Oct. 19, 2021

Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives with Minal Bopaiah | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives with Minal Bopaiah  | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Minal Bopaiah. Minal is the founder of Brevity & Wit, a strategy and design firm that helps organizations achieve the change they wish to see in the world through a unique approach that combines human-centered design, behavior change science, and the principles of inclusion diversity, equity, and accessibility. Minal Bopaiah discusses her book Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives and shares frameworks and approaches for leading a more equitable organization.



Some highlights:

- Minal Bopaiah on the tie-in between implicit bias and systemic issues faced in tackling inequity.  

- How our biases impact algorithms, including those used by human resource departments for recruiting and hiring.  

- Minal Bopaiah on the difference between equity and equality.

- The role that design thinking can play in greater equity in organizations. 

- How leaders can redesign systems to ensure greater equity.  




- Rajan Patel – Co-founder, CEO at Dent Education

- Dan Heath and Chip Heath – Authors, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.

- Johnnetta Betsch Cole – Author, Racism in American Public Life.

- Valarie Kaur – Author, See No Stranger

- Karen Armstrong – Author, The Spiral Staircase

- Partnering Leadership Podcast Conversation with Howard Ross – Author, Everyday Bias


Connect with Minal Bopaiah:

Brevity & Wit on Instagram

Minal Bopaiah on Instagram

Brevity and Wit on Twitter

Minal Bopaiah on Twitter

Minal Bopaiah on LinkedIn


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:



More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 




Welcome to partnering leadership. I am really excited this week to be welcoming Minal Bopaiah. Minal is an author speaker and strategic consultant with more than 20 years of experience in human centered design, behavioral change science and the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. Her new book is "Equity: How to design organizations where everyone thrives. And as we are all looking to have more equity in our societies, in our organizations and our community, we can play a role as individuals and as leaders in making this a reality and Minal has a great framework and approach for us to consider as we try to lead our organizations and community for that greater equity.

So I really enjoyed this conversation with some practical takeaways. I'm sure you will too. I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. Mahan@mahantavakoli.com there's a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast. That way you will be sure to be notified of new releases.

And finally, those of you that enjoy these on apple, leave a rating and review that way more people will find a conversations and benefit from them. Now here's my conversation with Minal Bopaiah. 

Minal Bopaiah welcome to Partnering Leadership, I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me. 

Thank you, Mahan. It's so lovely to be here with you.

I love your book Minal and the questions you raise, and some of the frameworks you have with respect to us, designing our organizations, to be able to help everyone thrive. But before we get to some of your insights would love to know whereabouts you grow up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become. 

I'd be happy to share some of that. So I was born and raised in New York. I was born in Brooklyn and when I was around three, my parents moved to Staten Island which was a much greener area. But a very unusual subculture. So I often joke that Staten Island had all of the aggression of New York with none of the arts and culture.

I was a little bit of a fish out of water there. I think that was a little bit of a fish out of water in most places, even in my family in some ways. And so I think those early experiences really helped me develop both empathy, but also some understanding of culture and how it affects individual lives.

And so I think that it's really easy to draw the tie then to the work that I'm doing now.

I would love to touch on a couple of things you mentioned there Minal one was, you were a little bit of fish out of water, even within your family. What made you a fish out of water in your family? 

I was born in 1977. We were really one of the first generations of Indian Americans in this country. There were Indians who came earlier, but there was really a mass immigration in the sixties and seventies. And so America at that time was very like black and white around race.

It was really hard to know my place, but I think in my family there was no real model for how to grow up cross-culturally and I was the eldest. So I had to figure it out, but then I also just think that I was I just beat to a different drummer. My dad actually read my book recently and he's like, "I never fully understood you or what you were talking about." I think it took like this book on some level for them to understand for me to be able to order my thoughts and I think a lot of the experiences that people have now that we have language for, we didn't have language for back then. And especially as a child, you don't.

And my parents couldn't because they didn't have the same experiences because they grew up in India. And they had their own experiences of being not belonging, being a fish out of water. They eloped, they didn't have an arranged marriage. They have their own experiences, but they were so different, that I think being able to navigate that, finding the words for that, I think is what made me a writer and what made me interested in equity and inclusion.

Now as you write, you also write a lot about systemic issues with respect to racism and race. And one of the interesting things is that in order to understand systemic issues, we also need to understand implicit bias because I think it has been getting short shrift lately.

