Valerie Jarrett was once on a board that held committee meetings at a male-only golf course.
This exclusive policy meant women, by nature, wouldn't be able to participate in board activities without disrupting the way things were done. Jarrett thought this needed to change — and the timing was right for her to make it happen.
"Fortunately, when I found out about it, it was the time I was becoming a board chair, so I could change that practice," she tells CNBC Make It.
Jarrett, whose four-decade career in business and politics includes serving as senior advisor to President Barack Obama, feels it's her responsibility to advocate for diversity and inclusion, both within her work environment and beyond. Her post-White House career as an author and advocate has included initiatives around gender equity, paid family leave, voting rights, the end of racial discrimination in the U.S. and more. Today, she serves on corporate and non-profit boards, is a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, and most recently is working alongside Michelle Obama on When We All Vote to increase voter participation.
"There are people who aren't in a position to speak up and use their voices, and then I think it's incumbent upon those of us who are to speak up for them," she explains. "Those earning a minimum wage in a factory without a union may not feel like they're in a position to say 'I need paid leave,' because they then could lose their job."
Years of experience have helped Jarrett learn to speak up about these issues, she writes in her book "Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward." From the beginning of her career as a corporate lawyer and through her transition into politics, Jarrett says she's often been the only woman or African American in a room.
Her advice to other "onlys" getting started in their career is to ask a company directly about their culture and values during the interview process.
"I think it's important to get a sense of the culture of a company before you walk in the door," she says. "If you look around and see there's nobody who looks like you there, and you believe that diversity is a strength — which I actually do — then it's incumbent on you as a job-seeker to say, 'I realize I might be the only woman here. Is there a commitment to expand opportunity to other women?'"
Jarrett recalls facing similar experiences when joining a company or a board and seeing no one else within the organization with a similar background to hers. That situation in itself isn't a deal breaker, she says, but a company's response to this kind of imbalance can say a lot.
"I have been in many situations where I'm the only," Jarrett says, "and my comfort comes when the employer goes, 'This is unacceptable; help us figure out how to do better.' And I'm always interested in doing that and making sure when I leave a place, I leave it more diverse than I found it."
Jarrett stresses it's just as important for a job-seeker to bring up their expectations of a company as it is for a hiring manager to present their case clearly. It could be key to hiring and retention, according to one Deloitte report that found a strong correlation between millennials who plan to stay at their jobs when they work for a company that delivers on indicators such as diversity and inclusion. Millennial job-seekers also said they give importance to gender and ethnicity diversity when considering whether to work for an organization.
Diversity isn't just good for workers; it's good for business, too.
A recent report from S&P Global found companies with female leaders often perform better in the stock market than those led by men. This doesn't necessarily mean women inherently lead companies to perform better, but it does show companies benefit when they empower leaders with the best experience and different backgrounds, the report finds.
"Our analysis supports that firms with higher earnings quality and lower leverage are firms with a culture conducive to making a female appointment, rather than the premise that stereotypical differences in the actions of the female executives, after their appointment, drive these differences," the report says.
Assessing company culture during the interviewing stage can help a job candidate evaluate whether they'll thrive in the new environment, and if the company's way of doing business is something they'll be able to align with.
"I think in this day and time, in order to be globally competitive, it's important for more business leaders to appreciate diversity as a strength," Jarrett says. "They won't make better decisions if they're surrounded by people who look like them."
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