Mar 31, 2022
Minal Bopaiah, Founder and Principal Consultant, Brevity & Wit (Silver Spring, MD)
Minal is available on her agency’s website
at brevityandwit.com and as Minal Bopaiah on internet platforms. Her
book, Equity: How to
Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives
can be found in major bookstores,
at theequitybook.com, and on Amazon.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am live at South by Southwest 2022 – yes, conferences are a thing again – and I am joined today by Minal Bopaiah, Founder and Principal Consultant at Brevity & Wit based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Welcome to the podcast, Minal.
MINAL: Thank you, Rob. Thank you for having me.
ROB: It’s a pleasure to meet you here. We are live in the middle of the Four Seasons in Austin, so we have a lively crowd around us. But that kind of adds to the festivity; we can prove we’re actually somewhere in person. Minal, you are here speaking this week, which is extra exciting, but why don’t you start off and give us the picture of Brevity & Wit? What is the organization, what is your calling card?
MINAL: Sure, I’d be happy to. Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm dedicated to designing a more equitable world. We do that through a number of services, from full-scale, full-service graphic design to strategic marketing and communications to organization design. That’s the more intensive DEI work – DEI meaning diversity, equity, and inclusion. We also add accessibility at points.
We have a really unique approach that combines human-centered design, behavior change science, and organizational development. So really understanding how organizations work, how power works in organizations, the life cycle of an organization, and then working to make sure that we can transform those organizations into more equitable and inclusive workplaces.
ROB: If there’s a typical client, is there a typical size, scale, industry? Who knocks on your door?
MINAL: Right now our typical client is medium-sized companies, so about 200 to maybe 3,000 employees. We do a lot of work in public media, but we also work with nonprofits. We’ve worked with tech agencies. We’re starting to work with some government agencies. It can really vary in terms of the industry.
ROB: Some of the organizations this size are going to be growing, but a lot of them seem like they might be a little bit more mature and established, at which point, if there’s work to do, there’s probably a lot of work to do. And whereas they might have come to you at one point just to say “Help us with this messaging we’re trying to get out in a certain area,” when you really get to organizational design, you’re saying “How do you be the message you’re trying to put out there and not just buy it sometimes?” What does that look like when you’re coming into an established organization?
MINAL: The first thing if we’re really talking about organization design is being able to identify power, like do a power analysis. What we find is in organizations you really have to start with leadership. If leadership is not engaged and fully bought in, it doesn’t work.
What often happens – in the post-George Floyd world, a lot of people started doing all-staff trainings. Those are usually counterproductive because it’s very easy for staff to get on board with the principles of DEI, but leadership needs a hot minute. They’re like, “Wait a minute, if this is how we’re supposed to be, how do we do accountability? How do we do performance management? You’re saying that everything I’ve been taught is not right; how do I unlearn that and learn new behaviors?” So, they need a minute to catch up.
If you don’t do that, what happens is staff is fully on board with an all-staff, and then you find out that they feel that the leadership is not living up to their end, and they think it’s a bait and switch. So, we want to really start with leadership, especially when we’re working with seasoned organizations that have an established culture.
ROB: Sure. Especially because even if someone’s onboard, when you talk about accountability, when you talk about performance management, your low and middle managers are taking their cues from the organization as a whole anyhow. If they need to do something different, they don’t have the tools to do it. What needs to change? What are people not aware of when it comes to those topics – accountability, performance management, and so on?
MINAL: There’s a whole thing. There’s everything from how to run an inclusive meeting – which is not that hard; it just means you need to spend 10 minutes prepping, understand what the purpose of the meeting is, make room for everybody to look at the agenda, make room for everybody to talk and reflect and contribute, and then be clear about action items.
ROB: That just sounds like a good meeting.
MINAL: Yeah, right? If everybody just did that, workplaces would improve. So, it can be something as basic as that to understanding how we embed this in performance management and tie salary and bonuses to it.
And it depends where we’re working. Really, the first part is to understand the problem we’re solving for. There are a lot of initials in DEI. Diversity, equity, and inclusion. Do you have a diversity problem where you need to recruit more diverse talent? Do you have an inclusion problem where you’re able to get people with different backgrounds through the door, but they don’t stick because they don’t feel included or feel they don’t belong? Or do you have an equity problem where maybe you’re able to get a lot of diverse talent and they stick, but you look at your proper management and it all looks the same? So, there’s no real pathway for promotion for people who have different strengths.