But people aren't understanding that some of the algorithms that a lot of organizations rely on, including the ATS systems, the implicit bias can be worked in there. So can you talk about how some systemic issues and implicit bias tie into each other? 

Because implicit bias is hidden. It's implicit. It becomes very insidious and it can be hard to surface it. One example is artificial intelligence that's being used now for human resources, so they'll say that you can't discriminate, they code it so that you can't discriminate based on race or name or these sorts of things, but your AI is looking at historical data of who has been successful in this company in order to try to predict who will be successful in the future. Given the nature of discriminatory laws from eons ago, the answer is actually probably white men. And so even if you say that the AI, can't say that white men should be preferred candidates, it'll come up with proxies for white male, which are something like people who used to play rugby in college tend to do well in this organization.

 And first of all, it's correlational data. It's not causal, but it's correlational data. That's proxy for race. And the hardest part about AI and technology and data is people think because it's a data and technology that somehow it is inherently unbiased. And that is just not true because all of our technology has been coded by humans who have biases.

And so we have to do a much better job early on in the coding of our technology to at least mitigate bias if not de bias.

And in many instances Minal all that the technology does is that it leverages those biases. So I've been frustrated with some organizations and people thinking that the ATSs or AI, they can't be biased because it's artificial intelligence. But as you said, it's human decision-making that sets the parameters for that artificial intelligence to make decisions. 

Yeah. And the thing about implicit bias is that it's baked into our assumptions in life. If you really want to be more equitable and inclusive, you need to be willing as a leader to question some really fundamental assumptions. I once had a business development call with a potential client who said they wanted to do some diversity work. Our leaders don't want to second guess themselves.

And I was like, I can't work with you. I don't know where to go with it. If you're not willing to second, guess everything you've been taught or learn then you're not ready to do this work. You gotta second guess like a lot of the things that we take for granted in order to create a more inclusive and equitable world.

You do have to do that. And that goes to the heart of your book because a title is even "Equity: How to design organizations, where everyone thrives." Before we get into the design element of it, you use the word equity. What is the difference between equity? Why strive for equity rather than equality?

Yeah. Equality is when everybody gets the same. Equity is when people get what they need to thrive and participate fully either in society or in an organization. Now we need to use some wisdom and differential analysis when we need equality and when we need equity, it's not that one is inherently better than the other.

So for example, in the LGBT committee, An equitable solution may have been the creation of civil unions. But that still would have left LGBT couples outside of the full rights and protections of marriage. So only marriage equality could have been a really inclusive and just solution to what LGBT couples are facing.

However, in other instances, so for example, In schools, if you have a child who has dyslexia, equity is giving them more time with the teacher in order to learn how to read and be at the level of their peers. So something different for that child compared to his peers is what's needed for that child to participate fully in school and to get the full benefits of a good education.

So there are times when equality is the answer, and there are times when equity is the answer. And right now we're moving towards equity as being more of the answer. But I think very few people have an understanding about how different can also be fair.

And one of the issues with equity, and I agree that that's the way organizations need to look at their systems and practices is that a lot of times people compare themselves and compare the opportunities they get, or a lot of time as you mentioned a kid with dyslexia needs to have more of the teacher's attention and feel like that is not fair to them since a big part of.

We've been told is equality for all. How do you recommend for leaders to address the issue that equity benefits everyone? 

Yeah. It's tricky. It requires some good chin and good leadership. It also requires explaining that the goal of equity that people get to contribute their strengths and people on some level get to decide what's in their own best interest. And so that liberation, to be able to say, these are the things that would benefit me, and these are the things I need liberates everyone, so the group that has done the most work, I think in societal equity is actually the disability rights. They said, nothing's wrong with me as an individual If I can't use my legs, something is wrong with society that has designed it to not allow me to participate because there's no sidewalk cutouts.

But once we mandated sidewalk, cutouts and elevators, you found that also benefited like parents with strollers or skateboarders or kids on little  scooters and things like that. So when you design for people who have been left out, almost always you end up actually including even more people that are from other identities as well.

And so it's a willingness to explore that level of creativity and innovation that needs to be a value in the company for equity to really be embraced.

What a beautiful example of Minal of equity elevating opportunities for everyone. It is not providing greater opportunities for some over the others. And I think that's a great example. Now, in addition to the focus on equity, you talk about design thinking and a design thinking approach so everyone thrives.

Can you talk briefly about design thinking and how you think that can be married with equity in approaching our organizations? 

