Tedx Founder Lara Stein: How Courageous Leadership can Prevent the Downfall of Humanity

After growing up in apartheid South Africa and seeing how education suppression led to systemic racism, Lara Stein thought that she would be far removed from that in the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. She was wrong. But she’s doing everything in her power to change the world and eliminate systemic racism – in government, in private sectors, and even in artificial intelligence.

Boma Global

Transcript

Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson Podcast. I am enthused today, as always, but really encouraged about hearing from our guest, Lara Stein. And Lara is the founder and the CEO of Boma Global. And I want to welcome you to the show. Welcome, Lara. 

Lara Stein: Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

Donald Thompson: One of the things that we like to do, and we’ll get into the, the way that you are trying to make a significant impact on the way the world learns in a moment. I want to take a step back and give you some space just to share with our audience a little bit about you; where you’re from, how you grew up, family. Anything that you’d like to let us in a little bit tighter. 

Lara Stein: Sure. So I grew up in South Africa during apartheid. I grew up in a white, Jewish family. My family was very actively involved in politics and student politics, my brother helped rewrite the constitution. But definitely my formulative years of growing up during apartheid South Africa, gave me this lens on how systemic change can make a big difference and how education is a key to really suppressing people and, you know, inflicting at times, great pain and suffering, and an ability to advance. 

And so, a lot of the work that I’ve done throughout my career, and I spent the first half of my life in the for-profit sector, and then the latter part sort of straddling the two; non-profit and for-profit. And now, trying to work on systemic change that could bring the two together. But most certainly, a lot of what I’ve done has been at the intersection of technology and education informed by, you know, what I saw when I was growing up. And so, I really do believe that education is the key to solving a lot of our social problems and as well as a lot of our discourse in the world. 

Donald Thompson: That is wonderful. And, you know, I appreciate you sharing that. One of the things that I’d be interested in, right? Because growing up in a country with that kind of system, how would you equate that to someone that hasn’t experienced that? What would that be similar to in the United States or other countries? How would you educate someone on apartheid if they’re not really familiar with the term and that distinction?

Lara Stein: So, it’s a way to systemically put down a whole group of people and not educate them and make them basically into second-class citizens. And the interesting thing about apartheid, it was very overt. But I think the sort of oppression of groups of people happens in every country, all over the world. And sometimes they’re more covert; sort of this idea that still waters run deep.

And sometimes they’re very overt. And in some ways, I think it almost makes it worse when it’s not acknowledged. And so, when I first came to America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, I didn’t think there’d be any kind of, you know, systemic racism. And so, it was really a kind of a shock when I first got here to see — to see it, but how deeply buried it was within the society.

Donald Thompson: I think that, you know, you make an interesting point that, that terminology: overt versus covert. Because in America today, there are folks that still say that there is no systemic racism. Right? How do you in your work and your lens, how do we educate people in an environment in the United States where there’s so much disinformation? 

There’s so much in this social media construct of people putting out kind of false narratives purposely. As an educator, how do we restore that trust in things that are true, things that are honest, things that are for the good being of, of humanity? What are some of your thoughts on how do we get through the noise?

Lara Stein: So, I don’t think it’s only with racism. I think fake news and false narratives are really going to be the downfall of American society and humanity if we don’t figure out how to get ahead of it. And we have to educate everybody, no matter what they get in, any social media feed to analyze it and go back to, what was the source? Who is the voice putting this out there in the world?

And do I trust this voice? Most people aren’t educated to do that. So, what they get in their feed, they believe. And unfortunately, this is creating a lot of the division we see in our society and a lot of the underlying systemic conflict we’re seeing in society. There is no longer a common story. I mean, there never was a common story, but there were more stories that were common. And those stories are being fragmented in ways that it’s irreparable.

And in this, we found a way to work with social media companies to allow, and I don’t want to put solutions forward, but at least to allow people to understand where the source of the story is coming from. Everybody is given equal weight. So my racist grandmother, and I’m not saying my  grandmother was racist, but I’m saying my racist grandmother in South Africa has as big a megaphone as you. Right? And yet, there’s no differentiation in my, my social media feed. And so, it’s very difficult to understand how any of this resolves without the social media companies  paying some kind of role. 

