Being a “Positive Disruptor”: A Conversation with a member of Disney’s Inclusion Champion Network on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Belonging
Conversations around how corporations handle diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives are front and center. Some brands are releasing annual and quarterly diversity metrics, some have created new councils dedicated to creating more equity at work, and others are still working to figure out exactly how to handle this evolving conversation.
FLIK Hospitality spoke with one of our own clients, Jennifer Garcia, Corp RE Operations Manager at Disney, who has taken the lead on championing a more inclusive workplace. “You know, when HR reached out with the invitation to be a part of this council, they called me a ‘positive disruptor’ and I have to say that is one of the biggest compliments,” she said to us recently. And it sparked a deeper conversation on the meaning of equity at work and how to bring valuable voices to the table to celebrate diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
FLIK Hospitality: Hi Jennifer, thanks so much for sitting down with us to share your story. Let’s dive right in. There’s a huge spotlight on how businesses are handling conversations around diversity and inclusion at work. Can you give us some insight into your background and how you got involved in the DEI [diversity, inclusion & equity] conversation and became this ‘ambassador’ for inclusion at Disney? How did you get here?
Jennifer: How I got into inclusion work – whew – it’s a long story and will try to make it short. I’m half Puerto Rican and half Italian – a product of immigrants – and my parents, who grew up in Williamsburg, taught me from a very young age that everybody and anybody belongs. [They instilled in me a belief that] if my voice isn’t being heard or I don’t have a seat at the table, I stand on something and make my voice heard. And it’s my responsibility to make sure everybody has a seat at the table too.
Fast-forward into my working years in property management and hotel management (male-dominated industries), and I was very lucky to lead large teams early on in my career. My goal as a leader was to ensure everybody felt included and empowered. I don’t tolerate bullying, no matter how high up the ladder it goes, I don’t accept it. That’s just not okay. As a hotel manager, I was approached by an NGO for the United Nations called Rehabilitation International, which was on the verge of bankruptcy and wanted to bring someone with a corporate background in to help ‘right the ship.’ And I can’t tell you – those were the most impactful five years of my life. The work that we did and the places that I had the privilege to travel - it put into perspective how fortunate I am and what others face in the world. It made me go from an inclusion advocate to demanding inclusion as a requirement – it’s a non-negotiable. I learned when you’re inclusive, there’s a huge trickle-down effect. For example – when you build infrastructure accessible for those in a wheelchair, you also help the elderly, those with strollers, carts, and on crutches. Inclusion works.
Unexpectedly I lost my mom, Ann Marie and my fur baby TJ within a few months of each other, and lots of traveling just wasn’t for me anymore, at that time. And that’s when Disney called…
I’m Disney obsessed, but I never thought of working for Disney. I’ve been to Walt Disney World 30+ times beginning at age 9, but it never occurred to me that I could or wanted to work for this company. During my 1st interview, I thought “Oh wow, how is this job everything I want?” In addition to the Ops work, there was volunteer work (VoluntEARS), leading green initiatives in partnership with Think Zero; the only thing missing was the inclusion piece. After 1 ½ years of working here, I was still missing that inclusion piece. I went to my VP and HR and said “I need career enrichment. Can I assist with our DEI efforts?” And a week later, they called me with an opportunity to be a part the “Inclusion Champion Network” lead by Malory Katz, who I was already a huge fan of. She just gets it & inclusion is part of her DNA too.
And that’s the story in a nutshell.
FLIK: Well, that was some Reader’s Digest version! Wow. So now you have this new role and responsibility – yes, career enrichment for you, but this clearly isn’t just something to put on your resume, it sounds like this is truly part of your DNA. How do you navigate this new role in regards to success at Disney? There’s this big collaboration with your partners and vendors, like FLIK Hospitality, to come up with unique diversity and inclusion campaigns at work, but with those big campaigns come big risk/reward. How do you navigate this world?