Yeah. So human centered design is a really great tool. And I learned most of what I know about it from my friend Rajan Patel who runs Dent Education, and Rajan was also part of the team in Stanford that created the embrace warmer and It's a real darling story in the design thinking community.

But what design thinking, what it fundamentally does is human centered design puts humans in the center. It's not form or function, it's humans, and it's really starting to incorporate behavioral science. It is taking human nature into account instead of trying to design for some weird, ideal typical human that doesn't exist.

And so what Rajan and his colleagues found when they went to India is that there were a lot of babies being born premature, who weren't surviving. Mainly because of, they didn't have access to hospital, but also even if there was a hospital and there was a NICU, the incubator was so scary for the moms.

They didn't want to put their baby in it. And instead of saying that those moms are uneducated and let's educate them on medicine, design thinking said no, their experience, we cannot argue with that. That is a valid experience to have. What if we designed for their concerns and figured out how can we keep a baby warm when it's premature without having to separate it from it's mother?

And so they created this embrace warmer, which is like a swaddle unit that you can hold the baby. That also has a heat pack that keeps the baby at the perfect temperature. That's an innovation that addresses premature births in a developing country without assuming that whatever the answer is for the developed country, basically for white people in rich countries is the appropriate one here that needs to scale. 

It is putting the context of India at the center of how you design. And that I think is what needs to really be fundamentally embraced in our organizations. Because one of the implicit biases that we have as a society, many of us were socialized to believe that transgender revolves around cis-gender that women revolve around men and that all people of color have revolve around white people.

And that identity of cis-gender white male is at the center and the rest of us around the outside. What we're saying is no, we need to de-center those identities. And then we need to make space in the middle for people of different identities to hold the center, according to their time, and what's appropriate for the situation, that everybody gets a turn to be in the center at some point, and to have an organization or a team or a department that is designed around their needs and not just one identity.

Now Minal, one of the frustrations that I have is organizations for years, most especially over the past year, have given a lot of lip service to equity. And what you are talking about with respect to systemic approach is really hard and takes a lot of effort. Why would organizations want to take this on?

So it's really important when you're starting out to do some level of power analysis of where do you have power to change the system and where don't you. If you're a privately owned company, you can redesign your organization.

You may not be able to change SEC. And acknowledging that is really important because the reason why this work gets stymied and that people get frustrated is because we're inauthentic about it. Like we got to just be real about what we have the power to change and what we don't. And on some level that's unAmerican cause American culture.

We love to think we have the power to change anything and everything, and that's just simply not true. So if we can first start there and then setting the expectations and organizations, here are the things that are in our control that we are going to change. That becomes a much more powerful focal point for leveraging the willpower in the organization to change.

But often people start committing to these grandiose ideas. Like what I call like vision boards of diversity, equity inclusion with no strategic plan. And people who are like, we're going to address systemic racism. I was like, you're a small company of a hundred people. What are you talking about?

You're not going to end systemic racism. So stop it. This is the one field that you cannot oversell. If anything, please undersell and over-deliver. You can not over promise on DEI, so people need to get out of that habit first. The sales habit. I'm just going to say something that sounds inspirational and that'll get people on board because everybody's tired and nobody has time for that bullshit.

So I stopped that. And then the reason to do it is because first of all, DEI simply is for Jenzy. If you want to recruit talent, we shouldn't even be having the conversation on why, like you cannot recruit talent unless you are doing some good, authentic work in the DEI space in your organization.

Secondly, there's study after study about how like the financial benefits, the benefits for innovation and simply the benefits for relevant. As a marketer, your brand is going to be irrelevant. If it cannot appeal to a more diverse customer base and population. Full-stop So the question is, do you want to be relevant?

And if the answer to that is yes, then the answer is you have to do DEI work.

And in order to be relevant, you lay out a framework, a theory of change for designing equitable organizations. Want to briefly touch on each one of the key aspects you mentioned. The first one is engaging leadership. What is that about and how can the organization engaged leadership to redesign the system and become more equitable? 

Yeah. So that sort of dovetails on what I was just being about, about a power analysis, like we have to get really honest about how to do DEI and organizations, which is different than doing social justice work in democracies and societies. And the reason is because the power structures are different.

In an organization, most often there are some exceptions you don't vote out your CEO. In your community, in our country, you can vote out the person in charge. And that's not to say that organizations can't become more democratic and inclusive, but how power is used, how it is leveraged is a little bit different.