Donald Thompson: Hmm. I mean, I think that, you know, we all, as leaders, as leaders of businesses, we’re seeing a transformation, I believe, to where leaders are starting to lean into their social responsibility. We saw that in the state of Georgia with some of the laws that were being enacted around voter rights, for example. And this podcast is not for or against that. That’s not my purpose in this call,  but what was interesting is when hundreds of CEOs who normally, historically, would not have leaned into that type of issue, are now doing so more vocally, what– are you seeing that kind of trend and how do we support that? How do you feel about that? And does it give us any hope? 

Lara Stein: I think that is great. And it gives us a lot more hope that they’re using their leadership and their position to help forward a narrative like that. And I think there are a lot of CEOs, you know, both when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and when it comes to climate change, that are on a very personal journey right now. They’ve seen the effects of COVID, they’ve seen how it’s made us feel much more vulnerable than we’ve ever felt before, and how deeply it’s made us feel connected.  They’ve seen how it’s affected minorities, you know, women in a significantly more difficult way. And they are trying to navigate through this and navigate towards a more inclusive and sustainable world.

A lot of them have done things that have, when it comes to climate change, they’ve thrown their hat in the ring and they’ve been like, “We’re going to get to carbon neutral by–” and they will put a date on it. And others have said, “We’re going to be a more diverse, inclusive organization.” But really, it’s one thing saying it, it’s another thing actually having a plan to execute that.

And so, when I hear CEOs saying the right things, that’s great. But if you look at the climate change movement, they’ve been saying the right things and they’ve had a corporate responsibility team for a long time, but really, the action has to follow in order for any of this to become real. And so, if you look at all the stats right now, there are only– I think there were four, maybe there are three black women CEOs in fortune 500 companies. There are 50%–  57% of the employees there say their company should be doing more to increase diversity inclusion, but their companies aren’t. 41% of managers said they typically didn’t implement any kind of diversity and inclusion.

I mean, the statistics don’t line up with, “Okay, we need to now really take this seriously. And, you know, I think what’s interesting is that moving into the future between diversity inclusion and climate change, CEO’s are going to have to figure it out. Not only that in order to be a competitive organization in the future, they will need to figure it out, their employees are going to insist they figure it out, the next generation most certainly is going to insist they figure it out. And if they don’t, the company’s not going to ultimately meet the goals and the responsibility they need to. And so, it’s no longer just a “maybe,” it’s a “must have.” It’s a requirement in order to be a responsible leader moving into the future.

And although the data does show that if you create a more diverse workforce, ultimately, that helps you be a more profitable company. Because you have the complexity of inputs that drive a better output. And so, I think to some degree, in order to– A, the CEO’s have to have a plan, and they, B, need to really be taking it seriously and implementing their plan. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter what they’re saying. It’s, it’s sort of not real. 

Donald Thompson: That’s exactly right. I, I am very aligned with what you’re describing and I want to echo something that you said. “Being a responsible leader.” And I think that is starting to become the expectations, and then you mentioned the number of people that expect their companies to do more; 57%.

And that number will continue to increase, especially as Gen Z starts to grow in the organization; the younger leaders are developing. There’s a trend. And those demographics, those trends aren’t going away. And so, leaders that think they have a choice to ignore or engage, are going to quickly find out that it’s a function of, they’re going to have to engage to ultimately meet those profitability goals and growth goals of their company. So, very, very, very well said. 

Lara Stein: Yeah, and I guess the other part of the challenge is that we are moving to an exponential digital future. You know, technology is playing such a fundamental role in our personal lives and our professional lives. And so many of the tools and the different devices we use are going to be driven by AI. And a huge percentage of the computer scientists designing that AI tend to be white men. And so, therefore, there’s a lot of biases within those algorithms that exist today and will continue to exist unless we diversify who is actually designing these algorithms and how they’re approaching that design. And so, that is a real concern. And it drives some massive ethical questions about, you know, what our technology is doing and what point of view it’s coming to us from? And so, that in some ways is as big a concern as you know, how we are employing people and making sure our workforce is diverse. 

Donald Thompson: No, that’s a powerful extension to the diversity, equity, inclusion narrative. Because those are the biases that start to get baked into systems, to lending systems. If you’re thinking about from a financial standpoint. 

Lara Stein: Hiring systems, lending systems. You know, the outliers and the minorities, if those algorithms are designed in certain ways, will stand less of a chance in the future than they did in the present when algorithms weren’t involved in some of those choices. Right?

