What role can we play in breaking the cycle of injustice?

As our world awakens to the reality of bias blindness and the complexity of microaggressions, we dive deeper into the murky waters of asking ourselves—and others—honest questions, identifying and embracing opportunities to be an ally, and acknowledging the potential consequences of speaking your truth.

Melissa Majors, CEO of Melissa Majors Consulting, shares how exposing yourself to difference and promoting inclusion leads to greater levels of innovation and success. 

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[Start transcript]

Courtney Stanley: Hello everybody, this is Courtney Stanley. Welcome to another exciting episode of Dare to Interrupt, a listening experience where you have the opportunity to be a fly on the wall and sit in on honest, unfiltered conversations with women who are considered to be the most influential and inspiring leaders in the world of events, hospitality tourism and beyond.

Throughout their careers, these women have dared to interrupt conversations, their own comfort zones and sometimes even societal norms to hustle toward their greatest levels of success. I am so excited to introduce you to today’s guest.

Today, we are joined by Melissa Majors, CEO of Melissa Majors Consulting. Melissa is an innovator and an optimizer of education, inclusion and event strategies. Melissa is an amazing keynote speaker and coach who has mastered the art of delivering brain-friendly talks that engage her audiences and spark not just inspiration, but action as well.

Melissa, it is so great having you here today.

Melissa Majors: It’s really a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Courtney: I love that you and I ran into each other randomly at a restaurant in Dallas a few months back before this crazy crisis happened, just sitting at a table and Sarah Soliman Daudin, and I look across the room and there you are. How crazy.

Melissa: It was crazy. Like of all the gin joints in all the world to bump into my favorite people. It was fantastic. What a cool moment.

Courtney: I know. I mean, great minds and great tastes, that place was fabulous.

Melissa: Yes, it was.

Courtney: So, Melissa, how are you holding up with everything that’s going on in our world with COVID and with the different challenges that our country in our world is facing right now? What’s going on in your world?

Melissa MajorsMelissa: Hmm, well, I’m having a lot of conversations because I’m a practitioner of blameless inclusion. So, I’m having a lot of conversations with people who are trying to find their way through things that they are now aware of—systemic racism—that they just didn’t realize existed just two weeks ago. And so, there’s a lot of awakening happening in our country.

And so, I’m working with a lot of my clients, having individual conversations, coaching—confidential coaching chats with people who want to do the right thing, but don’t know where to begin. So, I’m busy as all get out. So, that’s one thing.

Personally, I must admit that with some of the protests and things like that, and what happened with George Floyd, I, too, like so many others, just was dealt with a tidal wave of microaggressions that I have faced as a black woman in business for 20-something years, reliving all those experiences all over again.

But I have to say I’ve done the work to understand the impact and the trauma that can have on you. And so, I’m really resilient. I have to give a lot of credit to my faith, and then also just being mindful in my practice of guided meditation and yoga and things like that on a regular basis to reduce the stress levels in my life. That’s helped, certainly in this situation and then with COVID, and a lot of my revenue drying up, I had to make sure I still had mental clarity to be able to make the shift and provide services that my customers still needed, but maybe didn’t realize they needed, try out some new things that weren’t already in my portfolio of services, and just be flexible to adapt to what’s happening in the world right now.

Being able to do that has certainly driven some ongoing revenue and helped me discover some innovative things that I didn’t have a need to try before but I’m trying now and they’re working. And so, just finding the stability in my business also brings a sense of relief and reduced stress in my life. So that’s what’s happening in the world of Melissa right now.

Courtney: There’s a lot going on. And I think what you said about just being challenged with things that you faced in the past and having evolved and learned along the way and knowing how to maybe face some of those challenges and teach others how to navigate the different pressures or microaggressions that they’re facing. I think that’s really phenomenal that you’re able to provide that insight to people.

I would love to just back up a second and maybe have you share with the audience a little bit about your business and what you do and what you are truly an expert in and how you help your clients.