So you need that organization development lens on it. And when you realize that it absolutely requires then full hearted engagement from leadership. And some of the ways that we do that are actually through storytelling, through getting leaders to be able to talk about their story of success in a way that unmasks the system for other people.

Because first of all, too often, when we talk about the system, we're talking about stories of oppression, which are valid, totally valid. But it then becomes like somewhat of an oppression Olympics like who had it worse and who's the most oppressed and we have to take care of that first.

What I want people to see though on the flip side is that behind every success story is also a system, That it is not just an individual's hard work that leads to their success. It's hard work plus something else and often plus multiple variables. I tell the story of like my parents coming to this country in the book, which is how the immigration system privileges those of us who have access to socialized education.

But even just more recently with the fact that my business has grown and I've written a book, a lot of people have congratulated me as an entrepreneur. And even as a woman entrepreneur, and I was like let's be honest that I was able to write the book during the pandemic. First of all, Because I don't have children, so I wasn't homeschooling the way 90% of women were in this country during that time.

And secondly, my husband, while being a firefighter and paramedic is also enough of a feminist that he does all of the housework. And yes, that makes me very lucky, but it shouldn't have to be a requirement that a woman needs to be married to somebody to pick up the housework in order to write a book, That is how our system is set up. That it makes it very hard for single people who don't have rich parents or rich spouse to start their own business, or to do something as time intensive as writing a book. That's how the system supported me. The system supports people who are dual income and child-free to accomplish their career goals much more than it supports people who have children or who are not dual income.

And so we have to be able to talk about our success as leaders in a way that allows other people to see something beyond our own hard work. Because when we do that, not only is it a breath of fresh air for the people who haven't been able to attain that who may be working just as hard, if not harder, it also allows us to start to imagine how could we support people who are not of the same identity or circumstances that we're in? So it gets our imagination going as well. 

And in addition to that, you mentioned redesigning the system to reinforce observable behaviors. 

How can leaders redesign focusing on behaviors in the organization? 

Yeah. So say, we want to say that the equitable outcome is that nobody should be working more than 40 to 50 hours a week. That's like the end state, what are the actual observable behaviors this year that we want to see amongst staff and leaders that'll get there. And the reason I speak about observable behaviors is fundamentally from a behavior change standpoint.

The only thing you can ask for people is observable behaviors. You can't mandate mindset. You can't ask that they have to be more heart-centered or more equitable as a leader. Like you need to be like, these are the observable behaviors I need to see. And on some level I don't even really care how you think about it.

These are the things by which you will be measured. And so for something like time equity on jobs, it's if you have a staff, if you have a direct report, who's on vacation. I don't want to see emails from them. That's an observable behavior. Then your direct reports know that they should not be logging into their emails and they should not be sending emails when they're on vacation.

That if you want to get really like "measury" about it, if that's a word like time-tracking, let's go through every job description, and how long do you think it takes a person each week to do these tasks? And have you also budgeted for like bathroom breaks and lunch?

I've read job descriptions where I was like, "there's no way this is possible in one person's job." So being really clear about those things is really important. And it's really important for DEI because I see people coming up with these very grandiose plans and there's like maybe one person dedicated to DEI in addition to their actual job.

And then they get upset. You're not doing enough. Like we're not reaching these goals. And I was like you're not reaching those goals because you haven't come up with the structure and the resources to support it. It's not from a lack of will is from a lack of planning, and a lack of resources.

And so those that focus on observable behaviors is really the crux that allows us to operationalize our ideals and put them into practice.

So I would love to know your perspectives Minal with respect to the people that listened to the podcasts, whether they're leaders of organizations, in some instances, leaders of teams, and in some instances, Individual leaders within the organization. So they're not necessarily responsible for a team.

What would you say in addition to reading your book might be a first step in the process to be part of the solution to helping design a more equitable organization. Since not everyone is sitting on top of an organization for that designing. What would you say different people at different levels of organizations can do to help contribute and move this conversation forward? 

Yeah. So I think it actually does get back to that storytelling component, even though that was designed for leaders, I think everybody can engage in that. And what it's really doing is helping you understand yourself in relation to this. Because the system is so big and we often can't see it, but if we can start to draw some parallels on how the system has affected our own lives, it becomes easier.

And then if we can start to socialize, talking about those things so that I don't go on these like press interviews saying that I'm a girl boss who did everything by herself, that's disingenuous, like we have to start being allies to one another by saying no.