 And again, that’s invisible. That is not something you can even quantify unless you are able to really analyze the code and who’s designing that code. I recently, I have two 19 year olds, and I recently– not that recently. It feels like everything’s constructed in time right now, but to a lot of the colleges, both my kids wanted to study engineering. And I remember going to– I won’t call out any college, but I remember going to one of the colleges, one of the top engineering schools, where when you get there as a freshman, you no longer have to study any liberal arts, any philosophy, anything but math and science. Right? 

And so, I always feel at a time where, as a engineer or programmer, you need to be taking those classes more so than before because you need that sort of Renaissance perspective to actually design what you need to design, to make technology more human-centered and more diverse and more inclusive. 

Donald Thompson: That’s a powerful point of view and that invisible bias is the way that I would frame what we’re, we’re fighting against. And when we talk about those algorithms. You know, one of the things that I’d like to get a better understanding is, tell me about Boma Global. Right? Number one, it’s a super cool name. Like that’s awesome. Tell me the mission, tell me why you started this, this firm and what are you looking to accomplish? 

Lara Stein: See, I’ll start with the word. I mean, I’m from South Africa, as I said. And in ancient Africa, the Boma was a wooden enclosure where the tribe would come together at times and have their hard conversations and then, ultimately, take action.

And when we look at the world, like right now, it’s so complicated that all these vectors coming together and it’s not just COVID, climate change, geo-political change, social change. And really, as COVID has shown us, we need all these local solutions, or at least alignment to roll up globally if we’re actually going to move forward as humanity in a way that matters. You know, it doesn’t matter what zero admission rules you put in place in the U.S. if we are not aligning with China. Who’s another, you know, the second biggest emitter. So, we have to think about these big global problems, how we build them through these bottom-ups and top-down systems.

And so, the original vision, just symbolically, was this idea of humanity coming together in both bottom-up and top-down ways through these community circles in a way that we’re designing emergent, agile outputs for some of these big global challenges. So, what Boma Global is, is really a decentralized network of partners around the world. It came out of my work of founding and building TEDx, and what I learned from that, and then building Singularity University’s Gold Global Expansion. And it’s a decentralized network of partners around the world that are designing and implementing solutions and learning journeys to how we get leaders to think more intentionally, intelligently about the future.

And so, we’re doing that primarily through large scale impact events that focus on some of our big level challenges, and then working with corporate leaders on what they need to know and who they need to be, to design a more intentional, intelligent, inclusive, and sustainable world. And so, we are then also tackling it from a bottom-up community perspective, which is sort of being put on hold through COVID. But we are hoping to circle back so that our training can be democratized, and communities around the world that would never normally have access to this level of training, we are able to give access to them as well. 

Donald Thompson: Oh, that is, that is really, really powerful. So now, I want to drill down even a little deeper. Tell me about a specific line of instruction, tell me about an event that someone would go to, so that our listeners can think about what that experience would, would be like. And it really can be any type of topic, but start to drill down on that learning–

Lara Stein: Yeah, sure. I’ll just pick one of the more recent initiatives we did. We, we did a– and this is on the event side. I can get into it also, on the corporate training side of it. We recently did an event on regenerative ag and the future of food systems.

It was the second one we had done. It took place in New Zealand. So, we had 500 people in the room and we also livestreamed it to our Boma community and our Boma community circles around the world. And it was across stakeholder events. So we had everybody from the minister of agriculture there, to big companies, to a lot of the social impact entrepreneurs, to high school students.

And we put abstention of the tickets aside, so people who would not have access to events like this, had access. And so, you had CEOs of big Fortune 500 companies sitting next to high school students and talking about how we redesign our food systems. Ultimately, we would like to do that in a global way so we’re able to highlight and elevate innovation all over the world around that topic of how do we design our better food systems. And make it very much an inclusive conversation. And so, everything we do, we see the value of sort of attacking things from a cross-disciplinary, cross-stakeholder, cross-economic point of view, and really getting complex inputs in order to really design the output.

And so, I mean, that’s just one example. We did an amazing event recently in China to kick off a new peninsula they’re building in China. And it’s going to be art plus, so art plus– what impact does the creative community have in designing a more sustainable, inclusive future? And how does that merge with, with tech? So art plus AI, art plus regenerative ag, art plus all these different issues of the role of the visionary and the creative community to help us reimagine a better future. So, that was something we did two weeks ago in China. And then when it comes to the work we’re doing in the corporate training sector, we really focus it on what you need to know and who you need to be to be a future-forward, sustainable, inclusive leader.

