Recent national attention on systematic social injustices has caused many corporate leaders to take a hard look at their company’s approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. In this episode, APU business professor Cynthia Gentile talks to Uva Christina Coles, the founder and CEO of Inclusiva, a consulting firm specializing in workforce inclusion. Learn about the need for companies to create an open and safe space for leaders and employees to talk about diversity, steps and tools needed to build comprehensive DEI policies and procedures, and how the pandemic has helped further these conversations by humanizing employees and drawing closer the line between work and personal lives.
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Cynthia Gentile: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Cynthia Gentile. Over the past several episodes, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with women leaders from across the professional spectrum on how the systemic effects of the pandemic have shifted their approach to being an effective coach, leader, teacher, and citizen.
Today, my guest is Uva Christina Coles. Ms. Coles is the founder and CEO of Inclusiva, a consulting firm specializing in workforce inclusion. A former nonprofit and higher education executive, Uva has garnered over 25 years of experience focused on designing diversity, equity and inclusion solutions, spearheading workforce development strategies, negotiating local to global partnerships, and advising C-suite leaders on systemic DEI change management.
Uva has partnered with leaders interested in more fully understanding, supporting, and leveraging their workforce diversity to align with and accelerate strategic priorities. The results of this process inform the design of comprehensive solutions, from governance structures to talent management interventions and inclusive policies, programs, people, and procurement practices.
An Afro-Latina, Uva is a sought-after keynote speaker and writer whose work has been featured in the Philadelphia Business Journal, The Inquirer and Al Dia News among other publications. She’s also a guest commentator on issues of diversity and inclusion for Telemundo 62.
Uva’s service work includes a mayoral appointment with the city of Philadelphia’s diversity and inclusion advisory board and board memberships with Leadership Philadelphia, PYXERA Global, Believe in Students, The Welcoming Center for Pennsylvania, and a trusteeship with the Philadelphia Award. Welcome Uva. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
Uva Coles: Thank you so much. It is a pleasure to be with you today.
Cynthia Gentile: We’re living in an incredibly turbulent time in the United States, and that’s why I’m excited to talk to someone with your area of expertise. The cumulative weight of the global pandemic and a reckoning with deeply rooted systemic inequalities have ushered in a still-turning sea change in the world of diversity and inclusion in America and beyond.
As we slowly emerge from the fog of COVID isolation, we’re faced with, in my view, a new reality. Corporations are rushing to seem “woke” in their approach to diversity, equality, and inclusion, whether it’s in their hiring and training practices, their social action campaigns, their branding and public relations, or even the products and services themselves. This presents unique opportunities, but also again, in my view, real challenges for diversity inclusion professionals. I know you call Inclusiva an incubator for inclusion. Can you explain what that means in practice?
Start a Business degree at American Public University.
Uva Coles: Absolutely. I think about our company as an incubator in two ways. One of them is it is safe space for uninterrupted growth. So when I think about an incubator, I think part of its goal is to create an environment for development, an environment for additional growth, for one to come into that next phase.
So on the one hand, I am trying to create space for leaders to be able to grow in the space of diversity, equity and inclusion. This is space absent shame, absent those things that get in the way of being vulnerable, of being one’s most authentic self. So part of our goal is to really make sure that we have designed that safe space for leaders to build an inclusive leadership competency.
Then on the other side, I think about Black and brown people, especially, marginalized people, people whose identity might be a little bit different. People from different countries who might be accented, whatever your difference might be. I think about making sure that we are also creating space where they can bring all of that difference and we can allow that to unfold. We can create some safe space, some shelter in place, if you will, for them. So in those two ways, I believe that Inclusiva is safer space for growth, for development, and for protection in this moment.
Cynthia Gentile: So that’s a very timely need for many organizations. Have you seen organizational leaders change their approach to DEI work and needs within their organization?
Uva Coles: I have, I have. One of the things that has become most crisp, most clear, over the past year is that in the past, some organizations, some leaders were really tentative to even have discussions around those topics that, in some instances or in some spaces, were considered taboo, right? We didn’t want to touch race. We were really careful with gender, with gender identity, and with so many other dimensions of diversity.