Melissa: Yeah, absolutely. So, my business is a strategic advisory firm, and we help organizations and individuals innovate by being inclusive. There are so many ways that we help clients do that, whether it’s innovating the keynote experience from incorporating a community keynote event, that’s a service that we offer where we help event planners find amazing stories that live in the heads of their actual community members, the ordinary folks who’ve had these extraordinary experiences. We help them evolve the keynote experience by featuring those speakers on stage in lieu of a paid professional speaker. So, that’s one of the services that I offer.

I also designed and pioneered a process called Included. It’s an inclusive strategic planning process that makes sure that all the stakeholders that need to have a say—in the design of strategies and products—their voice is equitably heard and considered. And it leads to innovation. Because Courtney, diversity and diverse perspectives, those bring really unique ideas. And so, if you’re able to capitalize on those when you’re designing products and services, it’s really helping clients to innovate in ways they never thought was possible.

I also provide a lot of leadership guidance and assistance in the areas of inclusion, whether it’s women’s issues or racial issues and things like that. But how do you make sure you demonstrate a commitment to inclusion? I provide a lot of education on those things, whether it’s on the keynote stage or the online classes and webinars that I offer. So, education is a very big part of what I do today.

I’ve spent most of my career running education businesses in a variety of different industries, from financial services to technology, to associations and professional services. And then I took the leap to step out on my own and launched this consulting practice about a year-and-a-half ago and it’s been a really great ride so far.

Courtney: That is amazing. And I always applaud and appreciate a fellow entrepreneur. The work that you’re doing is so important. And especially now with everything that’s going on with the protesting and so many questions being asked, how can people start to have deeper conversations around inclusivity or blameless inclusion, I think you mentioned Melissa, what is that?

Melissa: Yeah. So, I know that over the course of my life, and then based on research, that a lot of diversity inclusion initiatives shame and blame people into trying to change their beliefs. Well, that’s just not going to happen in a training program. I mean our beliefs are shaped by millions of influences that we’ve had over our life.

So, I believe that in order to really open people’s minds, you can’t make them get defensive when you’re having these conversations. I turn to science and business cases when talking about inclusion because we are all biased. And so many people don’t embrace their bias, they deny it because they’re afraid they’re going to get called a racist or something like that. But the fact is, if you have a brain, you are biased. Bias is the brain’s threat detector. And so, it’s in there.

One of the first steps that I encourage people to do is acknowledge the fact that you do have biases, and then pay attention to how you feel when you’re interacting with people who are different from you. Like listen to those little thoughts that pop into your brain that may say, ‘this person’s not trustworthy, they’re a threat.’ That could be those unconscious biases shaping your thoughts about that person.

And the next step then is if you pay attention to those voices enough, you’ll start to realize that you may have a set of biases or prejudices toward a group of people. And once you discover your own personal set of biases, then you can rationalize those thoughts when they occur, and then choose different actions.

For example, if I have biases toward millennials, when I’m working with millennials, I need to be even more mindful about how I act so that those thoughts, those unconscious thoughts don’t control my actions.

That is what I’m encouraging people to do as a very first step, because quite frankly, we can burn every building down in the United States, but that’s not going to remove bias from people’s brains. If we want to truly break the cycle of injustice for people, we’ve got to start in our own minds, identify our set of biases and then not let those control our actions.

Courtney: That makes a lot of sense. Something that you mentioned earlier, Melissa, is that you have been doing confidential coaching, so providing maybe a safe space for people to come and ask questions without judgment or without feeling blamed. And they’re able to get curious and have a real conversation without fear of being judged or fear of tripping over their words.

I feel like that is so important right now. I’ve heard a lot of people just in passing conversations mention or—even on social media—mentioned that they don’t know what to say. They’re afraid to say anything or ask the wrong question because they don’t want to offend anyone, and they want to support but they don’t know how.

Even looking at this recent social initiative, Blackout Tuesday, a lot of people were posting those black squares in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and then felt like that wasn’t enough and there was something more that they needed to do.

