Podcast Episode 36: Diversity Drives Creativity and Innovation; A Conversation with Soon Mee Kim, Upcoming Women Forward Atlanta Event Speaker

Inclusion and diversity is an important focus for us at DHG, and one of the programs to support this focus is our Women Forward Program. In addition to firm-wide offerings, our local offices often host their own events for employees, clients, prospects, and even the larger community. Our Atlanta office is hosting a Women Forward breakfast on May 9 featuring guest speaker Soon Mee Kim, Global Diversity and Inclusion Leader for Porter Novelli, one of the largest PR firms in the industry. As a preview to the event, Soon Mee joins us in this podcast to talk about diversity driving creativity and innovation in the workplace.

Episode 36 Transcript

Photo of Soon Mee KimAGH: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to another episode of our DHG Podcast series. I’m Alice Grey Harrison, your host. I love this venue, because we get to hear about the things that matter the most to us; flexibility, careers, and of course, our people. Inclusion in diversity is an important focus for DHG. We devote a great amount of resources, time, and energy to building an inclusive and diverse workforce. One of the programs to support this focus is our Women Forward Program. In addition to firm wide offerings, our local offices often have their own events for employees, clients, prospects, and even the larger community. Atlanta is hosting an upcoming Women Forward breakfast on May 9th. Soon Mee Kim, the Global Diversity and Inclusion Leader for Porter Novelli, one of the largest PR firms in the industry, will be speaking at the event. Soon Mee is responsible for evaluating, developing, and implementing policies, practices, and programs that promote diversity, inclusion, and innovation. She’s also responsible for fostering receptive mindsets and facilitating purposeful discussions to challenge the norms and make an impact, and I love that. I’m super excited, because we have Soon Mee with us today. Welcome.

SMK: Thank you, Alice Grey. It is wonderful to be here with you.

AGH: Yesterday, Soon Mee and I had a chance to talk prior to the podcast. We made this wonderful connection that we’re kindred spirits because we both have double names.

SMK: We do. We absolutely do.

AGH: I understand that you are the first person to have this role of Global Diversity and Inclusion Leader at Porter Novelli. Can you tell us a little bit about this role and what led you to it?

SMK: Yeah, absolutely. I am relatively new to this role of diversity and inclusion within Porter Novelli, but I will say that the embrace of diversity and inclusion is not new. Just to get a little bit of background into how I came to this, I am not someone who has a traditional diversity and inclusion path. I didn’t grow up in the human resource realm. I really come from that client side and the account side. I’ve done some operations in practice leadership, but for me, what led me to this role is what I call a state of popcorn. What I mean by that is I went through a period, maybe four to five years ago, that I don’t know if it was just the age of my kids or where I was in my life, but these ideas kept just popping up constantly and just being in this sense of just wonder and awe and thoughts and so forth. Then, I just started building that really into my every day work. That would show up in the service offerings that we would provide within our practice and within our office, how it would show up in our culture, how I would manage, how I would train. All of these things were happening while I was in my traditional practice leadership role and serving clients. With all of that, of course, I had these multi-cultural lens already within me, but it led me to become really interested and focused not only on what was happening within Porter Novelli but outside in culture and recognizing that there were implications for all of that within our workplace, too. I know that’s a lot, and it may be a little bit nebulous. If I can, I’d like to share an example of that.

AGH: Yeah.

SMK: One thing that happened back in July 2016 - I think all of us were very aware of a few things that were happening across the US, whether it be out in Baton Rouge with the Alton Sterling death or the five officers in Dallas. That was something that first week of July where I know, not only Porter Novelli but across the US, there were just moments of sadness and confusion and not really knowing how to deal with that. We, I think as managers, saw that there was such big impact on our staff as they did their work each day and ourselves as well, we said to ourselves, “What do we actually do in this case?” One of my proudest moments within this organization is that we gathered everyone together and we stumbled in not really knowing what to say, what to do, what were the right words, what was the right tone, anything. We gave everyone really the space to be silent, to be awkward, to share whatever was on their mind. Our managing director in the office at that time, I’m still just in awe of her, really just said like, “I don’t know what to say.” She just laid her feeling out there, very vulnerably. One by one, folks started speaking up and sharing what it was like to drive while being black, to have their loved ones followed by the police. We had others share about what it was like to have a loved one who was a law enforcement officer. We had others share about, “You know what? I don’t know what to do and I am not a person of color, but I’m really crafty and I would love to just create t-shirts that say black lives matter for whoever wants them and just show you how much we care about you.” One by one, different people shared their experience. The following week, we had people over the weekend offered to help with the crafting of the t-shirts. We had people to take pictures together with them, and just in a very small way, showed that we really cared. It was just, again, one of the most meaningful experience I’ve had in my career really.

