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Interview with Cynthia Owyoung


Cynthia Owyoung, Vice President of Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging at Robinhood, wrote a wonderful book called All Are Welcome. The book focuses on how to build more inclusive workplaces that deliver results. I appreciated the book for Owyoung’s honest reflections. Reading the book made the work more personal and applicable. Exercises are throughout the book as well as questions to engage reflections and discussion.

I interviewed Cynthia Owyoung to further speak on building inclusive workplaces, how small businesses can apply the work, and how has the work evolved. This is a topic we’ve touched on before on the blog and would recommend reading Yasi’s post about Equity if you want to dive deep on these theories.

What is your definition of feminism?  

Cynthia Owyoung (CO): I believe feminism at its most basic level is about championing women. It’s championing women in equal rights, equal access to opportunities and equitable outcomes in their careers, families and wherever else they are not treated with equality. 

Most people I have seen in an institutional Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) role are Black. The role seems designated to a Black or brown person. Do Black and brown people only serve in DEIB roles? What qualities serve best in that role?

CO: The short answer is no, Black and brown people serve in many types of roles, not just DEIB ones. DEIB roles are not reserved only for one category of person, just as product or technical or customer service roles are not reserved for one type of experience. I’m Asian and have been in DEIB roles for the past 20 years across multiple companies, so I am clearly bucking the trend. I’m also really intentional about hiring DEIB professionals on my teams who represent multiple facets of diversity, from disability to LGBTQ+ to allyship to religion, in addition to race and gender. There are three key things that I believe great DEIB practitioners have in common. 

  • They are great leaders. They can inspire people to follow them, they know how to get things done through others and are nimble at effectively balancing competing priorities and being relevant to the organization’s business.
  • They are great listeners. They are capable of empathizing with other lived experiences that are very different from their own. And turn it into actions that are relevant and beneficial to the communities they are serving.
  • They can bridge different perspectives. They are able to bring people with very different points of view together and align them around common objectives to make change happen. 

How do DEIB initiatives become intentional to expand worldview and production?

CO: All DEIB initiatives have to be done with intention. To make them effective though, they have to be supported by Courage, Accountability, Respect, and Empowerment (CARE). It takes courage to challenge the status quo and engage in uncomfortable conversations that could result in acknowledging privilege and giving up power. Everyone needs to be accountable to driving change, measuring it and communicating it. Respect means being mindful of others’ feelings, cultures, traditions and rights, and not centering your own needs above others. And empowerment is about giving  people the voice and authority necessary to drive the change they want to see in DEIB. If we create these conditions for success, then DEIB initiatives have the infrastructure needed to actually expand people’s worldviews and build a more equitable society.

As you have worked in a DEIB role since 2000, how has the work evolved? Where is the hesitancy to evolve?

CO: When I first started out in DEIB, the conversation was primarily focused on affirmative action, where people were trying to comply with government requirements to make good faith efforts to increase representation of certain demographics. Only very large companies with 10K+ employees were hiring Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) practitioners at the time. Since then, I’ve seen the conversation evolve to DEI as part of core business strategy and how we drive more innovation and creativity. Then, when Google released its demographic statistics in 2014, the conversation really shifted to accountability, transparency and the impact of unconscious bias. Now, after the events of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, we’re openly talking about racial equity and social justice as necessary outcomes of DEIB work within organizations and the role these organizations can play in supporting those outcomes in broader society.

Some organizations are still stuck in that affirmative action phase because they’re afraid of the risks and controversy that can come with focusing beyond what’s minimally required from a regulation standpoint. I think the hesitancy to evolve is starting to dissipate as the need becomes more and more urgent with the advent of technology that allows us to share our experiences with inequity around the globe within minutes. When we become more exposed to those inequitable experiences, we feel the need to correct for it more deeply, so the more we can share the impact of inequity with those in power, the more we will see orgs evolve to support greater DEIB. 

Cover of All Are Welcome by Cynthia Owyoung

You wrote about how to address employers and employees, for example by their disability or sexuality. How can employers and employees be more cognizant of terminology and how to address people?

CO: It’s most important not to assume you know how someone wants to be addressed. It’s good practice to ask things like what pronouns a person uses, or how to pronounce their name correctly. Referring to underrepresented groups in ways that aren’t exclusionary takes understanding and practice. For example, understanding that the term “African-American” doesn’t describe all Black people, and correcting yourself when you inadvertently use the wrong term. It’s also important to use person-first language to acknowledge that people aren’t necessarily defined by their dimension of diversity. This is why it’s more appropriate to say “people with disabilities” as opposed to referring to “the disabled.” (Editor’s Note: Person-first vs. identity-first language is dependent on the individual and should also not be assumed as there is debate in the various sectors of the disability community about which is preferable. The idea that any community is a monolith should be avoided. When in doubt, ask.) And using inclusive language means getting educated on it. There are many articles online that talk about outdated language and why certain terms have fallen out of favor. Once you learn more about different terms’ background, evolution and impact, you realize how important it is to evolve your language habits. It’s not always easy, especially when many of us have spent a lifetime using “he/she” pronouns instead of “they/them,” but it is worth the effort. 

What is your favorite small business? How can small businesses implement DEIB initiatives and roles in their work?

CO: There are so many small businesses, I can’t just choose one! I love to go to local used bookstores and can spend hours browsing their shelves and finding great deals and hidden gems. I’m also a big crafter so really enjoy spending time at unique paper stores to discover beautiful different papers and packaging to use in different crafts. Lastly, I know so many independent consultants who are delivering great professional services like photography, graphic design and DEIB training that I support by either contracting with them directly or referring business their way. It doesn’t matter how big or small your business is, you can still practice DEIB initiatives in various ways, from ensuring you are hiring from a diverse candidate pool, to educating yourself and your teams on DEIB topics through the many resources available on the Internet, to purchasing goods and services from BIPOC owned businesses. It doesn’t take a huge budget or even a dedicated role to support your DEIB commitment. Simply communicating your commitment to DEIB can go a long way, but it’s important to demonstrate follow through and accountability to that as well. 

Is there a bookstore you would like our audience to buy All Are Welcome from? Is there an organization you want to amplify?

CO: I would love your audience to support independent bookstores and order All Are Welcome through bookshop.org or indiebound.org. And if they are inclined to support an organization that empowers people with special needs to achieve their full potential, I would encourage them to check out AbilityPath

Ashley Paul is a hopeless wanderer, baker, runner, and photographer. She is passionate about supporting high school juniors and seniors to write compelling stories for their post-secondary careers. Her favorite genres are young adult, literary fiction, and memoir.

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