Over the past year, I think that we are having more explicit conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s almost as if some individuals, some companies, leadership in general, has been given a permission slip to touch the things that felt untouchable in the past. So in that way, I think that we are growing in this space. There’s just an opportunity to address the issues we were unable to address in the past.
Cynthia Gentile: So how does Inclusiva create that safe space for leaders. Specifically thinking about, at this point, the leaders who are crafting their own DEI policies and procedures?
Uva Coles: So part of what we try to do is to engage in very honest conversations about what the goals are, right? When we meet with an organization that has tapped us as potential partners, one of our most clarifying questions in those initial meetings have to do with what success looks like for them. So we don’t drive what success might look like. We know that every organization, every leader is at a different point of an inclusion continuum. We know we all need to get there. But how we get there is a different story, how willing we are to take risks, what the history of the company might be, you have to be mindful of those.
There’s definitely a quantitative approach to this work where we try to gather data points. We use assessment tools, metrics, et cetera. Those important conversation we have really is around leadership disposition to lean into this work. We want to know how far they want to go.
So once we learn where they want to go, then we can design a pathway to get there for them, a pathway that is customized for them. So that means that we are really intentional, that we are really tailoring solutions that are sensible for specific individuals’ needs.
So it looks very different, depending on who we are working with, but it always begins with a conversation, a clarifying conversation, and the safe space is created over time. We want to make sure that leaders feel they can tell us what the real issues are.
Many times, we begin with a very high-level conversation where they may say, “We just want to move forward with inclusion.” So we probe as much as we can and really make sure they know our tagline is “judgment-free, learning full.”
In the process of communicating, of speaking, of creating space for them to just share their perceptions, we are in those moments, certainly pushing and stretching. But more than anything, we’re listening and we’re learning and we’re not applying a lens of judgment or critique in those early conversations. We simply want to learn where they are, so that we can design a pathway for them.
Cynthia Gentile: How would you describe your own leadership style now that you are in your own business leading your own group?
Uva Coles: Sure. That’s a great question. So it’s changed over time. I think earlier in my career, like many of us do, I kind of modeled what I saw. And much of what I saw, especially in women at the time was a lack of full integration. This is not every single leader I came across, but certainly some of those initial supervisors I’ve worked with. Many of them are just a few years older than me, but a few of them more seasoned in their careers. So what I observed was a kind of hard line between the personal and the professional.
I remember especially one leader who did not have a single picture of her personal life, evidence of that there was a personal life in her office. So I would take that in and I noticed that many of the women in this specific company that I worked for, kind of modeled that as well. I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t see who they were after 5:00 PM anywhere in their offices. I felt that needed to be, that’s what leadership was, that you created that hard line, that you showed up, you focus on performance, you focus on optimal performance, really, and you didn’t necessarily bring yourself into the equation.
So over time, as I got a little bit older, as I learned more, as I dealt with more individuals from different backgrounds, as I had larger responsibilities, I felt that that approach was constraining and didn’t really allow me to be my most authentic self. I also saw examples of individuals, men and women, but women that this was really important to me who were able to have better integration, women who brought all of themselves, who talked about families and history. Who were vulnerable when they needed to be, who were emotional when the situation warranted that kind of emotion.
So I saw this kind of holistic approach, this humanity in leadership. More importantly, an ability to harness the competencies and the leadership skills of others. So I almost saw it as a collaborative process over time. That’s really where I have landed.
This idea that leadership, when you approach it the right way, it’s a communal experience. It requires other brain power. It requires additional perspectives and thoughts and emotions and ideas and backgrounds. When you, in my mind, if you can become an enabler of that, that is leadership.
So I would say that at this point, my leadership, my style has changed dramatically. I spend a lot more time thinking and listening and encouraging conversations and encouraging people to bring forth who they are and bring forth their ideas.
I see myself kind of breeding all of that together into strategy, into goals, into the work as well. So that’s where I am today. I don’t know that I have a name for it just yet, though, I’ve studied leadership a lot. I think if there’s one way to describe it is it’s just collaborative. I think collaboration and community and leadership, those things can work well together.
