Overcoming adversity with diversity

Last year I had the privilege to participate in Furman University’s Diversity Leadership Initiative.  This interactive several month program afforded us the chance to lift the hood on some big mistakes real companies make regarding diversity and inclusion.  I won’t at this time dive into them. Rather, I want to share a few stories to set a stage for further discussion later.

At a recent reunion, a small group of dear friends were enjoying dinner at a nice restaurant. As a group, we have shared our victories and challenges since 2005, so when we get together, we take time to go around the table and “check-in” with personal updates.

The updates are an intimate sharing about family, faith, career, health, etc. They are substance, not fluff. During my turn, my friend Steve held my hand, offering his support and kindness. I gladly accepted this sibling-like gesture. At this table, there was no divide of politics, gender, geographic loyalty or otherwise.

Steve and his family have been to my home and sat at my kitchen table. We share numerous passions, including an appreciation for Bernie Dunlap’s TED talk “The Life-Long Learner.”

Here, Sandor Teszler’s journey from surviving the Holocaust to using his textile entrepreneurial skills to challenge racism in segregated South Carolina in the late 1950s is revealed. Teszler, the inventor of a double knit process, ran a successful fully integrated plant and paid workers double the going rate.

I can’t resist pointing out the social, political, and financial power of great innovative business leadership.

When I had the chance to ask Bernie about his talk, this incredible orator, Wofford College president, poet, opera writer, Liberty Fellowship founder and Aspen Institute partner said he was nervous to be speaking to such a different audience and was not sure how he would be received.

His TED talk concluded with a quote from Gandhi: “Live each day as if it is your last. Learn as if you will live forever.” Darryl Hannah led the standing ovation.

Since I have little in common with Darryl Hannah, I did not attend “big TED” and did not hear Bernie’s TED Talk live.  Years later however, I was blessed to hear an even more impressive talk by Bernie Dunlap. He encouraged us to lead our nation to a brighter future. He talked of his days at Boys State when all of the attendees excitedly anticipated an integration speech by South Carolina Gov. James Byrnes.

The governor entered and stated, “I have spent a lot of time fishing and as long as I have been fishing I have never seen the white fish swim with the black fish. And I have spent a lot of time hunting and never have I seen the white birds fly with the black birds. There will be no integration in South Carolina.”

The governor departed even more quickly than he had arrived. Bernie (as a young boy), angered but not defeated, grabbed the microphone and before the governor could leave called out, “It’s a good thing we’re not birds or fish!”

Listening to Bernie’s tale of the 1950s in the rural south came on the same day we studied Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech. Reading this speech or MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a January ritual for my family.  So, the words are familiar yet I am continually awed at how with each reading, more learning for me unfolds.

My favorite line is “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” As I work with more and more millennial entrepreneurs as a Co-Founder of https://www.millennialwomen.net , I see a deep desire for this sort of dangerous unselfishness.

Later that some week I had the pleasure of hearing a sermon by Ben Williams of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church of Beaufort, South Carolina. Pastor Williams had actually attended MLK’s last speech on April 3, 1968, in Memphis. Hearing MLK announce the day before his death, “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land” played a major role on Williams’ calling to lead a church for 38 years.

Racial divides are still too common in our evolving world.   The chance to build a better community by offering and demanding unbridled excellence to and from every member of the community.

As I sat holding Steve’s hand, the fact his skin color is darker than mine hadn’t entered my mind. Yet today, as we work to improve lives and build impactful companies, I wonder if the image of our interlocking hands might not serve as a roadmap.