JAG: If anybody says, “I’m a D&I expert!” know I’m going to run for the hills. With doing this work for 10+ years - the one thing I know is: You are a FOREVER student. I will learn something from this call, from my next meeting, from things that have nothing to do with diversity and inclusion. The self-inventory and self-reflection on a daily basis is needed. If you don’t do that, the work is bound to fail.
So how do you see what works and what doesn’t? HR has been part of my everyday work, by nature of my previous roles. When this [D&I] work first started, the data was all qualitative. We knew there was ROI but we didn’t know how to measure it. Now, we’ve come so far and with D&I on the world stage, breaking out from HR in a deserved category of its own, we have the resources and tools to measure that data for the first time. Businesses that are inclusive are more productive. Also, stay in the loop on the quantitative side to help inform my decisions.
Coming up with creative campaigns starts with good partners. For Black History Month, I approached Keri, Donna, and Bill [from FLIK] to create something meaningful. Between Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Earth Month, Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Mental Health Awareness Month – we saw participation in our cafes go from 25-30% to trending upwards of 70% participation. If that is not the data people are looking for, I don’t know what else to give. It proves inclusion works. It piques interest, people want to know what’s going on, and they want to feel included.
Now with Pride Month this June, I have the platform and data to show what works. We brought together cast members from ABC, WABC, BERGS Disney Pride & ABC Pride, and FLIK to really make this a group effort and collaborative experience. I consider FLIK to be a part of Disney too – your offices are here, this is where you come to work every day, you’re a part of this house.
I’m not the type of leader or client that ‘directs’, I just want to facilitate bringing all these voices to the table to lean on their expertise and ensure everyone feels included. I lean on Bill, Donna, Keri, Paula, Bill Z, Andy, and the entire Flik Team to help guide these conversations based on their expertise. And I really hope that more people take on this type of leadership style. It’s not common enough yet, but an inclusive leadership style – that’s where it all starts.
FLIK: We are so proud to work with you and have a seat at the decision-making table. Like you said, it’s not about removing someone else’s seat to give us one, but about pulling up another chair to bring more voices to the table. What advice would you give to others to help bring vendor voices to the table?
JAG: Think that you’re talking about inclusion on a general level and something that applies to everybody. I think a lot of people focus on managing up, unfortunately, and that’s really not my strategy or style. It’s not where my heart is. My concern is my teams and ensuring they have a voice and feel like their voice can be heard.
Vendors: I don’t feel comfortable calling in an expert, paying a fee, and then not listening to their advice. Your vendors are your partners. If you’re going direct your vendors instead of listening to them, you might as well hire robots. When you include people, people work hard. It’s the sentiment that you’re part of a team and builds a stronger relationship. Going “above and beyond” makes us better people; it’s job enrichment without knowing it.
I encourage working closely with your vendors – and the data will prove it. When you open that flow of communications and work together, great things will happen. But when you silo the work, all the cracks start to form in the foundation, and they turn into huge cracks. And by the time you find those cracks, it’s too late – you’re in crisis mode and handling damage control. That communication and ability to fix little cracks early on is the key to success between vendors and clients.
FLIK: Well we truly appreciate true partnerships like this where you help give us a seat at the table on these big initiatives. It’s clearly part of both companies’ DNA. Can you tell us more about the corporate Disney ethos on D&I?
JAG: Disney’s business and responsibility is storytelling. Our entire business – whether you’re going to the parks, watching something on the big screen, or watching the news – is built on storytelling. Inclusion and corporate social responsibility couldn’t be more important for storytellers because we, as a company, have a reach that is truly unmatched. When you hear “Disney” there’s a special feeling you get, and we’re making even bigger, public efforts to have more inclusive storytelling and representation.
FLIK: Storytelling is so critical to successful marketing campaigns. In closing, is there any other words of wisdom you’d like to impart upon us?
JAG: We need to represent everybody, and we need to make sure those who are telling the stories, managing the stories, are inclusive as well. It’s also about equity. Fix the inclusion part and the equity part and the belonging will naturally follow.
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