But again, we’re afraid to ask some real questions that they have around how to be a better ally and how to be a better supporter and promoter of diversity and inclusion. So, is there any advice that you would give people who maybe are afraid to ask those tough questions or want to do more, but just don’t know how?

Melissa: Yeah. I think it’s a very real and valid concern a lot of people are facing. They want to do more. And they recognize that in this moment, they can post things on their social channels and things like that, but that doesn’t really drive sustainable change.

I’m delighted that there are so many people who want to help drive real change that results in a measurable difference for disadvantaged community for black lives. And so, the confidential conversations that I’ve been having provide that space. If you take a look at your own social circle, if there aren’t people who are different from you and those that you commonly work and play with, you likely have blind spots related to empathizing with others.

And so, I’ve just opened that up as an opportunity for people to have those candid confidential conversations in a psychologically safe environment, so that they can find ways then to either overcome some of their actions, they can choose the right words, they can choose the right actions, and talk about that with somebody that is not like them. It’s been an honor to serve in that role.

Courtney: If you if somebody said to you that they do believe that systemic racism is embedded within the business that they work for, but they’re afraid of speaking up because of those very real possible consequences that could happen if they choose to be vulnerable and forthright and bold in saying something. What advice would you give people who are maybe sitting in that position to give them the courage and maybe even the structure to have those conversations in a way that is hopefully effective?

Melissa: The truth is, Courtney, I’m giving those people caution on having those conversations. I’ve seen it. I have experienced so many times where I attempted to illuminate issues of racism within the organization. And it wasn’t received, or it was discounted. It turned into negative consequences for not only myself but others as well.

So, I encourage people to open up in an authentic way if they’re in a safe environment to do so. But the fact is, those environments still don’t exist for a lot of people who look like me. What I’m doing more though, is encouraging people who are not subject to systemic racism, but the allies to step up and not only demonstrate their commitment to inclusion but take a stand as an anti-racist.

Like when you see on a micro level, you see injustice for people who work for you, it’s not enough just to post something on your Facebook page. But are you going to have the courage and be willing to risk some of your own reputation and social capital to take a stand against that injustice? Are you willing to proactively—to acknowledge that systemic racism may exist in your organization and take the steps to uncover it and then mitigate that.

So, more of my conversations, quite frankly, are with allies versus others because the power with allies is by in that role as an ally, your voice doesn’t necessarily get discounted. People don’t think that you have a personal agenda to push when you’re advocating for anti-racism. It may not be the case for a lot of black Americans to be in the position to try to influence from their position. We really need allies and all people to come together if we ever expect to stop the cycle of injustice.

Courtney: That actually reminds me of an article that I read in Forbes that you had written, or you’d contributed to, which I found really, really interesting and insightful. And the article that I’m referring to is called, “What to Do When White Women Aren’t Allies at Work.” And it talks about the disparity between black women and white women holding management positions and the reality that many black women struggle to build solid relationships with their white female managers. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Yeah, absolutely. As women, and this is a class that I teach around servant leadership, strategies for women success, it’s very common whether no matter what your race is that women, we aren’t as skilled at competing in a healthy way with other women in organizations.

Oftentimes, compared to men, they are wired for competition like I have two little kids, two little boys, Courtney, and that is what they do. They live—they thrive to compete with each other. Women, not so much. And so, oftentimes in the workplace, we compete in an unhealthy way that manifests itself into covert competition. Whereas instead of stepping up our game, we try to take the other woman out. We try to mitigate that threat through microaggressions.

Melissa: That is a challenge for women in general. But it’s even more difficult when you add the extra level of being a black woman in an organization. There is something called the Scale of Intersectionality, Courtney. And that is the more different you are from those who hold the power, the more likely you will be to experience under inclusion. You’ll experience more scrutiny and be less trusted.

When you just add those levels of differences, and it all goes back to unconscious bias and things like that, but the more different you are from people who hold the power, the more likely you are to have those experiences. With white women, in most organizations, the power is held by white men. So, white women are less different from those who hold the power.

