Member Profile: Inclusivity Champion Stephanie Turner

In Chamber Blog, DE&I by admin

"Diversity refers to more than people; there are dimensions to it. I think of it as a noun that can represent a person, place, thing, or culture. Everything about us is diverse, as we are all unique and individual, just like places and things. Embracing inclusivity means acknowledging that we're all different and can each offer something special. Therefore, we should do our best to approach each person in our lives as an individual. To be inclusive is to understand and respect our differences."

These are more than words to live by for Chamber member and DEI Board of Advisors Co-Chairperson Stephanie Turner, Vice President, Diversity & Chief Sustainability Officer, MITRE. We recently sat down with Stephanie and discussed her path toward diversity and how her curiosity about the world led her to appreciate others' cultures.

"Exposure to other cultures is critical to understanding the world and ourselves. People like to lump Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion together, but the reality is that each represents something different. Each is its own variable that offers clarity. Diversity is a given, so I prefer to focus on being 'inclusive' because it means that I am listening to the other person and understanding their likes, dislikes, needs, and desires. Solutions can only be found through listening; talking cannot offer solutions without each person first listening to what the other has to say."

"My career did not begin within the diversity field; I became aware of its power while working as a marketing consultant for Big Oil in the 1990s. I was the only person of color in my regional office in Dallas, Texas, but didn't think too much about it at the time." It wasn't until several employees brought a class action racial discrimination lawsuit against our parent company Texaco, Inc., resulting in a threat of boycotts nationwide, that she began to take notice. Texaco brought in diversity consultants to oversee employee concerns, but their approach was counterproductive and offensive. The result was a confused workforce and co-workers who were constantly on edge about potentially offending Stephanie. "I had to tell them that I was the same person today as I was before that diversity meeting."

"I knew I could do better."

When Texaco merged with Shell and our oil supplier, opportunity struck. "I was recruited to become the new company's internal diversity consultant for the trading and transportation business." This change in focus prompted a move to Houston, followed by training and certifications in employee diversity programs. She funneled her energy into an employee resource group that was a catalyst from an experience she had in the hallway at work. "One day, an older, more tenured man told me that I needed to earn my stripes before having any value and making change. I was young and feisty and proved him wrong," she says with a laugh. "I founded an affinity group that helped employees understand diversity and its many advantages in life and business."

It wasn't long before she was recruited to Motorola and developed a successful partnership with its entertainment marketing division, prompting even more travel. After Motorola began downsizing, she moved on to ESPN, which satisfied her sports-loving nature. "I love all sports, college… professional… sports I haven't even heard of before." But despite her proximity to the inner workings of the sports world, her workaholic nature kept her from enjoying much downtime. "I was always working and never had time to watch sports anymore." She followed her time at ESPN with careers at Kaiser Permanente, Lockheed Martin, Liberty Mutual, and now MITRE.

Travel and change have impacted Stephanie's life in more ways than one: so far, she's lived in 13 cities within the United States, 1 exchange program in Spain, and worked within seven industries. A naturally shy person, Stephanie finds strength in her own curiosity. "I want to experience other cultures and to see other places. Even today, I will intentionally travel to other locations and dine at their restaurants to better understand that area's culture. Or I will listen to the music that is playing in the background of places and track it down to hear it again later for a curated playlist I love to produce. I like to slow down in the world, take it in, and really observe what's going on."

For Stephanie, understanding is found through experience. "My ultimate goal was to live within all regions of our country, which I have done. We have all these subcultures in America. All my travels and work within different markets have taught me to learn from and respect these cultures. The differences between what we know and what we experience may make us uncomfortable, but what the world needs is for us all to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable."

While curious about other people and cultures, championing inclusivity was not on Stephanie's original career path. Born in Bloomington, Indiana, to parents working on their respective graduate degrees at Indiana University, Stephanie learned early on that the world can be a very different place, even within the same country. "We moved to Lexington, Massachusetts, when I was young, and I experienced a full New England childhood. We were the only people of color in my neighborhood, and everyone in town knew my family. Later, when I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to attend Spelman College and study economics, I finally experienced what it was like to be around people who looked like me. It was the first time in my life that I was around other Black women. That I had Black teachers. That was a powerful moment in my life." She followed this degree up with a master's in Agricultural Economics from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

That feeling of belonging extended past her race. She recalls her time as a high school exchange student in Barcelona, Spain. "This was the first time I was simply called an American. That I was known as 'the American.' That my culture was that of an American." Her time in Barcelona wasn't dissimilar to that of her childhood in Lexington, where she was the only person of color. "The kids in that Barcelona elementary school we visited had limited exposure to Black people. This was in the 1980s, and they all assumed I knew Michael Jackson. I thought it was funny and didn't think badly of them because they really didn't know any better. That didn't stop me from telling them that Michael Jackson was my brother," she says with a mischievous smile.

That early time in Barcelona helped her understand cultural differences between countries as well. "I remember a time early in my career when my former manager, who is a white American and grew up in Brazil, invited me to her baby shower. I arrived at her home and, after hour one, wondered why my friend hadn't made an appearance. After hour two, I asked someone who shared that the Brazilian culture isn't concerned with time. Sure enough, my smiling, happy manager arrived shortly after to a welcoming, joyous crowd—two hours after her own party in her own house had started. It was an eye opener about cultural differences." This was a lesson Stephanie learned on the cultural dimension of time.

This understanding and appreciation for others' cultures extends to her personal life as well. "I dated people from other cultures, from other countries. I wanted to learn more about them and their world." Today, she and her wife of 18 years, Charnelle, have learned to celebrate their differences in life while traveling and exploring together. "Charnelle is white and from a Midwest military background. To her, 'be there at 1:00' means arriving at 12:45. She has learned to understand and appreciate people who have a different approach to life and time."

So, what does Stephanie believe is key to becoming inclusive? "Exposure is critical. Have empathy with others and their differences. Try not to form opinions without first hearing the other person's point of view. Be respectful and mindful of how you describe people. Pet peeves of mine are stereotype-based comments. I cringe when someone says, 'Oh, they're so articulate,' about a Black person. By emphasizing that observation, what they thought was a compliment was, in fact, adherence to the stereotype that Black people speak a certain way. In the same vein, saying a woman is, 'too assertive,' or 'too emotional' only plays into negative stereotypes. Men wouldn't be singled out for being too emotional, so why is it OK to say that about women?"

Stephanie also believes that inclusion doesn't end with our chosen words. "One of the lessons we teach at MITRE is that actions and behaviors impact how we communicate. I use the example of a shopkeeper with a long line of customers at her register. By at least nodding to all who enter her store, she's communicated more than 'hello.' She's also acknowledged the new person, shown them respect as a potential customer, and provided personal awareness of their presence in case they have nefarious intent. Our actions and behaviors around others can sometimes convey more than words."

When asked about the future of DEI and whether an inclusive world means she will be out of a job, Stephanie laughs and muses, "People never ask if there will be a time when we will no longer need marketing or finance. As long as there are two human beings trying to communicate with and exist alongside each other, there will be a need for DEI. We cannot help comparing and contrasting ourselves with each other."