Like here are the other things that help. And if you can't get that, maybe we can get you something else that will help you. And we even have in the book this group identity wheel that was developed by my friends at Sukari Pennock, Fitz, and Amber Maze at fifth domain coaching. It's really helpful because it allows people to understand themselves in the complexity of multiple dimensions of identity.

It's a really great tool for understanding intersectionality as it relates to you, because it's asking not just about your race and your gender, but about your sexuality, your socioeconomic status, your age, your religion, your culture, your ethnicity, your disability status. And that helps you see oh, The system has policies for all of these identities.

So how have they affected my life? I think that's really the first step because then we help other people see the system and when there is a critical mass that can see the system, I fundamentally believe we will be able to then change the system.

It is, I think is a great recommendation. And it also allows for us to have greater empathy for people in different parts of the system. As you said, in some instances, the system benefits each and every one of us. And in some instances, the system can not benefit us, but understanding that almost invisible system is a great way, both for us to be able to tell our stories better and be able to empathize to people that fall in different parts of that system. 



So Minal, I would also love to know are there any leadership resources or books you find yourself recommending whether in this space or just in general, for leaders wanting to bring about more of that change to their organizations? 

Yeah. So funny thing is that on the website for the book, we actually created a section called Minal's bookshelf, which is like all the books that I recommend because I'm such a like book nerd and I feel like I'm almost like a book doctor.

I want my recommendation to be specific to the individual. What I would recommend to you may not be what I would recommend to somebody else. Cause I read that sort of varied and disperse across genres and stuff. One of the books that I think is really great for leaders and it's more about individual behavior change than system behavior change though is Dan and Chip Heath wrote a book called "Switch: How to change things when change is hard."

And Dan actually very graciously even wrote an endorsement for the book. And it's really a succinct summary of decades of behavioral science research. And it forms the basis of what our tool of diagnosing the obstacles to behavior change. But it's really helpful in helping people understand it's it's not just about motivation to change.

There are other factors and it helps elucidate that. So Switch is a great book. Anything by my teachers in the space, I think are great. My mentor is Johnnetta Betsch Cole. She has a seminal book called "Gender Talk." She also has a new one out called "Race and racism in American public life."

That's just fire. I think Valarie Kaur's book "Revolutionary love" is really great. Howard Ross, who was one of my teachers in this space has a book called "Everyday bias" that is just the book to read when you're starting on this work. And then I think that like my books get a little bit more esoteric and off the beaten path.

One of my favorite authors is Karen Armstrong, she's written some nonfiction books that are really academic and I've never gotten through them like the history of God and the case for God and all these things. But she actually has an autobiography called the "Spiral staircase" which is about her life before she became famous as a public intellectual, she was a nun and she left the convent and like she also had temporal lobe epilepsy, and the reason I love it so much is that you rarely get stories of women who are simply in conversation with life and their work. So often the autobiographies of women are about their relationship to men or children.

And so this one is just there's a whole other way for a woman to go through life. And the things that she faces are also pretty significant. And I relate I read it shortly after I dropped out of grad school. And so it was really meaningful for me at well at that time, but the reason I like it as a leadership book is that it opens the door to a different way of thinking that most people are not exposed to. And if you can be enthralled by that, then I think you can really lead, 

What great recommendations. I have a bunch of books now to read in addition to Howard Ross has been a dear friend for almost a quarter century. He really has a lot of great stuff in this space also. So Minal, how would you recommend for the audience to find out more about you connect with you and find out about your writing? 

Sure. You can find out more about the book at theequitybook.com. You can also sign up for our newsletter there. You can also visit us at our company site brevityandwhit.com. Our newsletter is probably the best way to stay in touch with everything that we do. And I'm also on LinkedIn a lot, probably that's probably the social media I'm most active on.

Although we do have an Instagram account where some of our designers are highlighting some of their really fabulous inclusive design. So you can also check that out.

Outstanding. I really appreciate Minal the conversation and especially your thinking, because it has raised questions in my mind and how I can tell stories differently and how I can see stories differently. So I think that was a big impact for me. I also love you have a quote by Kahlil Gibran which I absolutely love it goes, "may there be such a oneness between us that when one weeps, the other tastes salt." And I think that captures a lot of your insights beautifully. Thank you so much for joining partnering leadership in Minal Bopaiah.

Thank you for having me.