Skip to main content

Daniel Oppong, founder of The Courage Collective, sits down with host Chris Thornton on this episode of Change@Work to discuss why engaging people, and encouraging them to bring their whole selves to work, is the key to business transformation success. They explore what DE&I means at the systemic and personal level, and how embedding DE&I throughout the entire employee lifecycle will help leaders achieve true equity for all employees.


This transcript was automatically generated with artificial intelligence. It’s in the queue to go through a review with human eyes!

00;00;00;00 – 00;00;33;24

Hello and welcome to Change@Work, a podcast about the ever evolving world of work and the human behaviors that drive it. I’m Chris Thornton, principal here at Daggerwing Group. We’re consultants who take a slightly different approach to change and how we work with our clients. We’ll explore some of the things we’ve learned, what to do, what not to do, who we are as a team and as individuals.

00;00;33;26 – 00;00;57;01

Joining me today is Daniel Oppong, founder of the Courage Collective, a diversity equity and inclusion consultancy. Daniel also has experience in entrepreneurship, venture capital, tech consulting, education and the nonprofit sector. Daniel, welcome. Thank you, Chris. Great to be here. I’m so glad you’re here. I think you’ve listened to the podcast before. You know that we start off with a couple of questions just to prove you’re human.

00;00;57;03 – 00;01;17;05

And so let’s let’s dig right in. What’s your favorite city to visit and why? Favorite city to visit? It’s a tough question because pre-pandemic I was taking a trip a month. I kind of am an experienced speaker, and so I like to bop around a little bit. Most recently, I would say I really enjoyed my time in D.C..

00;01;17;06 – 00;01;36;07

D.C. was fun. Chicago recently. I also really like Vancouver, B.C. a lot, actually. So those are a few that are top of the list for me. Okay. Choose Best Food City out of that for me. Where are you doing the best Eating. Chicago food is pretty good. Yeah? Yes. You got a degree? Do you have a favorite city?

00;01;36;08 – 00;01;58;17

Can I ask you the same question? Yeah, absolutely. I lived in Chicago for six years, and I still think it’s the best food city in in the U.S.. Easily. I got to say, New Orleans to visit, though. I’m a fan. It’s a pretty good it’s a pretty good visit. Yeah, I agree. All right. Another question. Yep. Who was one of your childhood role models?

00;01;58;19 – 00;02;26;09

Childhood role models? Is that a cop out to say my parents? No, I don’t think that’s a cop out. That’s great. Tell me why. Yeah, I would say my parents, because. So I’m the son of immigrant parents. My parents are from Ghana, West Africa. Okay. And my dad immigrated to North America in the mid eighties. And kind of given the life that we had, it’s kind of hard to think about like what it would have been like had we grown up in Ghana, right?

00;02;26;10 – 00;02;46;05

So think about how he was able to come over here to North America, to the U.S.. Create a life for my siblings. I have three other siblings. And so just that whole experience I feel profoundly grateful for. And so I would say my dad kind of inspired that. And my mom is infinite empathetic, right? She’s like one of the best humans I know.

00;02;46;05 – 00;03;06;12

Her name is Comfort, which epitomizes her. Wow. Right. That’s incredible. Yeah. So I think about both of them, just the different things that they instilled in me. They would have to be my role models. Yeah, I don’t. I don’t think your parents are cop out. That’s an awesome answer. Yeah. Incredible role models, Incredible. All right. What was your favorite age growing up?

00;03;06;14 – 00;03;32;25

Favorite age definitely wasn’t middle school or awkward middle school. I remember being short and like, round, and my football coach called me a roly poly actually, in middle school, so. Okay. Hard on the old ego when you. Wow. 12 or 13. Favorite age when I was probably when I was younger. So I was born in Canada. I mean, my dad was living there when I was teaching.

00;03;32;25 – 00;03;49;01

And so I just remember it’s like, you don’t worry about anything, right? Look, whenever you’re younger, there’s an age where everything is kind of sunny and cool and you just hang with your fam. My mom would prepare all of our meals. You kind of outgrow that after a while, right? And there’s not an opportunity to just be so taken care of.

00;03;49;04 – 00;04;17;26

So that’s what I would say. Probably younger. Daniel Pre middle school. Okay, I like it. Thank you for that. Let’s dig in to the conversation. So we’re here to explore today the big picture of business transformations. What’s your viewpoint on how we should be leading them? It’s a big and complicated question. I know and I want to go as big as possible because your experience allows you to go really big, really broad and really deep.