Cynthia Gentile: Braiding or weaving in the personal and the professional is such a beautiful image. Perhaps when we are all on these Zoom calls and our kids or dogs or cats or whatever it might be make an appearance, we’re reluctantly braiding in the personal life with the professional life.
I wonder, and I don’t know that you could speak to it, but I wonder how those leaders that you encountered in your past, shifted in the new reality. And how the pandemic and the social justice movements that we are seeing permeate throughout our society have shifted the way that you would approach leading a training at this point.
Because we don’t have a clean slate anymore where someone comes into the room and their focus is 100% on you, if that was ever accurate to begin with. But where we are today, right, we certainly are bringing with us a lot of family dynamics, a lot of personal issues, and a troubling kind of world at the moment, honestly, in my view. So I mean, do you have thoughts on that, how that has shifted?
Uva Coles: I do. I do. I think that initially I saw it as a complete clash, right, as chaos, and I like neatness. I like when things, we talked about that weaving together, I like when things come together, not necessarily easily, but they just come together seamlessly, right? I like to tie them together to have a nice bow at the end. I think if nothing else—I’m a mother, I’m a parent, so I know that things—you’re not always able to have that pretty bow at the end. what I learned is that actually there’s great substance in the chaos of that. There’s great substance in the messiness of it.
I’m not quite sure how earlier leaders, leaders in my earlier life have adjusted or adapted, though I’ve remained in touch with some of them. But I will say that what I have observed, and I’m excited about, is the fact that the pandemic has really humanized people. It has caused us to eliminate the boundary between work and home.
So what has been exciting for me is to see the father who at work can be exceptionally buttoned down, but in front of this Zoom camera, he has his toddler next to him and he has to break away from this really important point he’s trying to make in this meeting and kind of pivot to take care of his child. That in itself is leadership, right? He’s showing humanity.
I’ve seen women taking care of laundry while in meetings and while that’s not necessarily the thing that I would recommend for any individual, and not just women, but men as well. What I’m seeing is, we are getting access into each other’s lives and so we are becoming more human in spaces where that was not necessarily the case. Yes, we perhaps had focus attention what we were kind of one dimensional.
So the pandemic is forcing all of us to open ourselves up in a way that we were not opening ourselves in the past. So what we are able to see then is the shared humanity. So on the one hand, that chaos for me has actually produced complements. It’s allowed us to see each other a little bit better, and that’s just the COVID piece, the work from home, those who have the ability and really the privilege to work from home, difficult as that may be.
But then you layer on those social and racial injustices that were kind of heightened and brought to light in the past year. In addition to just trying to balance work and life, there’s also this added element and this racialized undercurrent that we’re all dealing with and we can’t hide from it. We shouldn’t hide from it.
So that layer has also created space for conversations we would not have in the past. So I am, as difficult as this moment has been and as challenging and as hurtful as it is, I am glad for, grateful for, the fact that it has pushed us into a discomfort that has yielded, it’s generated a different kind of conversation to have leaders engaged their community in conversations about social injustice.
It’s a powerful thing and it is a difficult thing. Some people have been adept at it and some people not so much, but that kind of conversation doesn’t require perfection. It requires intellectual honesty. So that intellectual honesty is also now it’s becoming another part of our experience and one that we didn’t have before. So for all of the chaos at this moment is having, I think that we are kind of rethinking and re-imagining what the workforce can be, should be. So that in itself, for me, it’s progress.
Cynthia Gentile: I love the idea that image of the shared humanity. I couldn’t agree more with the idea that we are bringing more of ourselves to the table every day in many different ways. Some ways because we can’t avoid it. We have children learning at home, or we have puppies barking, or we have our partners who are working from home, or contractors in our home, whatever it might be that is causing us to have a challenge that day. It’s just part of who we are. We might’ve been able to or wanted to hide that when we came into the office and we can’t do that now. I’m really enjoying this conversation Uva. I couldn’t agree with you more that that change, I think, regardless of what happens to our physical workspace, those changes are permanent. Perhaps the contractor won’t be a problem at 2 PM, but the idea that we have sort of brought in our personal into the professional, a lot of us can’t go back now. The truth is out there.
