Janine Yancey of Emtrain: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

Positive change in an organization always begins at the top. Promoting ethnically and gender diverse leadership teams create significant value in an organization. When companies address ethnic and cultural diversity at the executive level, employees know that the organization genuinely understands and values the customers and community that they serve. This also helps to recruit a diverse group of new employees as well. If a prospect sees only white men on the executive team, that sends a message, whether intended or not. White men don’t understand how much of a blocker that is for people who are not white men


As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Janine Yancey.

Janine is the CEO and Founder of the San Francisco-based, female-led, Workplace CultureTech company Emtrain (www.emtrain.com). Emtrain provides significant data to leading companies about the health of their workplace and delivers interactive online training programs that go well beyond the “check-the-box” compliance training that has existed for so long.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a nice upper middle-class neighborhood. When I was in 7th grade everything changed. My dad abandoned our family, and we became really, really poor almost overnight. We stayed in the same nice neighborhood, but it was a constant struggle. I helped support my family by painting T-shirts after school, which my mom sold on a street corner. By high school I was waiting on tables to help pay our bills. I was paying our mortgage in 11th grade.

In some ways, that dichotomy helped me understand and traverse different worlds pretty easily. I went to college at UC Berkeley and again I experienced many different types of people, particularly as I lived in both a student run Coop and then a sorority while a Cal student. I attended law school at U.C. Hastings College of the Law and again, experienced a very diverse student population. I developed the ability to blend. Unlike most people who grew up in one kind of experience and dynamic, I grew up with two polar opposite experiences. So at a young age I became very adroit at navigating different life experiences and connecting with people from very diverse backgrounds.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Yes, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand made a big impact on me, but not for the reasons you might think. When I initially read it, I was full of myself. I loved it for its message of individualism and self-reliance. But then by college, I could see that Rand’s message was flawed. I knew that we don’t have the same opportunities, and some people (like me) need a little helping hand to catch up. I was at Berkeley by the grace of the people of California who provided the financial aid to make my going there possible. I learned that when we get that helping hand, we can outperform many. Our society is stronger and more well-rounded if we have diverse community leaders and diversity typically only comes after you open a door and help someone through it.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Our strengths are our weaknesses and our weaknesses are our strengths.”

We tend to lead with our strengths and that becomes problematic when you rely on some skills for every situation. That’s when your strengths turn into weaknesses. For example, my strength is that I will put my head down and work hard to address a problem. I can out-work most people. But that then becomes a weakness because that’s the method I apply to most problems, even when that’s not an appropriate way to solve every problem. On the flip side, we intentionally build up skills in our weak areas, and whenever we lean in and do something intentionally — we build a strong muscle there. For me, stopping and pausing and taking a step back is an area of weakness. But because I had to manually develop that in an intentional way it becomes a stronger muscle than someone who is naturally wired to do that. You may actually have a higher success rate than those who are naturally inclined.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to get a team to see a big goal and work together to achieve it. Even when that goal may seem daunting at first. It’s what I’m trying to do with my company, Emtrain, a technology platform that helps businesses navigate tricky workplace culture issues like harassment and bias. Businesses spend about $5 billion a year on harassment training and the training is form over function. It has little effect. That’s because they’re more interested in “checking a box” and showing their effort than actually focusing on starting a dialog, educating people and changing their culture. I set out to change that. I picked an audacious, big goal for my team: to build a system of content and data that works together to identify culture vulnerabilities within organizations, and remedy those. That’s a big goal for a team of about 40 people. But I see the vision clearly, and I’m able to outline it and tie it to the current needs of today in a way that gets people saying, “Yes, we can do that.”

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

When faced with a big meeting or decision, I try to reach a level of clarity to make my job easier. What does this look like? If it’s for a meeting or presentation, I will spend a lot of time preparing and then I’ll go for an hour long walk in my neighborhood where I’ll practice my presentation or talking points. If it’s a critical business decision, I will gather as much relevant information as possible that helps inform my decision and then again, I’ll take a long walk by myself to think things through and get clarity. For example, in October 2017, I had a big decision to make. We had been investing in restructuring and refactoring the code base of our learning platform to update and modernize it so it could support our objectives moving forward. After a month of gathering information relevant to the question of whether to scrap the old platform (after a year of modernization efforts) and start building a brand new platform, I took a long walk to weigh pros and cons and reach clarity (and courage) to make what seemed at the time, the riskier decision of scraping the old platform and to start building something new. It was probably one of the best business decisions I’ve ever made.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

