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Using all the pencils

Have you ever attended a party but wondered whether you may have been invited by accident? Have you had that uncomfortable feeling in your stomach – the one where there’s an urge inside you to proudly show up as the diverse and confusing individual that you are, but you don’t know how that fits within a culture where the norm is to ‘be the same’?

Neharika Dembla, intern consultant at Forty1 The Creative Engagement Group on exploring the continuing challenges and opportunities of DEI in the workplace.

As a woman of colour born and raised around people who think, look, and do things differently, I always felt like I didn’t really belong anywhere. I am not really Indian, not really even Thai, but not really all Westernised, despite having been in the UK for a long time now. Add my funky American accent to the mix, and I’m like a bag of Skittles – you never really know which part of my identity you’ll meet. However, I believe that exposure to and embodying the myriad of cultures and identities is a part of my purpose – one that I am here to deepen and explore during my internship at Forty1.

Admittedly, I stumbled across Forty1 by sheer luck. I remember having a conversation with a classmate during my master’s degree at Imperial College, where I expressed my desire to be part of a team where I could direct my energy into dismantling cultures that don’t really hold space for human beings to reach their full potential. Business and people are interchangeable concepts to me – the more you take care of your people, the better your business will be. The next day, I came across the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Centre of Excellence at Forty1 on LinkedIn – a new arm of the business set up with the intention to reconfigure workplaces to ensure they are genuinely diverse, equitable and inclusive. The main aspect of the Centre of Excellence that called out to me was its approach to getting under the skin of every corporation. It emphasised getting to the ‘truth’ – the truth of where the company is, how their employees feel, and what they can realistically embody. This Applied DEI lens, in my opinion, is the future of DEI.

Coming into the agency, I wanted to experience the variety of work done at Forty1. I immersed myself in the world of internal and corporate communication, where using Forty1’s philosophy of ‘Stories, Leaders and Moments’, I have been able to understand the growing power of the spoken and written word and the importance of creativity in the workplace. Creative communication is a key part of employee engagement, and the means by which it’s done will play a huge role in shaping employee experiences in the future of the working world.

Furthermore, I have had the chance to explore the challenges and opportunities of DEI in the workplace – understanding what the best practices are, and where the scope of innovation lies. DEI is an evolving capability within businesses. We have been swamped with unconscious bias training, new hiring policies and company pledges – all of which are needed, but never tackle the root of the problem. What’s the point of having a seat if the person sitting in it doesn’t feel like that space honours them? Thus, the next natural step in our DEI journey is to dive deep into the uncharted waters of ‘inclusivity’.

Inclusivity recognises that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘separate’. Diversity removed our black-and-white goggles so we could appreciate the rainbow of colours in our pencil box. Inclusivity means taking it one step further, and seeing that we can use all the coloured pencils to create something amazing. Have you ever seen a picture of a sunset? The most beautiful drawings use all the colours – the shades of blues, pinks, oranges, yellows, and hints of sea green. Every single colour is important in creating that perfect picture – you know the one. You look at it and sigh, and wish you were by the sea.

Understanding our inherent oneness allows us to genuinely value and create meaningful opportunities for diversity, enabling our thoughts, voices and experiences to flourish so we can push past our limitations and reach new heights in innovative and ground-breaking ways. For organisations, it’s a commitment to step away from cultures that feed on fear and competition, and to build new structures that allow every single person in the organisation to feel safe, to trust, to empathise, and to collaborate openly with one another.

In my work, I have had the chance to use tools, research, and frameworks to dig into the core of organisational cultures and embed systems that align them with this future of DEI. As part of my internship at Forty1, I’m helping an established technology firm align and amplify the work of its Employee Resource Group and be part of a team that’s exploring how to refine an organisation’s visual identity to bring DEI to life. I’m also looking forward to supporting the implementation of sustainable DEI initiatives for businesses across the healthcare, automotive, and sustainability landscape.

Being at Forty1, I have truly been given the space to create the world I wished I had when I was growing up – one that honours all aspects of belonging, no matter how you identify, where you come from, or how you look.