AGH: Wow, that’s cool.

SMK: I think—Sorry, go ahead. I would Alice Grey.

AGH: No, you go ahead. Finish your thought.

SMK: No, no. I was just going to say even in these moments that can be very unplanned, I think when you create the right culture, the right leadership, it can make such a difference.

AGH: Absolutely. I’m going to take your lead here on culture. In the media release that announced your role as the leader of diversity inclusion, Brad MacAfee, your CEO, is quoted as saying, “At Porter Novelli, diversity is a strategic business imperative that is the foundation for driving creativity and innovation.” It sounds like it’s at the heart of what you guys do. Can you share with us the linkage between diversity and creativity and innovation?

SMK: Yeah, for sure. I think for many, many years, the ways that folks thought about diversity and inclusion was more of this nice to have. It’s the right thing to do. Taking it really from that standpoint, which that is a motivation, is reason enough, of course. Beyond that, the research showed and is starting to show more and more that the organizations that focus on diversity in terms of gender, in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, and certainly even beyond that - they are more successful. There is a 2015 McKinsey report that shows that of the organizations that are among the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in their management, they had 35% better returns over the industry average. In terms of gender diversity as well, 15 times more likely, women on boards. Their organizations have greater yields on their returns as well. More and more, what we’re finding is that it’s not only a moral imperative. It is becoming more of a business driver as well. Yeah, I think that the business imperative and the moral imperatives certainly go hand in hand.

AGH: Absolutely. At our upcoming event, you’ll be speaking on the topic Five Questions Professional Women Must Ask Themselves. I had an opportunity to preview those questions, so I thought it might be interesting for our audience if we take a look at one of those questions. When will we step outside our bubble and stop only hanging around with people just like ourselves? Can you give us a glimpse of what you’re going to cover around this question?

SMK: Sure. Alice Grey, as you’re reading that, I recognize, I could probably tighten that question up, because there’s a lot in there. What I find more and more, and this goes back to culture as well, but the truth is there are a lot of ways that we create isolation. There’s a lot of — They’re self-isolating. I do it myself. We make decisions I find more and more that, unconsciously or not, we choose in some ways to — Where we live, for example, our neighborhood, that tend to look a lot like ourselves, the places we go to worship, the schools that our children go to. So many of these choices that we make can be very self-isolating, and so what I see is that that’s where workplace, and workplace culture can be so influential in opening ourselves up even when we didn’t know we needed to be opened up. I certainly see that have the beneficiary of being part of a local office here in Atlanta that is quite diverse, and I feel so enriched by that, and have an organization where you can create a space where folks can be really themselves. They can bring the totality of who they are, and that gets shared with colleagues and the organization. We’re all so much more enriched by it. Yeah, that’s really what I’d love to ask ourselves is are we doing these, making these decisions that impact ourselves and what more can we do to make that even better.

AGH: I think it’s so interesting that you mentioned that when we were talking yesterday, and I’ve thought about it a lot and thought about it even in terms of my own life and how everything looks the same. I have an adopted daughter, and she’s Hispanic. She’s not old enough to go really to school yet, but when I think about where she will go to kindergarten, it is something that I will be very deliberate in a choice of where she goes because I want her to begin her education in her school life surrounded by diversity. I totally agree with you that it just creates this rich sense of innovation and just being able to look at things differently. I think it’s so important.

SMK: I love that, Alice Grey. I think that’s so great. I think even from school as well as workplace and other standpoint, it’s so important to be around folks that are different from ourselves. Going back to the question that you asked earlier about creativity and innovation, that’s necessary not only in our workplace but in every facet of our lives. When we are in non-homogeneous teams, because the research really does show, the teams are smarter, that being around people that are different from you challenges you, challenges your brain to overcome different ways of thinking and to really sharpen our performance and how we do.