And so, we tend to divide it up in the externalities and the internalities. So, you have things around ESG, sustainability, inclusivity, and all the issues in order to design this fair, inclusive organization in the future. And then you have, in order to get there, what kind of a leader do you have to be?

Because 90% of leaders right now are saying they’re totally re-evaluating both themselves and their businesses because of COVID. And so, in this moment, in order to take that next step, as we said, it’s all about– you can say you’re making plans to do– you know, to create a more diverse workforce or a more sustainable approach. But if you don’t really have a plan, we’re not going to get there. 

So, in this moment, they are reevaluating. So, who do they need to be as a human being? And you know, whether it’s courage or compassion or the right ethical framework, who do they need to be to get them there? Right? And so, our corporate training modules tend to balance those two things.

The whole Boma network grew out of the work that I did at Ted, in founding TEDx. And so, they spent 10 years really thinking about all these big global issues and curating at a very high level. And they have access to some of the most, I think, interesting minds on the planet buried all over the world, doing some incredible work.

And so, we’re really leveraging those minds to help us design these modules, these training modules that are delivered by facilitators. So it would be, you know, as if, who would you consider, you know, throw out a name of somebody you would really respect, but who would that be? 

Donald Thompson: Yeah. So like, if I were thinking about leadership, I would think about General Colin Powell. If I were thinking of somebody– a leader that I would trust, right? 

Lara Stein: So, we build a module, a series of modules of General Colin Powell, around a specific issue that he’s spent, or that he wants to focus on. And then we use his voice and his video, but make that a very interactive experience that feels more like a day of Ted, to deliver it through facilitators into organizations.

Donald Thompson: Got it. And I appreciate you taking it from that iconic leader, to now that facilitator, now to that delivery in terms of how do we get it to the folks. 

Lara Stein: Because, you know, you– I mean, the reason we did a– you know, there are people who have been working on and researching this, and doing amazing work all over the world.

But in order for that to scale, you need a framework that’ll allow it to scale. To bring their great vision and their research into organizations, you have to design it in a way that it scales. 

Donald Thompson: One of the things that you said, you used an acronym that is maybe not as familiar to our audience; ESG. We’re getting familiar with diversity, equity, inclusion. Talk to me about ESG and how that nomenclature, and how we’re thinking about that within corporate training and education.

Lara Stein: Yeah, so ESG really is this framework of environmental, social, and corporate governance. And it really is a framework that’s mainly used, more so I guess, in the investment community to allow businesses to align behind these new set of values and then actually hold themselves accountable. And so, if you think back to the 1950s, Milton Freeman created a doctrine that said the primary responsibility of a corporation is to maximize for shareholder value.

There’s this movement to move towards a more inclusive and more stakeholder-driven financial  framework. And ESG is one of the structures that organizations are using for the accountability.  I’m not an ESG expert. We have lots of people on my team that are, but it has a long way to go. There’s a lot of inconsistencies and not 100% alignment as to these metrics and how they should be measured, but it’s a good start to create a criteria or a set of standards for a company to start moving into a more sort of conscious system of operating. 

Donald Thompson: That makes a lot of sense. And I appreciate that very much because one of the things that, as I talked to leaders, and you probably experienced this as well, everyone has a different point of reference and we can lose people from engaging when they don’t understand the new language.  And so, I have to work to just slow it down. And also, when I hear a new acronym that I don’t understand, I just have to have that curiosity to ask. Because it’s usually something I can understand pretty quickly. It’s just something that’s unfamiliar. Right? 

Lara Stein: Yeah. No, it’s important. I think part of the challenge we have– we cross stakeholder, and we have different stakeholder groups speaking very different languages right now. And, you know, a lot of them are aligning around the same set of goals. But if you’re not able to actually articulate that in a way that you really understand each other, then maybe you don’t have alignment. Right? And so, you’re absolutely right. 

Donald Thompson: One of the things I want to give you some space to share is, how does someone that’s listening to this, somebody that sees the transcript or the blog that comes out with this, get involved in Boma? What should they do next? 

Lara Stein: So again, our theory of change is cross stakeholder. So, it depends on what level, what we’re really focused on right now is how do we get corporate leadership to think differently about designing a more inclusive and sustainable future. And so, if you’re a big organization, we would love to work with you in taking you through our corporate training or working with you and collaborating with you on creating modules that are bespoke to your organization. We also design large-scale events. So, to the degree you want to participate in any of our events, we have amazing work both online, digitally.

