15 must-follow diversity and inclusion thought leaders in 2021

Sharon Monteiro
min read
15 must-follow diversity and inclusion thought leaders in 2021

The pandemic descended upon us like the east wind and blew us off our heels. The resilience of the workplace was tested through social, political, and economic upheavals, and as a consequence, radically changed the face of HR for good.  

As harbingers of good news and the new year, we have collected the counsel of renowned diversity and inclusion thought leaders, interviewed as a part of peopleHum’s leadersHum – A Leadership Series, and presented it as a helpful guide to building diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  

Top tips from the most influential diversity and inclusion thought leaders

1] Debra Ruh

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“I remember thinking that I didn’t know people with disabilities, but actually I was surrounded by people with disabilities, because we’re all human beings and we all have abilities and disabilities, and some are more apparent than others. But it doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to society. It’s just ridiculous how we decide who is and is not valuable. And I disagree with all of that.” - Debra Ruh, Founder & CEO of Ruh Global Impact

Global Disability Inclusion Strategist, Debra Ruh is all about impact and about making the world a better place. Diversity really plays well into innovation and creativity, which leads to productivity. And the times of great stress and fear are great opportunities to really have a look into how organizations and communities are including people. It’s about what it means to be true human.  

On the relation between disability inclusion and employee experience design, here are the major changes Debra wishes to see in the future of workplace design:

  • The need to be accessible. To blend accessibility into the DNA of the design process. Accessibility must be as important as privacy.
  • The need to focus on inclusive design.

“If we’re not even including women, how do people with disabilities have a chance? How do people that are gay have a chance? So, the diversity groups all need to come together. We need to protect each other.”  

Debra’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:  

  • The role of technology in the future of work is critical. It’s not the future anymore - it is already here.  
  • On the matter of companies and inclusion branding: If companies are not telling their story in an accessible way that includes the marginalized, then the younger generations who hear about or see them doing bad things, are going to walk out and leave in a second.  
“If you really want to make a difference, you’ve got to be the path forward.”

2. Joe Gerstandt

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“Inclusion is something that happens in a place or a space where I can both truly belong, be accepted, be an insider, and still be true to who I am & tell the truth.” - Joe Gerstandt, Inclusion Strategist and Diversity Director at Alegent Health.  

Joe Gerstandt is a Diversity and Inclusion Thought Leader & Strategist helping organizations achieve an inclusive workforce, and is the voice we need to replace anything and everything that is not aligned with our world today. With humble beginnings as a Diversity and Inclusion Trainer at a regional healthcare system, Joe has come a long way, nearly 20 years, in fact, and now conducts workshops and trainings for numerous multinational companies, and continues to advocate for the cause that has grown closest to his heart – diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As an expert, Joe is acutely aware of the confusion, misunderstanding, and misinformation surrounding the two terms. He explains that one of the best measures that organizations can undertake is ensuring that there is a common language in place.  

“Many may claim the abstractness of inclusion at work to be a small point, but if you’re unable to explain concisely what it is, it will be really hard for you to measure it along the way.”

Here’s what Joe believes are the biggest gaps that need to be addressed in organizations today:

  • A lack of a basic understanding of those clear and concise definitions (Which is when the work on awareness begins.)
  • A lack of accountability among leaders and managers, as well as the need of change in behaviour to make employees feel more included.  

Joe’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

“I believe that the designing of employee experiences and practice of management needs to change in fundamental ways. Instead of being viewed as a side project or extra credit, they should be acknowledged within the core of employee experiences.”  


3] Jeff Smith

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“The biggest thing we’re trying to help people understand is that things like work engagement, psychological safety, performance - these really big things that appear to be in separate buckets - they’re all related. And that’s really great news for leaders, because if we can focus on the things we know we need to do, but in a very specific, data-driven way, we can help teams align, help them collaborate, help people grow.” - Jeff Smith, Founder and CEO of the SupportingLines Institute.  

As the CEO of SupportingLines, Jeff’s work focuses on helping leaders and teams improve performance and increase engagement, but not just for achieving goals. Rather, with a focus towards the human experience of work. And all of this is powered by data-driven, so everything can be measured!

The human experience of work, states Jeff, really has two parts: “One is work in engagement, which relates to a positive, fulfilling state of mind in your work. And the other one is around psychological safety.”

The term “psychological safety” isn’t a mental health bit or a scary notion as leaders may claim. It is really about good leadership. It’s about treating people with respect and in a way that they know they’re trusted.

Jeff’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

"To adopt a quantitative, data-driven way to look at the human experience by observing these elements of employee engagement and psychological safety, for rich and substantive evidence, rather than looking through the lens of an ephemeral, whimsical notion of life."