00;04;17;26 – 00;04;36;21

So you start wherever you want to. Yeah, I think when I think about business transformation, I think about people first, right? I think the essence of people is the core of business, right? So we think about creating great cultures for people. You think about the ways in which people engage, work, the ways in which people want to show up at work.

00;04;36;24 – 00;04;59;22

So when I think about transformation, it’s about creating meaningful, human centered environments for people. And I think you can look no further than even the pandemic that we still haven’t, you know, completely lived through. I think we’re still figuring out how we’re going to deal with that. But think about how workplaces engage that, for example, and the ways in which that impacts and affects different employee identity groups.

00;04;59;22 – 00;05;15;23

Right? So I just think about work and transformation specifically as it relates to people being the core of where I would want to start. How do we think about the human experience at work and what does it bring your whole self to work mean for different employee groups? That’s kind of where I would I would go first. I gotcha.

00;05;15;25 – 00;05;41;08

When you think about that connection between the the people experience, the employee experience and business goals, how I’m I’m playing my hand to say I think that they’re completely connected. Yeah. So maybe I should ask you, do you think they’re completely connected? And if so, how? Yeah. The employee experience is pretty central to business schools. Can you think about places where people can actually do their best work?

00;05;41;10 – 00;06;02;26

What contributes to that environment? And how are people galvanized to do their best work? Do they feel care from their employer? Do they feel care from their peers and colleagues? I think all of those are contributing factors, and so it feels inextricable to me. You can’t decouple the two successful business goals and people showing up and being able to be their authentic self and have a meaningful employee experience.

00;06;02;28 – 00;06;32;01

The two are very deeply connected and related in my opinion. When you think about why you created the Courage Collective, what what was the impetus for that? What what were you trying to solve through that? Yeah, you know, it’s an interesting question, right? Because I think last year was just a lot on a lot of levels. Right. So so I think about we just spoke to the pandemic, which brought the world to a pause in a way that few things have in recent history.

00;06;32;01 – 00;06;51;26

Right. So everyone is collectively on pause, kind of trying to figure out, are we going to be able to go back to work? Are we going to be able to, you know, engage some of these environments in a similar way? And then there was the murder of George Floyd, which in succession, Breonna Taylor was also murdered. Ahmaud Arbery was also murdered.

00;06;51;26 – 00;07;14;08

A collection of these things happening right at the same time. And I think given the path that COVID had brought on, I think people process this information in a very intentional way, probably different than we would have in a different chapter. Right, Because the killing of black people in America marginalize Asian in America. It’s not a new thing, but there’s something about the conditions of the environment that made people pay attention.

00;07;14;11 – 00;07;39;28

So for me personally, I remember at the time I was working at a tech company in Seattle, and I remember sitting there like feeling a lot of emotion and feeling a lot of like, what is going to galvanize the change that we’re seeking, right? And, you know, when I looked at our leadership team and this is more of a general anecdote, but research shows that white folks disproportionately hold positions of leadership in society.

00;07;40;00 – 00;07;58;04

And so I’m sitting here in this company thinking like, where’s the change going to come from, Right? Who is going to lead the change? Who’s going to initiate the change? And particularly folks who don’t share the same identity characteristics as me being black in America, I’m like, If I’m waiting for this group’s initiate to change, I might be waiting a long time.

00;07;58;06 – 00;08;16;09

And so I thought to myself, I want to initiate the kinds of conversations I want to have. I’ve been one of the few or one of the only throughout my career working in venture capital, tech, nonprofit consulting. Like, I want to initiate the kinds of conversations I want to have and I want to center that work on courage and empathy.

00;08;16;11 – 00;08;44;04

And so that was kind of the genesis. I’m like, instead of waiting for someone else to create the world that I see and believe in, it’s my opportunity. And so I collaborate with a couple of friends, people who are also deeply passionate about this work and subject matter experts to found the Courage collective. It takes some pretty special friends to go into business together and to say, I want to partner with you in helping solve some of these problems and have the conversations that need to be had.

00;08;44;06 – 00;09;05;24

What drew you to these friends? So we all met at the same company, actually, ironically enough, and none of us work there anymore. Plot to it. That’s all right. That’s all right. But but I think we were all in this environment where we wanted to see some of this change. And given that we weren’t at the executive level in this company, we were having a difficult time kind of seeing it in a sustainable way.

00;09;05;27 – 00;09;28;01

And so, again, there are a bunch of us who have been talking and figuring out like, okay, what’s a meaningful path forward? And like, let’s just created ourselves so mind you, before I went to this, that company, I was working in venture capital, very entrepreneurial environment where I worked with two founders who were incredible, who always empowered us to like, If you see an opportunity to solve a meaningful problem, you should take action and do so.

