Women in Business Q&A: Erika Irish Brown, Bloomberg L.P., Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion

Erika Irish Brown

Erika Irish Brown is Bloomberg L.P.'s Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion. In this role, she develops and drives the company's global strategy and approach to diversity and inclusion in collaboration with senior management to ensure alignment with business goals.

Brown joined Bloomberg in 2015 and leads the development, implementation and monitoring of a global program to advance diversity and inclusion across the company's human resources, including recruitment, retention, talent review, succession planning, career development and training. She is also active in promoting an institutional culture and inclusive environment to support diversity in all aspects of the business, including Bloomberg's employee communities and external partnerships.

Prior to Joining Bloomberg, Brown was Bank of America's Head of Diversity Recruiting, Program Management and Executive Recruiting. She has over 15 years of investment banking and capital markets experience at Morgan Stanley, the U.S. Treasury and Lehman Brothers.

Brown received her MBA from Columbia Business School and holds a BS in Economics from the State University of New York at Albany. She is currently Vice-Chair and Director of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the Nation's first community development corporation and Director and Nominating Committee Chair of the Council of Urban Professionals (CUP).

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
When I was growing up, my parents made it clear that I had the same capabilities as anyone else - and that with enough perseverance, I could be the master of my own fate. They instilled a belief that I could achieve anything through education, drive and confidence. Given their emphasis on education, they went to great lengths to send my sister and me to a top, progressive, cutting edge independent school in Brooklyn. And they also made it clear that to whom much is given, much is required. So the importance of giving back to the community and helping others was established at a very early age. My parents set the foundation for my own experience as a leader: not only the idea that if you invest the appropriate amount of effort into anything or anybody that you can achieve the desired return, but also that a good leader brings out the best in others.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Bloomberg?
I've been a Diversity &Inclusion (D&I) professional for over a decade now and worked in finance for 15 years prior. Understanding financial markets and the business has been an important part of my career in D&I, and I've applied my business acumen to all of my roles. I have tried to approach D&I in a very commercial manner, leveraging my strategy and execution skills the same way I would have as an investment banker. One of the most important elements of working in this space is being able to align and engage the business and help leaders understand the value of D&I beyond "doing the right thing."

We're following that same approach at Bloomberg, and have asked all of our business units to submit a plan for their own diversity and inclusion strategies. We're enabling them to take an approach that makes sense for their specific circumstances and challenges and integrate diversity and inclusion goals with business goals and priorities.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Bloomberg?
Working so closely with Bloomberg's Chairman Peter Grauer has been a true highlight. Under his leadership, the majority of our executives have shown a great deal of enthusiasm for the work we do. In the past eight months we've trained over 2,000 Bloomberg employees on unconscious bias and increased the number of wellness and lactation rooms around the globe. We also expanded our Bloomberg Communities (employee-led resource and networking groups) with over 1,500 new participants and created a Working Families Community to provide support and resources to employees juggling professional demands and family responsibilities. D&I is relatively new at Bloomberg, which creates a unique sense of excitement - and poses its own set of challenges. We're a global organization with 40% of our employees located outside of the U.S., so addressing cultural diversity and inclusion around the world will be a complicated priority. We're also very focused on laying a solid foundation and challenged to establish a sense of accountability throughout the company: communicating the business imperative of our work to the senior leaders that will need to act as agents of change, and ensuring our employees know that an inclusive environment encompasses everyone - not just selected underrepresented groups.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
D&I is something you have to be passionate about - but you can't be overly emotional about the work or view it solely as a moral imperative. You have to treat it like a business. You need to have a strategy and be able to connect it to attracting top talent, engaging clients and bottom-line results. At companies like ours, where we're creating innovative products, you also have to help others understand the impact D&I can have in product development. And you have to recognize that you aren't qualified to pursue a D&I career just because you are diverse. Leaders must know best practices and stay abreast of, or even generate, newly released research and thought leadership. You have to have a vision and be able to communicate that vision so people can understand its relevance to their business. There are core competencies associated with this profession and they need to be honed alongside an overall understanding of key business drivers. Among these are strong influencing and consulting skills, as well as the ability to walk that fine line between pushing and challenging people and turning them off - but you do have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
You have to build strong relationships with colleagues who will (hopefully) invest in you and endorse your competence and credibility. It's an important part of managing your personal brand as both a leader and team player in the workplace, especially as a woman. My greatest job opportunities, including this one, were the result of four things: my work product, my accomplishments, my personal brand and the clients and colleagues who were able to recognize and reward those attributes over many years.