Although, I think everybody’s a little zoomed out at this point, but also picking up and starting to do in-person convenings again around these big global issues, which I’m personally really excited about. And then finally, we have a platform right now that has sort of been on autopilot through COVID, but allows communities to have these in-person convenings that either find the social impact innovation, or it’s a model that either allows for that. Or, as a completely self-organized initiative, bring people with diverse points of view together to help them have– and work with them on having, and there are frameworks that allow this to happen, a conversation where they really are able to respectfully listen to each other’s points of view.

And think about how they can put themselves in each other’s shoes in order to move forward. Because I think one of the, as we said at the beginning of the conversation, the challenges we have right now is hard-divided. Our society has become over so many things and our inability to really listen to each other actively and at least respect each other’s point of view.

Donald Thompson: I think one of the things that we try to do with leaders in our work, is how do we improve our language? How do we start to talk with inclusive language so that we can be other-centered as you described, and really have a conversation and put pressure on the debate of ideas, not the vilification of each other.

And unfortunately, right, the latter is where we are today in terms of that vilification. But, through partnerships like we’re discussing, through relationships like we’re developing, through things that you’re doing, there are many people that don’t want it to stay that way. There are many people that are coming together and trying to figure out the “how to.”

Because they understand why it’s not good and what needs to be improved, but that ability to execute at scale is something that you’re bringing to the table that a lot of people need and understand. One of the final questions that I have in, in our time together, what would you like to share with our audience that I haven’t been thoughtful to ask? That I didn’t know to ask?

What would you like to have as that defining, finishing thought to our dialogue as we move things forward? 

Lara Stein: I mean, there’s so many ways we could go and there’s so much I’d like to discuss. I really believe in a shared humanity and that we have more in common than we have different. And we have to create a softer, gentler society to allow for those commonalities to come out.

And we have to figure out how to harness technology to not divide us, but unite us. And so, I guess the final thought is, you know, South Africa at the end of apartheid could have gone the same way as every other country on the African continent and landed up in a bloody civil war.

But because of Mandela’s leadership, they had the foresight to create the truth and reconciliation commission, where you could put out your grievances and then forgive, most importantly, and then move on, right? And I suppose in order to really build the future, when it comes to some of these issues, we do need to have that truth and reconciliation and forgiveness in order to move on.

And I think in order to do that, we need some great leadership on this planet. And I don’t feel like we have that. And that’s why Boma is so deeply focused right now on how do we educate cross-stakeholders to be better leaders? 

Donald Thompson: And I think throughout the different things that you’ve articulated to– which I appreciate, they all do come back to building that future forward leader and creating the content, the events, the framework for those leaders to have some level of path and interaction to do so. And that is really, really exciting. And so–

Lara Stein: I think we have to democratize that training because, you know, I’ve worked in many companies where we’ve designed the training and it only goes to, you know, the top five board members named Steve. It doesn’t go to everybody else. Right? And so, I think, you know, what we’re trying to do with Boma is say, okay, we’re going to deliver it in and work with corporates. But ultimately, what we want to do also is give it away to people that wouldn’t otherwise have access. 

Donald Thompson: I appreciate that very much because that allows us to tie in that corporate motive that you’re working, but then that societal component to where everyone should have access to powerful knowledge. And that is really, really powerful. I am thankful and humble that you took some time to spend with us. 

Lara Stein: I am humbled that you interviewed me. Thank you.

Donald Thompson: This is really, really great. I look forward to us continuing and our teams getting to know each other–

Lara Stein: Absolutely. 

Donald Thompson: — Better. And Lara, thank you for spending time with us. I really appreciate it.

Lara Stein:  Thank you very much for having me. 

Full Episode Transcript

WEBINAR: 3 p.m. New York Tuesday, 29 June = 9 p.m. Paris Tuesday, 29 June = 7 a.m. New Zealand Wednesday, 30 June

Do you want to engage in the diversity conversation but need to know where to ask and how to start?

Join us for a free one-hour webinar with Donald Thompson, founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, hosted by Boma co-founder Kaila Colbin.

Hear how to go beyond the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) checkbox and develop a program where employees thrive and business outcomes are achieved.

Explore the powerful impact that DEI has on people, culture and performance.

Go back to the basics of what diversity is, how to manage unconscious bias and how to create meaningful DEI impact in our rapidly changing world.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by The Diversity Movement CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit Earfluence.com.

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