AGH: Absolutely. I can’t help but ask you this question because I find it fascinating. We at Dixon Hughes Goodman, we celebrate different heritage months that are recognized across the country. We have this upcoming celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Why do you think that it’s important that we celebrate these types of months?

SMK:  It’s funny that you asked, Alice Grey, because there’s so many of these different remembrances and honoring of different ethnicities and so forth that I didn’t even realize existed. As somebody who is Korean and Asian American, it’s like, “Wow, I wouldn’t even know that there was Asian Pacific Heritage Month really even just a few years ago.” I am so glad it does exist for a lot of reasons. I think it’s so different than what even I thought about growing up. These remembrances of heritage create a great learning opportunity. I think it is one that supports your different employees and individuals in terms of their own identity and who they are and what they bring to their culture and as well as the workplace. It also creates a great opportunity for others to learn. Just going back to that idea that we just talked about in terms of these non-homogeneous teams, creating these diverse teams the opportunity to learn from others who can hold that up and think about how you’re different, but also how are you the same and where are areas that you can relate to. I think that’s so important and I think we struggle with what is our identity in 2017. Who am I and what do I bring? When that is all, I get embraced as an organization and I think it’s fantastic that you, that DHG support that and honor that. I think that’s a wonderful thing.

AGH: It’s been really fun and eye-opening for me and hopefully for our people as we learn about the different heritage and cultures. One last question —How does inclusion and diversity play into our intrinsic desire to connect to something that matters?

SMK: I think that’s really interesting in the sense that — I’ll speak to our millennials, and let me just say I love millennials. I have a daughter who is a millennial and I have gen-z, or a little bit past her, just a little younger than she is. Whether you’re millennial or not, every time we hear that term, get both the credit and the blame, I think, for this connection that we as organizations want to cater to and foster, which is this desire to connect with what matters. The truth of the matter is that we all want this connection. Whether you’re a boomer or you’re from the greatest generation or you’re an X-er, I think there is something that just is within us that really desires that. What I would say as far as what organizations can do to support that, we really do care, all of us, that we’re really proud of the places that we work. We want, whether you’re a consumer brand or a big brand or you are an H to H brand. I heard that recently, or human to human — The values. We want our organizations to really embody that. They’re not just words on a plaque. We want to know that our organizations will really act on that, will support that, will be accountable to that, that we, in terms of our associations with our clients, whether it’s our pro-bono work, whether it’s our CSR work; all of those are just a few example of the ways that we can demonstrate that commitment and that connection to what matters not only as an organization but to the communities that we serve and certainly the individuals that make up our workforce.

AGH: I love it. I love it. I feel like we could sit here and talk all day, because I just think this is such an important topic, but I’ve reached the end of my questions. Thank you, Soon Mee, for joining us and sharing your perspective with us.

SMK: Alice Grey, it is my pleasure. Again, I love meeting someone with double names like myself.

AGH:  We are super excited to have you on May the 9th speak at our Women Forward breakfast in Atlanta. I know that there will be an amazing dialogue there as well. Thank you everyone for listening to Life at DHG, our premier podcast series. If you like what you just heard, we hope you’ll tell your friends and colleagues. Be sure to check out our DHG blog for more great stories about our Life Beyond Numbers. Join us next time for another edition of Life at DHG.

Soon Mee Kim is executive vice president and Global Diversity and Inclusion Leader for Porter Novelli, an international public relations consultancy. A dreamer and a doer, Soon Mee drives purposeful action related to diversity and inclusion for Porter Novelli, as well as a broad range of agency clients. A 25-year communications agency veteran, she is a proven leader and creative problem-solver with a passion for innovation and impact. She is responsible for evaluating, developing and implementing policies, practices and programs that promote diversity and inclusion. She is also responsible for fostering receptive mindsets that promote and facilitating purposeful discussions that challenge norms. Soon Mee’s forte is in uncovering and articulating the reasons why people should care about complex issues, systems and technologies. Formally and informally, her favorite roles are that of mentor, coach and student.

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