ROB: Right. Even to break that down, I feel like we might need to start every conversation there because people don’t know the problem they’re trying to solve, and they think they’re trying to solve a problem that starts with appointing a person to watch over it. And maybe it’s good to have someone who thinks more deeply about it. I guess that’s an interesting question. Are organizations better served having an officer who is looking at DEI, or is that a copout sometimes?
MINAL: It depends how you’re doing it. One, it’s always great to have somebody held accountable for a business function. But if you don’t give that person a budget or the power to do what they need to do, then it’s – sorry, I’m not supposed to curse. I’m going to stop. This is hard for a New Yorker like me to not swear. [laughs] But it’s not a real job, then, right? If you don’t have any resources behind it.
It’s fine if you want to have somebody who is manning the shop, so to speak, but you really want some heft behind it, and that heft is going to come from the CEO.
ROB: Absolutely. This kind of thing has to start there. I had a little debate – we had a little book club and we were reading this book about engineering leadership. Someone made the assumption that the author was a guy, and it was not. I joked with our COO – I’m kind of telling on my team, and I probably shouldn’t do that on a podcast.
MINAL: No. [laughs]
ROB: But these folks mean well; we didn’t bash anybody over the head about it, but I kind of riffed with her. I joked and I said, “Camille? Is that a guy?” [laughs] We kind of laughed about it, and I think the point was made. I asked our COO, “Would you rather I said it or you said it?” She’s like, “I saw your eyes light up, so I knew you were going to talk about.” I just felt like it helps to come from the top, and maybe even to not put – I mean, anybody can say it, but to not put her in the position of having to be the one that said it felt helpful, is all I can say.
MINAL: Yeah. Really, when we say it needs to start with the top, what we mean is that the CEO or the head of the company has to be fully bought-in. But the skills to do the work should be distributed across the company. Because we’re on a podcast, just looking at you, when a white guy says something like that, the messenger matters in these messages. It means a lot. That’s like an act of true allyship, when somebody who doesn’t have any skin in the game is willing to say, “No, I’m going to put some skin in the game for this because it matters.” As opposed to if I were to say that, it might look like I’m taking it personally.
MINAL: Which doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be able to, but…
ROB: Yeah, the inference from that is a topic all unto itself, but you have to deal with that any time you’re making a comment, so it’s a big deal.
MINAL: That’s sort of the politics of work, right? The messenger matters. And this is why we say that talking about identity matters, because if I’m in a leadership position, how people perceive me affects how I lead. So, if I’m not aware of my identity and not aware of the unconscious biases people might have based on my identity, I won’t be able to subvert those unconscious biases.
I don’t talk about it because I think we should reinforce biases; I talk about it because the more you’re aware of how people may be perceiving you, the more power you have and the more choice you have in how to play that situation to be effective.
ROB: That makes sense. Let’s look back at Brevity & Wit. Where did this firm come from? What made you decide that this needed to exist, that you were going to start it? How did it come to pass?
MINAL: I had the name for many, many years, and I think I always wanted to start it. I think I’m naturally – my father really encouraged me to have an original mind. That makes me a bad employee, I think, in a lot of ways. [laughs] It’s good to be a founder if you have an original mind, and you are a bad entry-level employee if you have an original mind.
ROB: The unemployable factor, yes.
MINAL: Yeah. So, I think that was part of it. But honestly, I couldn’t start it for a number of years because I was single. I was living in New York and then Boston and D.C., because if you’re single, first of all, living in a city helps. Secondly, if you’re a person of color, being able to get access to the sort of foods or culture that I would feel are home for me only happens in cities.
Being single in those environments, the cost of living really impeded my ability to start it. We don’t have any VC funding. It was totally scrappy and just me starting it. But what changed is that I got married, and when I got married, I was able to get on my husband’s health insurance, and there was a second income. It wasn’t much – my husband’s a firefighter and paramedic; he’s never made that much money. He’s not independently wealthy or anything. But it was the three-month buffer I needed to go from zero to being in the black and being able to support myself. That was impossible when I was single.
ROB: Wow. So that became that moment. Was the focus always in this direction from the start? What was the founding thesis of the firm, and what were some evolution steps along the way?
MINAL: The focus originally was on graphic design and communications, but then my last job before I started it was doing marketing for a DEI firm called Cook Ross, which is a pretty big firm. That’s where I met my mentor, Johnnetta Cole, who wrote the foreword for my book. Dr. Cole is just a luminary in the DEI space. She and I have been working on a book.