4] Jennifer Brown

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“I believe that companies that lead with empathy right now are going to be places that people will be very loyal to going forward.” - Jennifer Brown, Founder & CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting.

Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, diversity and inclusion expert, and author. She believes in unleashing the power of human potential, embracing diversity, and helping people—and organizations—to thrive.

Speaking on diversity, inclusion and equity, Jennifer observed that through this pandemic, organizations and communities were getting schooled in what the latter really meant, and as a result, it brought to the fore the inequities in our society, the people suffering disproportionately, and how it affected the societal microcosm of the workplace.  

“Equality is not a strategy. Equality is something we all want to achieve... but an equity lens is what we need to actually fix the problems that are continuing unchecked.”

Here’s Jennifer's insights on the virtual workspace experience during the pandemic:

  • Positively beaming about the virtual work experience, Jennifer found the remote work arena to be a space of less discomfort.
  • The democratic nature of virtual working is what appealed to her the most, enabling transparency and problem solving.  

Jennifer’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

"While practicing an inclusive workplace culture, leaders need to manifest different and more balanced leadership techniques by displaying vulnerability, transparency, agility and flexibility – and less of command, control, and micromanagement."

5] Geetha Kannan

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“If you have a goal in mind, you should just take failure as a stepping stone to success.” - Geetha Kannan, Founder & CEO of Wequity for Women and Technology.

The ‘W’ of Wequity stands for ‘Women’. Every organization professes that they would give equal opportunities for women, and Geetha, for one, feels that equal opportunity is just not enough. At Wequity, they look at equity as the process, as different ways to reach the goal – which is equality, in the end.  

Her tips on becoming a transparent, communicative, and effective leader? Celebrate the small successes of your employees and teams. Those small celebrations are important, and that’s how you learn to empower and connect with your team, and build a synergy through team engagement.

Despite the substantial proof that having diverse workforces results in better output, unconscious biases and the lack of role models do tend to proliferate.

Geetha’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tips for 2021:

"Virtual is the way to go in terms of learning, and is one way to engage with your employees. And always add role models as you go, so that employees get the inspiration and the motivation to continuously engage."

6] Kelly Kauffman

Interview | LinkedIn | Interview

“It’s the same in business. You have to have people who are the superstars, but you also have to have the people who are strong support and can play the roles to get jobs done. Everybody is important and everybody has a role within the org to make us a success.”  - Kelly Kauffmann, Chief Human Capital Officer, Milwaukee Bucks Inc.  

As Chief Human Capital Officer at Milwaukee Bucks, for Kelly Kauffman, HR is exactly the same as you would imagine it to be across companies, except that the roles she helps oversee and support are uniquely different from a standard HR job. Some of her unique challenges ranged from building an arena from the ground up and learning how to manage it, to managing the team during a time when they aren’t allowed physically host games. Overseeing HR for all of the diverse groups under Milwaukee Bucks has been a great challenge, but it also has a great amount of diversity.    

Kelly’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tips for 2021:

"The best way to sell is to have a lot of diverse voices. Having diverse employees within the organization who are successful in using their voices and perspectives in telling their own stories are a great pull for potential, diverse candidates."

7] Daniel Pascual

LinkedIn | Interview

“What I would say to CEOs of top organisations (during times of crises) is that it is not only about trust in your organisation, it’s also about trust upon yourself. That there is much more than you think inside of you. And that means that to bring this trust out, you need to be challenged.” - Daniel Pascual, CEO of Vistage Barcelona  

As an experienced executive and business coach, Daniel Pascual believes in the power of honest and open discussion as the purest response to organizational shifts. It’s about developing connection and adapting to the needs of the younger workforce; and failing to do so makes the organization less attractive as a hub of growth. This means creating a balance between maintaining the company’s core values as well as making an environment to foster future generations of the workforce.  

Here’s Daniel’s outlook on organizational growth:

  • Growth is the capacity and commitment towards problem solving.
  • Growth is also realising the organization as a source of ideas. It's imperative that top-level management see organizations as a pool of creative ideas and also the muscle of implementation.  

Daniel’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

"Maintain communication and collaboration within the team during remote work by pushing employees further and changing organizational processes. Change things in a way that improves productivity and makes it sustainable. "

8] Jane Frankland

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“Stretch, challenge, reward, and truly value the people who work with you.” - Jane Frankland, Owner & CEO of KnewStart  

An entrepreneur who established herself at the age of 29, Jane’s advice to women entrepreneurs who are planning to start their own business is to really believe in themselves and have a clear, mapped-out vision. But to have this accompanied with the caveat that they will have to keep adapting and innovating as they grow.  