00;09;28;01 – 00;09;44;10

And so, you know, I think it kind of created a level of risk tolerance and like, you know, what do we have to lose? What’s the alternative to sit here and wait and kind of feel like this passion and drive we have isn’t being capitalized, Let’s just do it ourselves. And so that was kind of the genesis and they were in it to win it.

00;09;44;10 – 00;10;10;15

I mean, they cared deeply about the work of diversity, equity and inclusion and wanted to do the meaningful work as well. So when we look at over the past year, a ton of companies are struggling, some are thriving, but some are really struggling. And I think even when it comes to DNI efforts for for a multitude of reasons, some companies don’t have the proper resources, while others are failing to gather input from the right people.

00;10;10;18 – 00;10;36;28

We’re putting diversity and inclusion into a function to say, Well, it’s really the job of that function as opposed to the job of all leaders. What did you feel was missing from these recent efforts? The big question, I would say a lot. I think that the the main thing that I saw when I observed the market specific to my work, people think about die within two particular buckets and it’s usually going to be talent acquisition.

00;10;36;28 – 00;10;57;18

So we need to get more underrepresented identity groups in our workforce or we need to do learning and development. And while both of those have value, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. So for example, if we bring in underrepresented identity groups to a very homogeneous culture, how are we think about their experience, What’s their like?

00;10;57;18 – 00;11;20;15

Do they like it? Will they stay? Will they be engaged? Can they grow? That’s not a question you ask whenever you’re only thinking about talent acquisition. And if you think about, you know, learning and development and particularly unconscious bias training, which was one of the main things that got socialized in DEI early on, there’s research that shows that sometimes it can be actually more detrimental, especially if it’s only a one and done.

00;11;20;17 – 00;11;44;16

And part of the reason for that, I think, is if it’s not an integrated and holistic approach, it doesn’t actually serve the purpose, right? So when I think about diversity, equity and inclusion work at its best, it’s creating cultures of belonging for people and understanding the unique identities that people bring to the table. And it’s creating the systems, structures, policies and procedures that support that.

00;11;44;18 – 00;12;04;28

And it doesn’t just happen by like, let’s do a one and done training and, you know, let’s try to get some more black and brown people in this company or LGBTQ folks in the company. That’s not how it works. It’s kind of shortsighted if you think about it like that, in my opinion. So you’re saying we can’t change the world by just creating one awareness training and then checking it off the box and saying, okay, work done.

00;12;05;04 – 00;12;31;29

Some people try and their earnings, but like, like I don’t I don’t think it doesn’t it doesn’t create the results that people really want. Yeah. I think one of the things that I’ve been part of was unconscious bias training and it was good. Yeah, it was really good, but it wasn’t over. Like that wasn’t the end. And so I totally hear you that you have to do the actual work as opposed to sending folks to training and calling it a day.

00;12;32;06 – 00;12;52;21

Yeah, I think one of the lenses we look at the work through at the Courage Collective is through the lens of the employee journey. And by that I mean we think about DEI work as a function of all aspects of the employee journey. So before someone starts the company, while they’re at the company and even once they leave the company, how can we think about DEI as it’s related to all of those buckets?

00;12;52;21 – 00;13;14;02

So, for example, pre-employment could look like when I go to your website, do I see anyone who looks like me at the company or what I’m going through? The offer, negotiation and hiring process. Is that process equitable? That’s before someone even comes to the company and then once they’re there, what does the employee experience? And then when we look at post employment, what is onboarding look like?

00;13;14;02 – 00;13;38;28

What does the retention data look like? How does that represent the kind of culture you’re trying to create? I think we have to look at a holistically if we want to see change. One of the things and so I totally get looking at the system as a whole, one of the things that my friends and I have been talking about online is tokenization, and that where we’ve got one.

00;13;39;01 – 00;14;03;29

And so let’s put them in a role that allows them to say we included somebody, but they are not in a position of power, they are not there to make change. They are there to say, again, check the box. We did unconscious bias training and now we’ve got a couple of people of color or several LGBTQ. Can it can you react to tokenization?

00;14;04;02 – 00;14;24;06

Yeah. I mean, on a personal level, I’ve been one of the few or one of the only black people in a lot of work environments, right? And I think there are a couple of things to note is, number one, underrepresented identity groups aren’t a monolith. We don’t all experience the world and we’re all the same way. So what works for me are the ways in which I have to survive.