Basically, I just sat at her feet for like a year and a half and wrote everything she told me to write and asked every question I had and learned everything I could about DEI. She was really eager for me to move into the field more intentionally and more directly. I was already sort of doing it in the design and marketing and comms arena, like how you do those jobs with a DEI lens, but through that apprenticeship underneath her, I was able to move into this more directly.
ROB: That’s excellent. You’ve been able to grow it, build it. Have you found it natural to recruit additional people into the firm? The right people know your focus when you meet them? Is it pretty natural?
MINAL: Yes and no. It’s really interesting because what I think I’m good at is I can spot talent. But we are very scrappy. We have a very interesting structure. Everybody’s a 1099 right now because I didn’t know how to make it work. But the point of Brevity & Wit is to get money in the pockets of people of color and people from marginalized identity. While most firms might give 30% of the billable rate to the consultant, we give anywhere from 60% to 80%, so our margins are small. Our ability to salary is poor.
But what that means is that people who might already be seasoned and be able to consult will get a lot more, and I’m handling marketing and business development. But what that also means is that I have a high tolerance for risk in entrepreneurship; a lot of other people who I think are exceptional talent do not. The diversity angle for me is having those conversations to help them understand a different model, understanding they’ll never be as comfortable as I am in terms of risk, but I can get them to a point that there’s so much trust that they can enter into this.
But it has been sometimes a long courtship to get people to join us who I know would be good, and I know they would love it, if they could just allow themselves to imagine a world where they’re not relying on a salary and then getting squeezed out in terms of productivity. One of the problems right now in our world is that – I’m going to say something heavy. Just stick with me.
ROB: I’m here.
MINAL: The legacy of slavery in our workplaces is this idea that companies think that if they pay somebody a salary, they own them.
MINAL: A more integrity-filled way of looking at it would be to say if you pay somebody a salary, you are renting their time and talent for 40 hours a week, no more, no less. I don’t care what level they are, whether they’re exempt or non-exempt. The reason I say that is because time is our most finite resource. We all only get 24 hours in a day, 168 in a week. Most women have about 20 hours of unpaid labor at home that they don’t get paid for.
There’s a Harvard Business Review study of why women aren’t in leadership, and the reason is the culture of overwork. Because only men who either don’t have any caretaking responsibilities or have wives who take care of that – or if they’re gay and they have a partner that takes care of it – can overwork. The whole system is designed for them. So. when I’m recruiting people, I’m trying to say, “Listen, that’s the system we’re trying to disrupt.”
So not only do we give our people 60% to 80%, we also try to make it possible for them to earn what they need to live in 20 billable hours a week.
ROB: Wow. Do some people just choose 20 with you?
ROB: Does anybody choose more than 40? Is that something somebody can choose with you?
MINAL: They could. They might be working with other agencies as well, so they might be doing that. I don’t encourage that, and that’s also why we pay a higher rate. I was like, if we’re going to cap this at 20, then you need to make 60% to 80% in order to make what you live. Then the assumption is that there’s maybe 5 to 10 hours a week of stuff you can’t charge clients for, and then if you decide to be a community member, you’re also going to give back to the Brevity & Wit community a ratio of like 1:5. So for every 5 billable hours, you would give an hour back to the community or something like that. That’s like a 35-hour week right there.
There’s a substantial amount of work, but that was the equation that needed to shift in my head if we really wanted to run an equitable startup.
ROB: Right. In that case, there’s no ownership vibe when everybody’s on that – it’s freely engaged on both sides.
MINAL: Yeah, it’s a partnership model. It’s very transparent, it’s very trust-based. It is very much like “You win when I win, I win when you win.”
ROB: You mentioned the book; I do want to go there. A book is a labor and a labor of love, and your book is Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives. I’m sure the book is aligned to who you are and what we’re talking about in a large way, but tell us about the book and the path of that story.
MINAL: The book started actually because of my husband. This guy that I married to start my business is a firefighter and paramedic, which we joke is the opposite of what I do. If you could imagine the opposite. [laughs]
ROB: You’re both helping people. Just the skillset is very different.
MINAL: Yeah. I come home with my ideas for DEI and he’s like, “That won’t work with my people.” He told me this story once of a conference where these three firefighter captains went to a diversity conference out of state, and the facilitator used the word “LGBTQ.” One of the captains was like, “What does ‘Q’ stand for?” The facilitator said, “Queer.” The captain was like, “Are you kidding me? I literally got called onto the carpet at the firehouse for using that word with somebody.”