“The more you stretch yourself, the more you get outside your comfort zone, the more you have to manage the imposter syndrome. It’s not a matter of eliminating it, but a matter of managing it.”  

As diversity and inclusion thought leader, here’s Jane’s frank input on the future of tech in business:

  • Having the tech and AI is all fun and exciting, but what businesses really need to be focusing on is the human side of things; on diversity.
  • Technology calls on people to communicate well. And because tech is constantly evolving, humans are going to have to pick up speed. So, the faster the pace, the more indispensable one will be.  

Jane’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

"It’s time to become visible. Particularly in male-dominated industries, now is the time for women to become visible. To be seen and heard to attract opportunities that are in line with your career and life-goals."

9] Farzana Suri

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“Leaders are bridge builders, they’re in the business of winning hearts. When you’re able to do that, then the business just happens. Whatever industry you may be in, eventually, we’re all in the people business, and people buy only what connects them to the heart.” - Farzana Suri, Founder of Farzana Suri - Victory Coach  

Through her journey as a Victory Coach, Farzana has grown to believe that everyone has a story of victory, and everyone has a coach within themselves to push themselves to victory. Her goal is to encourage and inspire people to see themselves as winners in life.  

You need to be communicative and transparent to the people you’re dealing with. To take optimum advantage of the coaching sessions, you need to have an open mindset, a learning mindset.

Farzana’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

“You’ve got to be an empty cup to be filled.”

10] Jacque Rushin

LinkedIn | Interview

“This notion of staying in your own lane - close your ears to that. You can get into any lane that you want to. That’s about growth and opportunity. And when people tell you to stay in your own lane, they’re really trying to suppress the gifts that you’ve been given. You have the opportunity to explore, and that’s why they have numerous lanes, is so that you can pass when someone won’t let you by.” - Jacque Rushin, COO of Rich Rush Business Consulting.

For Jacque, a healthy culture is one where the DNA and ambience of a corporation is healthy. Where all the organization’s people are healthy, from the perspective of being included in the workplace, where their talents are valued. In a place with no discrimination, with corporate diversity where diverse opinions matter, you get to see a lot of collaboration and innovation.

Jacque’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

"Organization’s need to take a look at the biases that are visible. Businesses have forgotten about ethics, which is all about treating people with respect. So, one has to ensure that organizational principles are being upheld and ethics is maintained."

11] Simerjeet Singh

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“Can you stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit? Can you persist in the face of difficulty? Can you still put in efforts, day-in, day-out, even when you’re not seeing the results? - Simerjeet Singh, Growth Catalyst at Cutting Edge Learning Systems

Develop some of these traits because these things cannot be taught formally, so stay open, don’t expect results to appear overnight, stay in the game. Dress up, show up. Don’t give up.” - Simerjeet Singh, Growth Catalyst at Cutting Edge Learning Systems

Simerjeet enjoys solving problems, including those around disengagement. Here are some of the reasons why he believes teams can get disengaged and demotivated:

  • Lack of a strong mission and purpose.
  • Lack of communication, which is one of the first signals of a breakdown in engagement.
  • Lack of authenticity among leaders to engage and inspire teams.
  • Lack of innovation that drives motivation.  

Simerjeet’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

"Whether you’re a coach, a professional speaker or an organisational development consultant, if you’re in the business of development, context is everything. Basically, who you’re speaking to, what their challenges are, what their worldview is, where they come from, where they are trying to go, what they are trying to achieve, and what their strengths are. And after you have observed all this and worked at being an insider, you offer your assistance and guidance. Trying to walk the way with them."

12] Dorothy Dalton

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“We’re not taking the steps forward that we need to. It’s really important that we focused our efforts on finding what the barriers are and try to work on that. And I think a lot of organizations are starting to work on unconscious bias and the belief that, workplace ecosystems hold us back.” - Dorothy Dalton, Global Talent Management Strategist.  

An international talent management consultant and career coach, Dorothy enjoys supporting organizations to achieve diversity and inclusion in the workplace, with a particular focus on gender balance. There has been extensive research on the benefits and value of having a gender-balanced, diverse, and inclusive workplace. They show increases in retention, engagement, decision making, creativity, reduction in absenteeism. But what isn’t being looked at truthfully is the lack of progress and what organizations can do about it.  

“I get kind of mad when I see things like, “Eliminate unconscious bias, eradicate all of these things." You can't do it. You can only learn to manage it. And the best way to manage it is in a constructive environment…I think it's about educating people, getting them to understand that these biases are going on and then introducing processes and systems to remind people how to do that and then calling it out at the same time.”  