When you are a black woman, you’re even more different than a white woman and increase the chances that you’ll experience under inclusion scrutiny, a lack of trust, so on and so forth. So, those are some of the dynamics that’s covered in that article. I suggest that everybody read it because we need ally-ship across all the dimensions of diversity. We truly, truly do if we’re going to be able to catch these unconscious biases that result in unfairly judging others who are different from us.

Courtney: Yeah, I completely, completely agree, Melissa. I think that this is a societal and community effort. And that includes everybody, making sure that people learn more about what a bias actually is and what a microaggression even is. And actually, that’s a great question that I think the audience probably has is, what are some examples of microaggressions that maybe they aren’t even aware of?

Melissa: Absolutely. So, an example of a microaggression, they are these very subtle attacks against another person. For example, in a common microaggression between women in an organization is gossip. That’s one of the most common ones. It’s not just with women, okay? But that’s an example of a really common aggression because if I’m gossiping about you, Courtney, to another person, I’m actually doing damage to your social capital and your reputation by trying to reduce the chances that that person I’m talking to about you actually trusts and works with you and has a healthy relationship.

And the microaggressions are oftentimes so subtle, that the only person that realizes they’re happening is the victim of them. So, in this scenario, it would be you, Courtney. You probably know that there’s gossip happening about you and that there are people that could be potentially damaging your reputation and ruining the trust that you’re trying to build. That microaggression is so subtle, but it can be really damaging and impactful to your reputation.

Another microaggression and this is—it’s more common in the recruiting process, that our biases can negatively influence how much we trust people, how much we are willing to give them a shot, and give them equal opportunity to positions. And that applies not only to recruiting employees, it applies to hiring speakers, doing business with vendors that come from a diverse background. Those microaggressions, those very subtle actions that we take to either damage someone’s reputation or prevent them from achieving or earning an opportunity, those are some of the really common ones, Courtney.

Courtney: That’s really helpful to hear, Melissa, because to be honest, I mean, I thought that I had a good grasp of what some examples of microaggressions could be. I never even thought about the fact that gossip is, I mean, that’s a huge microaggression. And it happens all the time. I think what’s so dangerous is that the victim in that type of situation may not even know that it’s happening.

So, as much as it’s painful to be the victim of microaggressions, if you’re aware of it, it at least provides an opportunity for you to address it or to navigate it. But if it’s behind closed doors, microaggressions like something such as gossip, I mean, that just creates a whole other layer of complexity and a challenge for the person who really truly is being affected by that.

Melissa: Absolutely. Yeah, it does. And we just have to put a label on those microaggressions. We have to be aware that we’re all capable of doing it and catch ourselves and not let those unconscious thoughts result in actions like microaggressions and overt aggressions toward others that can impact their success.

Courtney: Mm-hmm. Melissa, how did you become so passionate and so engaged in this work? I assume that you’ve had life experiences that led to where you are today. But what really has been your inspiration to provide such an important level of consulting?

Melissa: Yeah, happy to. Well, I’ve had a really great run in my career. I’m naturally wired as a strategist and innovator. I’ve been able to achieve double-digit growth in most of my organizations because of innovation. The driver of that innovation is inclusion. I have always worked to uncover the voices, the diverse voices and gain these unique perspectives that shape the products and services that I create.

There’s a lot of research that proves that companies who practice diversity and inclusion have a much higher production of innovative products, which leads to an increase in revenue. I’m a believer in inclusion as a really smart business practice. But on a personal side, I’m a bi-racial woman, my mother is white, my father is black. My parents deliberately decided to expose me to difference, because they had people in their lives that were very ignorant, and only because they weren’t exposed to difference.

By design, I’m the product of diversity. And that has served me really well in business. And now that I am on my own in a consulting capacity, I’ve been an intrapreneur for years. But now that I’m an entrepreneur, I am doing everything I can to share the business cases for diversity, to share these messages in a way that don’t sting because then that shuts people down and they’re not open minded.

But also, I really believe that practicing diversity inclusion is far beyond just a moral obligation. If you are going to survive as a business, you need to find a way of overcoming your barriers to doing this and incorporate it into everything you do.