00;14;24;06 – 00;14;47;22

An environment is going to be different than another underrepresented identity group, right? So that’s the first thing that I would name. And I think the second thing from a tokenization perspective is there’s a difference between assimilation and belonging, right? So I think what’s required usually if you’re one of the few, is assimilate so that you can belong as opposed to, you know, your unique identity is valued here.

00;14;47;24 – 00;15;06;24

And so when I think about that from myself, you know, can I actually show up in an authentic way? Well, what’s the cost? Right? What’s the risk and reward for me knowing that I don’t have another black person in a position of leadership that I can look at to be a supporter for me? What does that mean for me to show up authentically?

00;15;06;24 – 00;15;29;04

Can I actually do that? And so it’s kind of like, we want you here so long as you assimilate or we want you here, so long as you don’t do anything that’s disruptive to the norms, the existing ones. And so the whole idea of bring your whole self to work, that means different things to different people, and particularly if you’re part of an underrepresented identity group.

00;15;29;06 – 00;15;57;15

Yeah, I don’t know that it applies in the same way. We were working with a client in the past, but one of the things we heard in a focus group was a person of color saying, I have to dim my light, I come to work. Yeah. And so let’s let’s talk about, you know, I think I have better tools today to help solve that than I did in the past, but I’m not sure.

00;15;57;15 – 00;16;29;02

I’m always looking as systemically as I need to. Yeah. Both based upon the lived experience and also because I’m not looking at the whole system and I’m not being as critical as I need to, I’m accepting the system to say, Well, that’s how it is, right? That’s just how it but that is how it is. And so I overlook things that to other eyes and other experiences would say that may be how it is, but that’s not right or that’s not as good as it could be.

00;16;29;05 – 00;16;54;21

I think I’m asking an impossible question, Daniel, so just let me go there, if that’s okay. Yeah. Is to say, how do you help open eyes and peel back and reveal truth for people who think that they’re doing a pretty good job of looking for those things and trying to be conscious of those things. And you come in and you go, We got more to uncover here.

00;16;54;21 – 00;17;14;14

Can you talk about the on layering process, if that’s the right word for it? Yeah, I love the question. I think the first thing I would start with is just the reality that growth looks different for everyone and everyone has a room to grow. It literally doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing this work, where you come from, how much you know, how much you don’t know.

00;17;14;16 – 00;17;50;08

Learning and unlearning are always part of the growth process, myself included. I think about even last summer, some of the things that I had to unlearn, right? Like I grew up in a culture or an environment that didn’t necessarily center my own experience. So think about the ways in which I understood history. I listen to this podcast yesterday with Tanahashi Coates, who wrote a really brilliant book, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who released the brilliant podcast, and they were talking about the ways in which, depending on who tells the story of history, it influences the way that we understand it.

00;17;50;08 – 00;18;06;21

So I think about that from my own experience personally, and I’m like, How did my understanding impact the way that I see and relate to the world, right? So I think that I would start there and say like growth and learning and unlearning are always part of the process and we have to be willing to do that work.

00;18;06;21 – 00;18;34;20

And I think that just because something works for you doesn’t mean that it’s palatable, relevant, impactful to anyone else. Yeah. And so that’s where I think empathy comes into the picture, right? Just because my experience is different than yours is different than some of the other folks, I’m like, it still matters. Can I create space to empathize with an experience that’s different than mine and know that just because the world is good for me doesn’t mean that it’s great for everyone else.

00;18;34;20 – 00;18;49;22

And I can’t force feed and say, Well, you should believe it’s good. It’s better than what you would have gotten. So you should believe it’s good. That’s just not real, you know what I mean? And so I think we have to be able to create space and understand the unique nuances of the human experience as it relates to people and people at work.

00;18;49;25 – 00;34;10;25

So part of that is doing the change systemically, you know, programmatically to getting away from my personal lived experience or only looking at things through my eyes and saying this pretty good, right? Like we’re trying really hard and to develop this system that allows it to be all that it can be and should be for everyone.

More in the Series

Chris Thornton is a Senior Principal and member of the global leadership team at Daggerwing Group. In his role, Chris serves as a source of strategic counsel for Senior Executives with client firms, advising them on how to help clients achieve Executive alignment, transform their cultures and equip and enable people managers to lead and embed change. An expert in the people side of change with both client-side and consulting experience, Chris has worked with leading companies including Nestlé, Pfizer, and GE Aviation to do change right and make it stick. He is also an active speaker on business transformation, a driver of innovation in Daggerwing’s breadth of change consulting services, and the host of Daggerwing Group’s podcast, Change@Work. Chris and his wife were featured in the New York Times for their love of pie.