The root dynamics behind race, diversity, equality, and inclusion now are the same as they were 10, 20, even 50 years ago. The reason I think we’ve reached the point we’re at today is because we have a generation of young people who have been raised to speak truth to power, and who have amazing technological tools to organize and amplify their voices like never before. People in Generation Z weren’t raised to automatically accept a hierarchical chain of command. They’ve learned to question the status quo, and that’s a great thing. Add to it the multiplying effect of social media and an idea can become a movement in minutes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace. Even ten years ago, if a group of employees wanted to make systematic change it would have taken some kind of union movement, some kind of manual process that was regulated. Now, because of social media, the balance of power has shifted where employees can quickly organize and effectuate change from the bottom up.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Emtrain is a company that helps businesses tackle tricky culture issues and that includes diversity and inclusion. A lot of that work involves getting leaders at the micro level to shift their perspective to see what it looks like from someone else’s perspective. At the macro level, that involves developing processes that take those perspectives into account. Sometimes, what we find is there are very simple things that can be done to address diversity and inclusion deficiencies. For example, some companies don’t have established norms and practices for things like running a meeting or conducting performance reviews. When the “rules” aren’t made clear and visible to everyone, it creates a void and any bad or sloppy practices end up filling that void. People are trying to engage in meetings, yet there is no process for them to feel heard when they are getting run roughshod over by their colleagues. Far too often, the people who are negatively impacted are women and people of color. This leads to disproportionate turnover in these demographics. These people rightly think, “If any contributions I make aren’t going to be viewed or understood or acknowledged, there’s no room for me here,” and they move on. So we’re working with our clients to help them understand that something as simple as establishing strong norms and practice for behavior can help them retain the diverse talent that will help them be a stronger, more inclusive company.

Outside of the work we do for our clients, we believe it’s important to give voice to other diversity and inclusion experts. That’s why every other week, we host a live interview show on LinkedIN called “Always Learning”. We have a chance to speak to a tremendous group of business and HR leaders about the challenges of creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Positive change in an organization always begins at the top. Promoting ethnically and gender diverse leadership teams create significant value in an organization. When companies address ethnic and cultural diversity at the executive level, employees know that the organization genuinely understands and values the customers and community that they serve. This also helps to recruit a diverse group of new employees as well. If a prospect sees only white men on the executive team, that sends a message, whether intended or not. White men don’t understand how much of a blocker that is for people who are not white men.

Gender diversity in executive or management positions increases profitability as well. In a 2018 Mckinsey report, “Companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. For ethnic/cultural diversity, top-quartile companies were 33% more likely to outperform on profitability.”

Sodexo, a global hospitality service, wanted to achieve gender balance as the starting point for diversity. After internal research, the company realized that greater representation of women in management positions (between 40% and 60%) correlated with superior performance on measures such as customer satisfaction and employee engagement. Since then, the company has pledged to increase the number of senior female executives to 40% by 2025.

For companies that have overcome the challenge of retaining a diverse organization, they’re one step ahead to build a diverse executive team. Ensure the promotion of top talents while keeping diversity in mind will also attract new talent.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Recognize the value of diverse and inclusive institutions. This seems like the most obvious statement imaginable, but if you look at the demographics of who makes up the top roles in government, business, education, entertainment, etc. maybe it isn’t as obvious. We need to have a clear belief that in order to make good decisions you have to have diverse perspectives that address other people’s blind spots. This needs to be a statement of fact rather than opinion. Just as we know for certainty that regular exercise can help make us healthier, the leaders in our institutions should know for certainty that having diverse viewpoints makes their institutions healthier.

2. Be intentional about what you want. Set very specific goals for diversity and inclusion, say them out loud, and stick to them. For example, a presidential candidate vowing that they will pick a woman as a running mate. And every time an important decision is made, we need to ask ourselves, “Do we have a variety of perspectives?”

3. Benchmark current state of affairs. You can’t fix what you don’t measure. In all of our institutions of power: government, business, education, it is almost comical that one demographic is making all of the decisions. This needs to be called to account, and measured, and made public. We have federal agencies that collect demographic data on private companies that receive federal contracts. Let’s do the same for our government. Let’s track and make clear the makeup of presidential administrations, the court system, business, education, and other institutions.

4. Diagnose the blockers to inclusion. Engage in a blend of education and gathering sentiment to identify the blockers to equity and inclusion. For example, is our criminal justice system biased against people of color? Is our health system? Education system? Sponsor online educational experiences where the content engages and solicits feedback relating to these issues so we can gather and analyze the data to identify all the blockers. Once we’ve identified the blockers, we can proactively and strategically remove the blockers.

5. Stop relegating diversity responsibilities to just diversity professionals. People at the helm of our major institutions need to be educated on different perspectives, managing bias, and diversity and inclusion so that it’s not just a siloed initiative. Inclusion skills need to be integrated into every level of the organization. It’s great that more businesses have Diversity and Inclusion officers. But that shouldn’t preclude everyone else from paying attention to it. This needs to be a core competency of business leaders and institutions. All leaders in all systems need to be working on managing their biases and their ability to switch perspectives and understand the experiences of different demographics.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I’m very optimistic that systemic issues that prevent diversity and inclusion can and will be addressed. My optimism comes because of Generation Z. This is the most ethnically diverse generation in American history with very fluid social norms on race, sex, and gender. The construct of strict and binary divisions of race and gender are breaking down and getting more fluid. By their very nature they recognize the value of diversity. And they’ve been raised to speak truth to power. Coupled with the fact that their numbers are huge (larger than the Baby Boomers) and they have the ability to amplify their voices through their expertise with social media, they become an even more powerful force for change.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She toiled for years to advance equality for everyone — not just the majority — -and she did so without much limelight or fanfare for most of those years. She’s the real deal.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jyancey

On LinkedIN at https://www.linkedin.com/in/janineyancey/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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