Uva Coles: Yeah. Maybe we shouldn’t go back, right? To your point, there is value in this moment. I think, if nothing else, this is like a huge classroom in this moment. I firmly believe that every space you enter has the opportunity to be a classroom. And sometimes you’re the teacher, sometimes you’re the student. I really believe that.
So in this moment, I think we’re kind of toggling between those two seats. If we really just take the time to take in what’s happening, there are so many valuable lessons we should be able to take with us in the future so that we can get better, we can be better. That is part of the saving grace in my mind’s eye.
I may say something different when my children are the ones who are interrupting in the middle of an important meeting. But after a moment of reflection, I recognize, hey, maybe there was some value in my team seeing me interact with my children in a different way. There’s something to be said about that.
Cynthia Gentile: So you mentioned your team. I want to take the conversation in a little bit of a different direction in that if I have my timing correct, you started this business not too long ago and not too much before COVID shut the world down. Is that correct?
Uva Coles: Absolutely.
Cynthia Gentile: Okay. First, talk to me a little bit about how your plans for this business changed as the pandemic became our new normal.
Uva Coles: Wow, great question. I think most people who know me well probably thought this was a knee jerk reaction to the moment, who didn’t understand the process that I was undergoing. I knew a few things before the pandemic. I knew that I wanted more, professionally. More isn’t necessarily another title, a larger title, or more money. Those things can be good things, right?
But more for me felt like I wanted to be even more intentional about the work I did and to be completely focused in the space of inclusion. So for much of my career, 25 plus years, I always had diversity, equity and inclusion, though the words were different many years ago, the essence of the work has always been a part of what I do.
But a few years ago, I started to think about what a future, what the future should look like for me. I knew that I wanted to do this work more fully. I wanted it to be completely in charge of its direction.
I felt like I had a good compass for it, and though I had amazing opportunities in my career, there was something to be said about taking a chance on my own leadership, about kind of being completely accountable for a business model, for a value proposition, for the work, kind of the muscle that needs to go into to growing a vision. So that was a dream, a goal.
But I was terrified of kind of stepping out on my own. I’ll share with you that as a first generation Afro-Latina, born and raised in the Republic of Panama, the first in my family to go to college as well, I knew what instability, financial instability was by the nature of my background. So I made it a point in my career to be very sure footed and to take very measured steps and to be very careful because I wanted to always have stability.
So this idea of launching my own company felt a little foreign and felt really risky, but also felt very right. My husband and I, when we talk about this, he always jokes that he knew this about me before I knew it about myself. So maybe he saw it. I think he did see it with more clarity.
I think my fear probably got in the way for some time, but the bottom line is those were the question marks and the conversations I was having internally. Trying to figure out the timing and how this could work and what infrastructure could look like for me, I was grappling with all of that while doing a full-time job. By the way, consulting in this work for quite some time as well.
Then 2020 came, and I think the value of the year, again, as complicated as it was and continues to be now, it gave me time to reflect to all of the running I was doing, all of the commuting I was doing, all of the social events and the kids’ events, all of the life, the noise of life stopped suddenly. So what I was left with was a lot of quiet and time to reflect and to think about what a next step could look like and I got to work.
I started to kind of map out what it could look like and designed it. I thought I would be ready to go as soon as we turned the corner only and started to take some steps forward in direction and then recognized that COVID was here to stay with us for a while and that the business plan that I had created was not going to fit in a virtual environment, which meant that I had to reimagine that as well. That was a huge challenge.
But I’m glad it happened when it did, because it enabled me to reimagine what this work could look like, and to build out a business model with sustainability in a way that it wouldn’t have before the pandemic.
When I launched mid-pandemic, it was with a virtual space in mind, knowing that everything I did would have to be, I would have to leverage technology. And so I kind of created a platform for this work based on the current environment, but knowing that that would need to be sustainable even once we turned the corner.
So I think I ended up with a much better business model and I challenged myself to learn what connection could look like. Connection is critical to this work, learn what connection could look like absent face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder interaction. It made, I think, the ideas about my business stronger, better than I think I would have created before this.