Here are three values that serve as pillars for managing diversity and inclusion in organizations:

  • Leadership commitment.
  • Process change.  
  • Individual behaviour change.  

Dorothy’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

"HR and technology will play important roles, because the one thing that has come out of the ongoing crisis is how we can change with technology, how helpful it has been, and it can be used for out benefit."

13] Joanne Lockwood

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“I often see organizations with this great D&I playbook, but it’s a dusty PDF on a digital shelf. You need to take the dusty PDF, blow on it, wave it around, and own it.” - Joanne Lockwood, Founder and CEO of SEE Change Happen

A Diversity & Inclusion Advisor and Consultant, Joanne has faced her own share of frustrations around inclusion, exclusion, about being trans, which launched her into the orbit of wanting to create a better world for herself and everyone. The impact of Covid-19 and movements like Black Lives Matter kicked a lot of organisations out of their complacency and highlighted the inadequacy of many of the disparities that were present. They served as a wakeup call for people, bringing to the forefront the causes of employee wellbeing, employee experience, and employee centricity.  

Joanne thoughtfully remarks that one of the mistakes that companies make with employee engagement is when they present the data but are mindless about who the numbers represent. And the biggest barrier to figuring out the granularity is trust. The solution to this is all down to communication, about using the staff networks and meeting people. And through that you evidence that you are making change in a positive way.  

“If you keep asking people what they think and nothing ever changes, you’ll think “Why am I bothering?” It’s not that people get survey fatigue; they get lack of action fatigue. We need to make sure we focus on actually asking."

Joanne’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

The key thing is to be person-centric. We need to treat people as they want to be treated. And that means understanding someone’s lived experiences, understanding someone’s culture. You see their colour, their race, their faith, their sexuality and you celebrate them because of that, because you know that they are authentic, enriched, and capable people. And you don’t face them to hid those characteristics to fit into your world. So, you add them to your culture, expand your culture, and enrich it.

“Culture is an important thing. Recognise that biases exist. Recognising that we’re not going to get rid of them. But putting the checks and balances in place where we can mitigate them, cross-check, be objective, get used to being challenged and challenge others. And that creates a very open culture where we can sit down and review decisions.”

14] Jane Fordham

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“Your most important tool in your employee brand are your existing employees. If your values, your leadership, your culture are sound and fit the purpose, structures and the processes that perpetuate that leadership, then your people will feel heard, connected, happy, and they will reward you with this halo effect, be it word-of-mouth, or be it actually sharing things socially, it will work in your favour.” - Jane Fordham, Founder of Jane Fordham Consulting

Motivated and inspired by the work around progressive people programmes she oversaw at Golin, particularly on gender equality, Jane has utilised her expertise towards addressing the issues in the space through her consultancy.  

“If we don’t just look narrowly at specific underrepresented groups, we don’t just look at women in the workplace, but we think about inclusion from a global, all-encompassing perspective, then lo and behold… If the organisation, if the leadership, if the culture, values and structure, are by definition open, inclusive and accessible, then you will automatically see progress in each of these underrepresented groups.”  

Jane’s top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

"One of the impactful things that organizations can do to address gender parity issues is to double down on efforts to address gender equity and specifically to close any existing gender pay gap. And keep listening and iterating, keep feeding back on your progress."

15] Dr. James O. Rodgers

LinkedIn | Twitter | Interview

“There’s nothing new under the sun. There are no silver bullets out there. What we need to do is recognise the fundamentals. Work is about human beings working with other human beings trying to achieve a specific goal or outcome. It’s that simple.” - Dr. James O. Rodgers, Thought Leader and Strategist at James O. Rodgers and Associates

An Executive Coach himself, Dr. James firmly states that coaching is not about mentoring and telling people what to do. It is about giving people the tools to answer their own questions. In his experience with coaching C-level executives, he has discovered that many of them suffer from an imposter syndrome and lack the confidence in their capabilities. And as coach, he makes it his mission to remind them of their strengths so that they can move in confidence to do the job that had set out to do.  

“That’s why I call it coaching beyond belief, because it allows them to achieve beyond their own expectations and what they believe they bring to the party. Because most of us are capable of more than we realise.”  

Dr. James’ top workplace diversity and inclusion tip for 2021:

"Diversity has become a social engineering project that we’re trying to solve all of society’s problems. If businesses just did what was originally intended for them to do, which is, demonstrate the value of diversity -they would get more diversity, they would use that diversity better and they would show society that there is value in getting more diversity. And that removes the stigma of diversity from society."

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