I’m sure the facilitator explained how queer had been reclaimed by the LGBTQ community. Fell on deaf ears. This captain returned from a three-day conference on diversity and inclusion and his takeaway to the firehouse was “Guys, we can say ‘queer’ again.” [laughs]
ROB: Oh no. [laughs]
MINAL: Like, no! I always laugh at that story because, one, I can empathize with the firefighter captain because the world is shifting goalposts while he’s literally putting out fires. [laughs] He’s like, “What are you talking about?” And then I also laugh because I fear for DEI professionals like myself because I’m like, is this what people are taking away from our three-hour workshops? That’s their takeaway?
So, I was like, how do we make this more pragmatic and practical? The book was really born of that. How do we take this out of academic jargon? How do we take this out of theory and operationalize it and make it as pragmatic and practical as possible?
ROB: I would imagine, then, there’s layers to it. You could probably iterate through this topic five different times with an organization and get a little bit better each time.
ROB: And then you’re here; you’re speaking at South by Southwest. You’ve spoken today. You’re on a panel discussion, is that right?
MINAL: No, it was just me. Solo.
ROB: You mentioned a panel earlier, so I thought that was the deal. All you. So, the session: “All About Equity: Future-Proof Your Organization.” What do you hope people took away from that other than words they can use in their workplace or not?
MINAL: I hope that people took away that we really need to move to asking for observable behaviors. This cannot stay in the realm of theory and trying to motivate people to just do better. We need to get clear about what our asks are in companies, and in doing that we create a new culture. We’ve got to be willing to question everything we’ve been taught and then be like, how would we do this in a way that actually is fair to everyone?
ROB: What does that look like in practice? Is this going to a KPI process? Are we measuring these things? What does it look like?
MINAL: I have a consultant who loves KPIs. You would love her. She loves KPIs. I think eventually it becomes measurable, but I think it’s very, very concrete. If we were to go back to that firefighter example, the ask is not “Let’s sit and have a one-hour conversation about gender fluidity.” I mean, I’m down for that. I’ll do that right now over wine. My husband will not, even though he did all the housework and ran all the errands while I wrote the book. So, what am I arguing with him, right?
But if you say to a bunch of firefighters, “Listen, the standard of professionalism is that when you’re out treating a patient, you need to ask what their pronouns are and you need to use whatever they say” – that’s an inarguable, observable behavior that you can see and track, and because you’ve made it departmental policy, you get social reinforcement. That’s what I’m saying. It’s got to move away from “Do you understand all these terms?” to “What is it you want me to do?”
The reason I say that is because right now, DEI is a little bit, in my opinion, of implying that you almost have to be a medical doctor in order to be a healthy individual. The level of knowledge that’s needed is at an academic level that doesn’t include everybody. So how do we make this a healthy behavior that people can engage in, even if they haven’t gone to graduate school?
ROB: Right, and you’re equipping people with clarity of expectation. People need that in a job anyhow. You can’t say “Do better,” but you can coach, counsel, and hold accountable on “Did you or did you not do this?” There’s eventual conversations. You can get the conversations around organizational fit around those expectations, and that rolls right back into what we were talking about with the meeting structure. It’s setting a standard, holding it. That is effective management, and the organization chooses what those behaviors are. You’re giving people some ideas of what those can actually be that are the next step.
MINAL: Exactly. See, you get it.
ROB: I get it. I need to get more. This is, of course, the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. A lot of our listeners, a lot of our guests are people who run creative organizations. Something I would observe from where I sit is that there are let’s say stereotypes within different roles. An organization might achieve some overall appearance of diversity while each department – let’s say the account team, a bunch of guys are developers, a bunch of account people are women, a lot of the people who actually handle doing what they say they’re going to do can be women.
How should an organization think about not just being inclusive as a whole and equitable and diverse as a whole, but within those little sub-areas where it’s easy to be very homogeneous, how do people think about behaviors and actions they could do in those areas to get to a better place?
MINAL: One, it’s important to be mindful of your size. The very big organizations – DEI started in the Fortune 500s. When you have 50,000 employees, you can make the case that every department should be diverse amongst all of these lines because they’re big enough departments. If you’re a company of 200 and you have a team of five developers, this becomes a more difficult equation.
Then it may not be about getting the exact percentages right, but it is looking at the process to get in the door, first of all. Is that even equitable? There’s lots of research that shows that having an ethnic-sounding name like mine doesn’t lead to a callback. But if I were to change my name and have exactly the same résumé, I would get more callbacks. There’s those things.
