Challenging your organization: Diversity, equity, and inclusion

By: Carole Wedge, FAIA, CEO, Shepley Bulfinch

Diverse organizations are better organizations—for the business and for the people who work in them. While it is easy to say, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” it’s entirely different to walk the walk. Sometimes taking that first step is the hardest because it’s not just about valuing diversity, but rather creating it. I was fortunate to enter architecture at the exact moment equal opportunity conversations were starting to happen at firms nationwide. I was the right age and the right gender at the right time, and I got to witness—and walk through—new doors as they opened. Watching other designers give credence to thinking about diversity and making equity and inclusion real in our firm was instrumental in my career. Getting to push those goals further as a leader for my firm and industry has been incredibly rewarding.

Set goals to keep moving forward

In my 30-plus years at Shepley Bulfinch, I’ve seen the impact that changing the emphasis around inclusion can have on both culture and work. In 2000, our firm re-organized and strategically up-ended the stereotypical “old boys club” persona, making it clear that diversity is important to us. Today we are a nationally certified Woman-Owned Business Enterprise.

Fast-forward nearly 20 years, and we continue challenging ourselves and our industry to purposefully notice which voices are missing from our conversations. Networks (of any kind) are sort of innately closed groups. You have to, as a leader and organization, deliberately create new networks by looking for opportunities to bring more perspectives to the table. Consciously invite people to the discussion, and celebrate teams that inherently push themselves to have holistic exchanges that include different voices. If you’re an architect, move away from conversations that consist of all architects and become a reverberation chamber. It’s not only important from a cultural perspective to get to know different individuals and not make assumptions, but from a design vision, the broader our vantage point can be, the more complete our analysis of possibilities and opportunities.

Own your influence & measure your happiness

As a leader, it’s my responsibility to promote and expand this approach. For example, I’ve set a precedence to look at the communities we as a firm work in and serve, and ask: “What does the population look like? Sound like? Boston is about 50/50 men to women. So, how does our firm reflect (or not) that same demographic? It’s important to use the same design thinking we use for projects on ourselves.

I’ve also learned the importance of owning your influence—as a leader, colleague, designer—and empowering others. Check in with yourself and your teams to see if you’re perpetuating old forms of advancement in your organization. Ask each other, “Are we focused on great ideas, regardless of where they come from?” “Are people at all levels and from all backgrounds invited to influence the organization and say what they really think?” While it’s imperative that people in power appreciate their influence and create an opportunity for others to further open doors, individuals still need to have the support and wherewithal to walk through—or even build their own doors. It’s critical to empower everyone to take initiative, learn from others, and think beyond what’s been possible to this point.

It’s also up to each of us to step up to the plate, gauge our own happiness, and grow where we are. For me, as long as I am learning, I am happy. Of course, to be your best and have the greatest impact, you need to find the right organization. I was raised to have to take care of “we” not “me,” which very much aligns with Shepley Bulfinch’s own culture of designing beyond, thinking bigger, and sharing ideas for the good of the whole. People who end up caring more about the firm, our clients and their communities end up succeeding here.

Personally, I am passionate about the power of design and the impact a confident, inclusive, and creative approach can have on organizations. Supporting entrepreneurial behaviors to evolve a very top-down profession has allowed me to see the remarkable talents hiding in plain sight. Giving people permission to design their life—work, play, family, self—has been particularly rewarding. The future is about inclusion and empowerment, and I believe we all can play a part in challenging the design community to take the lead in what a truly diverse team can do.