Innovate Raleigh 2015

{{ story.headline }}

{{ story.subheading }}

{{ story.timestamp }}

Nzinga Shaw's career as a corporate diversity officer wasn't by design. 

She attended top-ranked historically-black women's college Spelman College not to explore the ins and outs of race and ethnicity but to get a good education that could help her land a good job. She worked for Essence Magazine, the National Football League and the global PR firm Edelman in human resources and public relations. 

But a slew of experiences during her 15 years in business have informed a unique position on diversity that isn't what you might expect. 

Nzinga Shaw Atlanta Hawks
Nzinga Shaw is chief diversity and inclusion officer for the Atlanta Hawks. She keynoted the 2015 Innovate Raleigh Summit. Credit: Atlanta Hawks
Now chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Atlanta Hawks, Shaw shared her business experiences and learnings during a keynote address at yesterday's Innovate Raleigh Summit, an annual event that sets an agenda for Raleigh leaders in startup, academic, creative and government roles for the coming year. Different than in years past when the crowd was involved in the agenda-setting, Innovate Raleigh determined in advance that inclusivity would be its 2015-16 focus. 

The initiative mirrors an ongoing effort by American Underground to be the most diverse tech hub in the world, with a Google-endowed entrepreneur-in-residence focused on diversity and other coding, youth and innovation programs underway.

One clear thing about diversity and inclusivity is that it can't just be spoken. It has to be done. And Shaw offered up some compelling insights and tactical tips to help Raleigh's city and startup leaders not just talk about becoming more inclusive but actually become that inclusive place. 

Diversity isn't about color or ethnicity. It's about experiences.

Shaw's HBCU experience showed her this fact. Some of her family and friends criticized her for choosing a "homogenous school" when in fact she sat in courses with women from around the world with unique backgrounds—from foster care to wealth to international. During class projects, deep discussions with those classmates taught her that diversity is more than what you can see. It is just as much about the variety of perspective offered.

Real and effective diversity initiatives are sustainable. 

Shaw's first "diversity initiative" in the corporate world was at Essence Magazine, a publication about beauty targeted to African American women. When she and her colleagues saw few African American women in advertisements for cosmetics, they partnered with the Cosmetic Executive Women Foundation to provide internships to young girls that could lead to full-time jobs within the beauty industry.

The result were dozens of black and Hispanic women at mainstream beauty companies, many of whom have climbed the management ranks and informed product development decisions. Later, at the NFL, she helped to establish a diversity council to help the NFL staff better reflect and reach the 70 percent of players of color, and a women's initiative to provide mentorship opportunities to aspiring young female leaders in the organization. Both are still in existence, because she and her teams recognized that no program can live with a single person behind it.

"You can't assign a diversity officer and not give the financial or human resources to keep the programs alive," she says. 

They also have a direct link to the bottom line.

The reality for any corporation or business is that any new initiative has to impact the bottom line, and Shaw has plenty of examples where that was the case. When Starbucks requested that Edelman write a diversity and inclusion plan for its organization and 10 white people showed up, Edelman almost lost the job because it wasn't reflecting diversity in the team crafting the strategy. 

Later on, at the NFL, a team of white men showed up to pitch the CEO of PepsiCo, a woman of Indian descent, on a $20 million, 32-stadium deal over the next two years. Though the pitch was sound, she decided not to do the deal for the reason that people who consume Pepsi live in Brazil, India, Canada and elsewhere and Pepsi wants to speak to multiple audiences, not a homogenous, U.S. centric one. 
In both cases, money was on the line when diversity lacked. 

Diversity is open and collaborative.

Shaw actually defines diversity using these terms. Rather than highlighting differences, it's about celebrating and embracing them. At the Atlanta Hawks, Shaw created a diversity council of 10 internal employees and 10 people outside the organization. To get the right mix, she accepted applications and essays from within the organization (self-selection is important, she says) and placed an ad in the local newspaper to source people from outside of it. 

The external members include a season ticket holder who is an amputee and blood donation spokesperson, a physician who performs transgender surgeries and an unemployed person who loves basketball and brings insight about making the game more accessible to people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

"If you really want to make an impact, you've got to engage your customers, your fans, people in the city in addition to internal employees," she says. 

Diversity goals should be about innovation and change.

Quotas and metrics aren't the best measures of diversity, according to Shaw. Those won't show the kind of innovation and progressiveness that happens when true diversity is in place. If she hires a team of all different races but all graduated from Harvard, grew up in Massachusetts and love basketball, there might not be innovation or diversity at all.

"Diversity is about capturing what people can bring to the table that is different from the norm," she says. "It has to be more organic and more about innovation and change and doing things differently to enhance the business as opposed to looking at a rainbow."

Each Innovate Raleigh Summit attendee received the following survey card to provide feedback and suggestions for the yearlong initiative. Share your thoughts in the comments below or email them to

Innovate Raleigh Inclusivity Goalsetting