Then it’s also looking at the culture and training the team in terms of “Do you know how to be inclusive of people who are different? Do you know what that means? It might take more time to build trust, and you might have to do it more intentionally.”
And then it’s also looking at doing very targeted recruitment, because often in a lot of these fields that you mention, like web development, accounting, so on and so forth, there are groups that are trying to get people who have historically been left out of these professions in the door. If a company forms partnerships with those groups, then when they have a job posting, they can reach out with those groups. But it needs to be not just transactional, where you’re trying to get something; you’ve got to give, too.
ROB: It sounds like the organizations that are the best at that are also going to be holding a high trust with who they’re presenting as a candidate. Not just can they be recruited – can they be retained, can they grow in their role and within the organization? They’re going to want to know the receipts on that, not just “Will you hire this person because you need somebody right now?”
MINAL: The thing that people from marginalized identities hate being is a token, or your PR cover. And don’t think we can’t sniff that out within five seconds. It amazes me how much people try. I was like, we have this figured out. [laughs]
ROB: “This is awkward. I’ll tell you what I see here.”
ROB: Makes sense. [laughs] Well, what’s coming up? You mentioned another book.
MINAL: Yes, I’m working on a book with my mentor, Johnnetta Cole, that is still in development. And then Brevity & Wit is doing some amazing, amazing things. We are working with public media. We’re going to be at the Public Media Marketing and Development Conference in Chicago in July. And our team – we have such phenomenal people. We are doing an online workshop on April 14th, and you can go to bitly.com/brevityandwit if you want to sign up. It is on digital blackface and racism in emojis.
MINAL: So, if you’re a marketer and you’re using emojis or you’re a social media marketer and you’re responding with – is it “JIFs” or “GIFs”? I never know.
ROB: Depends on who you ask.
MINAL: If you’re using that stuff, there is a digital blackface that is emerging in our culture that people need to be made aware of and be able to observe and be able to make different choices. Our creative director is leading a workshop on that.
ROB: You’re going to help people read the room on their emojis. There’s probably 10 different ways to do that wrong. I’m glad we don’t do this, because thinking about how to do that right is kind of terrifying to me. Whether you’re using the Simpsons yellow emoji or whether you’re very pale or very not pale.
MINAL: That is one of the slides, the Simpson yellow. [laughs]
ROB: It’s funny we started there; it’s funny that it’s still there.
MINAL: Yeah, because everybody’s like, “Oh, it’s neutral.” I was like, then why is a poo brown? It’s not neutral. It’s code for white.
ROB: I think about it even when I’m choosing my Slack emoji and my default skin tone. I’m like, am I choosing the right one? Can I just get a camera to color match me so I can not . . .
MINAL: And Acacia is going to lead people through that, like how do you become more observant of that? And we’re not saying you can’t use something like an emoji that’s a different color, or more accurately a JIF/GIF or whatever we call it. But it’s being more mindful of “What is the context in which I’m using this?” Is it in any way mimicking the blackface minstrelsy that we used to see?
ROB: If it’s here to entertain us, it’s not respectful.
MINAL: Yeah, if it’s dehumanizing in any way.
ROB: Absolutely. Wow. Minal, it’s a lot of think about. Is there anything you wish I would’ve asked you that I didn’t get to in this conversation?
MINAL: Oh wow. I could talk about this stuff all day. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. It’s a pleasure to talk to somebody who has such a genuine and authentic interest in this work.
ROB: Yeah. Hopefully someone can ask some more questions from this. In the show notes, we’ll get that bitly link to what you’ve got coming up. I think we can get that out in time. That’ll be an exciting next step for people. I would encourage folks to check out the book and check out Brevity & Wit. Where should people find you when they want to connect with you?
ROB: That’s wonderful.
MINAL: Take a gander at spelling my name and you’ll probably land up on me. [laughs]
ROB: That’s good. I can’t even claim to be the only Rob Kischuk on the internet. You’ve got the Google result of one?
ROB: That is excellent. Grateful you could join us. Minal Bopaiah, Brevity & Wit, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I hope people continue to check you out and learn and engage and get better, but in measurable and specific and direct ways, and not this idealism. It’s both.
MINAL: Practical idealism.
ROB: Appreciate it. Thank you so much.
MINAL: Thank you, Rob. Thank you so much.
ROB: Be well.
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