I know that’s a long answer, but it really was a process of examination, of reflection, of testing, of having a few moments of tears as well with what am I doing and does this make sense? But then the backdrop to this was COVID and the disparate impacts that individuals were having based on their lives, their positions, their identity. The backdrop to this was the racial injustices and chaos that so concerned me, the backdrop to this was the way in which companies were navigating, some of them kind of falling flat on their faces in trying to navigate a racialized space at work, right?
So all of that was happening in the background. I was trying to build this business model and when I would feel concerned or frustrated or scared, I remembered that noise and the fact that I could help turn down the volume of the chaos if I did this well. That in itself became empowering and uplifting and motivating.
Cynthia Gentile: I think it’s amazing that you started a business in the middle of the pandemic and that you did so with such focused, intentional work around exactly the chaos that was being brought forth because of this pandemic and because of the far-reaching effects of our inequalities. So I’m amazed at your ability to forge in the fire, so to speak.
Uva Coles: Thank you. Trust me, if we had a conversation early on, it would have been a whole different conversation in the moment, but with hindsight, I’m just, I’m thankful that I stayed the course.
Cynthia Gentile: Yeah. I’m a first-generation college graduate myself, and I fully appreciate that the stability piece that we have as always in the back of our mind. So risk-taking, being a little more risk averse that may feel a little better to some of us. So kudos to you for pushing outside of your comfort zone, because this is work that is very needed. I certainly feel. So how do you define success for Inclusiva now?
Uva Coles: Sure. So if you were to ask me what success looked like 25 years ago, I would have given you a title, I would have given you a financial, I would have given you a number. It would’ve looked very concrete, right? These are the things that would have symbolized success. I would have had that list. I had lists. I live by lists, especially earlier on.
But I think today success looks different. Success, honestly, it’s breath. It’s being at home in this time of COVID constraints and knowing that when my children see me, they see someone who is joyful and that’s not always been the case. So for me, that translates into business success. The reason why is because for most of my career, I’ve been a workaholic. There’s been a bit of an imbalance in the ways in which I have worked. So I’ve been working 12-hour days and much more than that has been the norm for me. But there was a bit of an exhaustion to that where I remember for many years, I would say this isn’t sustainable. I would be physically just drained.
Though I had amazing opportunities and I’m so thankful for the great work and the great people that I got to work with as well, along the way. So all of those things are good, no regrets there. But there was this feeling of almost being depleted of energy after putting in those long hours and thinking consistently about the work and being almost obsessive.
Success to me today is the fact that I put in even more hours frequently. I do know how to have some boundaries and make sure that I’m carving time out for the things that matter, my husband, my children, family, friends, and a little wine here and there, those things matter.
In addition to that, I can’t tell you how many times, my day begins at about five in the morning, sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a few minutes after. Much of that time, my earlier time is just for me to think, to create, to be alone with my thoughts and design the things that are important to me to write, so important things.
Then I flow right into work and I could sit and be there if it weren’t because life is also here, and I have to take care of my personal life, I could sit and just work all day uninterrupted. The feeling at the end of the day is not one of depletion anymore. It is a feeling of achievement in a different way. It fills me. I feel as if my work is having impact. So when I am done, I am still having the same thoughts. I am obsessive. I am considering the ways in which I could do something a little bit better in a bigger way, have deeper impact.
I get excited about that, right? I can’t wait to sit down again and get up at 5 in the morning the next day and continue whatever I couldn’t finish the day before. So success for me feels like, it feels like purpose, feels like purpose, being purposeful, still falling, still failing from time to time, that’s part of it.
But feeling as if my work matters, every minute matters, every second matters. That fills me in a way that a title hasn’t in the past, that the salary didn’t in the past. By the way, to be a founder now feels bigger, larger, deeper. I connect with that. To have taken a risk and walked away from a salary, that was a beautiful thing.
Within the time, a year since I’ve been doing this, less than a year fully, to not only reach that salary, but exceed it. That was not necessarily at the forefront of the work to get there. That means something as well. So yeah, those things are there, those concrete things I would have imagined 25 years ago are there. But they’re there because I pivoted in terms of what my goals were and in terms of learning what mattered most to me. So success is joy.
Cynthia Gentile: Oh, I love that. Uva, this was such a great conversation. I took away so many important points from this. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today and to share your experiences. I’vse just really enjoyed our conversation.