So, I’m really passionate about it. I know that my gift, my calling is in teaching and education. And so, I continue to try to refine my gift and get even better and just share that wisdom and that insight that I have gained from my diverse experience, share it with the world so they can do what they do even better.

Courtney: Melissa, I cannot wait for people to hear this episode. I’m so excited for people to hear your story and just learn a little bit more about you because I think that te the stories that you’ve told and some of the experiences that you’ve touched on I think is quite relatable for a lot of people, whether it’s somebody who has bias or it’s somebody who has felt like they’ve been a victim to microaggressions that are happening to them in the workplace.

So, I’m really, really looking forward to this episode airing. And of course, by the time people hear it, this is all going to be new to them. But I would also love, Melissa, for the audience to know how to get in touch with you because the work that you do is so important. I want to make sure that people know how to access you and your services.

Melissa: Thank you, Courtney. I appreciate that. Yeah, they can just reach me—the best places go to my website, MelissaMajors.com, and I offer free advice to people who are just looking to innovate in any of the areas of my expertise, whether it’s inclusion, education or innovation. Book some time with me. I’m happy to help work through any issues that you have. But MelissaMajors.com is the best way to reach me. And I look forward to connecting with your listeners and helping them overcome any challenges they may be facing.

Courtney: Well, thank you, Melissa, so much for sharing all of that insight and knowledge with us today. I think that we probably could have gone on for hours because I have so many more questions, so maybe we’ll have to do a part two.

And thank you all for listening. Make sure that you connect with Melissa via her website or social media and make sure you connect with me, too, @CourtneyOnStage.

Make sure you never miss an episode by subscribing to Dare to Interrupt on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play and more. Stay bold, be kind and stay daring, my friends. Until next time.

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About our guest:

Melissa MajorsMelissa Majors, CEO of Melissa Majors Consulting, is an innovator and optimizer of education, inclusion, & event strategies. This crowd-pleasing speaker and coach has mastered the art of delivering brain-friendly talks that engage her audiences and spark not just inspiration, but action as well.

Melissa’s belief that inspiration awaits in the audience, led to the creation of Community Keynotes®, a TED-style experience that prepares and features community members as keynote speakers. Melissa has been featured in publications such as Forbes Magazine, Smart Meetings, The Meeting Professional, NorthStar Meetings Group’s Eventful Podcast, The Event DR, and on the keynote stage at events such as Meeting Professionals International's WEC, The Northwest Event Show, Catalyst Events, HD Vest's CONNECT, and many more.

Connect with Melissa:

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About our host Courtney Stanley:

Courtney StanleyCourtney is a keynote speaker, writer, podcaster and career success coach with a background in experience design, community engagement and leadership development. Courtney is the host of Meetings Today’s “Dare to Interrupt,” a podcast that provides a platform for the event, hospitality and tourism industry’s most influential and successful women to share their stories of adversity and success, unfiltered.

Courtney believes that transforming past experiences into impactful conversations through raw, authentic storytelling challenges the status quo, connects people from all walks of life and results in great change for the world.

  • Courtney is the youngest member to have ever been elected to Meeting Professionals International’s (MPI) International Board of Directors
  • She is the recipient of Smart Meetings’ Entrepreneur Award, MeetingsNet’s Changemaker Award, the Association for Women in Events (AWE) Disruptor Award, the MPI Chairman’s Award and MPI RISE Award.
  • Named Collaborate and Connect Magazine’s 40 under 40 and a Meetings Today Trendsetter.
  • Recognized as one of the event industry’s most impactful change-makers.
  • Serves on the Events Industry Sexual Harassment Task Force, AWE’s Board of Directors, MPI’s Women’s Advisory Board, is a Meetings Mean Business Ambassador and is the co-founder of the award-winning movement, #MeetingsToo.

How to connect with Courtney:

  • Instagram: @courtneyonstage
  • Twitter: @courtneyonstage
  • Facebook: courtneyonstage
  • Courtney-Stanley.com