that different. And for me, that’s the biggest thing that you can do for D&I is talk to someone who’s different than you.

Donald Thompson: Powerful in its simplicity. And one of the things that  I appreciate it, and this is a compliment to your experience, but also as a, as a teacher, is you share your personal stories and testimonies. And so I really appreciate the way that you intertwined both your experience and some of the knowledge assets that you’ve gained from over the years.

Manpreet Dhillon: Well thank you. Thank you for that feedback too.  Knowledge is abundant and we, and it’s always nice to have references to different things that we can learn from.

Donald Thompson: Well, I am super excited. I am better because we’ve talked and met and I mean that sincerely. Like I’m super excited. I’m definitely going to go and find this Harvard implicit bias testand use that as a tool for people that we’re working with and talking with. And we’ll definitely follow up with you on the diversity assessment that you guys have built because I think those types of things for folks that are seeking are wonderful places to start and also gives a real opportunity for us to continue this conversation offline.

Manpreet Dhillon: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me, and it’s really connecting.

Donald Thompson: That was Manpreet Dhillon, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant at Veza Strategy.  For more on Manpreet, visit her website at, and Veza is spelled V E Z A. Such an amazing source of knowledge, and I can’t thank you enough for coming on the show Manpreet!

Some of the resources that she mentioned I want to bring up again because they’re important for all of us to learn.

  • The Diversity and Inclusion Report from Deloitte Insights
  • Delivering through Diversity from McKinsey
  • The Culture Map by Erin Meyer
  • And the Harvard Implicit Association Test

And we’ll be sure to include all of those in the show notes.

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Diversity Beyond the Checkbox is hosted by Donald Thompson, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant and CEO of Walk West in Raleigh North Carolina. For more information including the online course, head over to Podcast production by Earfluence.

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