I've also learned that confidence cannot be a replacement for competence, however, you need both to be successful. You could be the most competent person on the team, and without the confidence in your presence, to raise your hand or take a risk, leadership level opportunities may elude you.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't think of it as a balance. Instead I work hard to integrate the two. I plan far in advance and work with my husband to prioritize what's most important, what requires one of us to be physically present and engaged, and when we can leverage our support networks of people we know and trust to step in. I've also set guidelines for myself: I forgo dinners unless they're client-focused and a top priority and I rarely travel the night before a meeting unless the time or destination makes it absolutely necessary. I also work out at home instead of going to the gym and try to cook 2 or 3 meals every Sunday for the week.

That idea of being present is an important one: Spending time with my family isn't quality time with them if I'm glued to my mobile device or reviewing a presentation. And my boys' basketball games are definitely not the time to take a conference call! I want to give them all the attention they deserve when we are together.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the biggest issues for women in the workplace are a lack of opportunity and a lack of confidence. There has to be accountability on the managers part to be more inclusive. Leaders have to be conscious about offering the women on their team the same opportunities for growth and development, the same level of constructive, actionable feedback and take the same risks they would for a male counterpart. At the same time, unlike our male counterparts, many women lead with an apology and are reluctant to take risks or apply for jobs for which we're more qualified for than our male peers who obtain them. There's accountability on both sides of the table, but as women, we have to recognize and change the behaviors that might be holding us back. We also have to support and mentor other women and celebrate success when it's achieved - even if it's not your own.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has made every difference in the world. I've had a mentor at every step of my career, and at every age and stage it's been a different experience. Mentors taught me what proper corporate attire for a Wall Street investment banker looked like, encouraged me to pursue my MBA and have given advice throughout my career. Not all were women, and not all were people of color - I benefited from a lot of different perspectives. We talked about leadership earlier, and many of my mentors have been great leaders in and outside of the workplace. I've been able to model my leadership style after them, to look at them and see what works, what I admire, and try to embody those qualities. Because I've had such positive experiences, being a mentor has become a core of who I am today. I've always taken the time to invest in others because of the time and energy my mentors invested in me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Indra Nooyi for what she has accomplished and for her candor and willingness to share her experiences and challenges. There are many female executives who are grateful to hear about those challenges, especially women of color with different cultural backgrounds She gave a brave interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival that I think resounds for many: after coming home and sharing with her family that she had just been named President of the Board of Directors, her mother's response was: "You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you're the wife, you're the daughter, you're the daughter-in-law, you're the mother. You're all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don't bring it into the house. You know I've never seen that crown."

Carla Harris, one of my mentors, is another female leader I admire. She has always honestly shared her experiences, including the challenges and what didn't work out as expected. She has helped a countless number of young women and people of color access, survive and thrive in careers on Wall Street. And she's done so always being her authentic self and sharing openly about her home town, her faith, her family, her talents and her ambition. With everything she has done in the community, on Wall Street and in the White House, she is now taking on perhaps her greatest challenge to date - motherhood! She makes me believe that good things happen to good people.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
I want for everybody at Bloomberg to know that diversity and inclusion is important to our company as a business imperative and that we need to become more inclusive if we want to continue to attract top talent from around the globe, innovate new products and maintain our position as market leader in the industry. There's an ongoing debate about whether D&I initiatives should exist and whether it really benefits companies - I want to demonstrate that our D&I efforts can produce results if fully embraced by the business and establish that diversity and inclusion is the right thing for our company.