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Chicago: Designing Diversity: Insights for Building More Inclusive Teams

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It was another packed house last Wednesday night for SheSays Chicago’s latest panel discussion, “Designing Diversity: Insights for Building More Inclusive Teams”. Our generous sponsor closerlook kicked off the evening with a mini happy hour of drinks, snacks and pizza as women (and yes - men!) arrived. The word’s getting around!

We were guided upstairs to meet and greet the evening’s panelists/creative leaders who make diversity a priority in their companies:

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Moderator Elaine Lopez: AIGA Chicago board member and senior-level designer who leads diversity and inclusion efforts, and is pursuing an MFA at RISD in this fall.

Jonathan Sarmiento: creative director at closerlook who manages writers, designers and developers and shapes the creative vision for interactive projects.

Sara Cantor Aye: design lead and co-founder of Greater Good Studio, which adapts the practice of human-centered design to the unique needs of the social sector.

Jewell Donaldson: rising copywriter at Leo Burnett. Columbia College graduate and distinguished alumna of The Marcus Graham Project.

Don Bora: partner and co-founder of Eight Bit Studios. He encourages developers to be as great as they can be, and is a powerful advocate for women and girls in tech.

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Ms. Lopez opened the discussion with a survey she recently created and submitted to 17 small, privately owned design studios. Read her full presentation which showcases the anonymous responses and her insights drawn from the research.

Her findings supported the consistent challenges these small businesses face when assessing and potentially hiring designers of color:

Lopez: You can’t just recognize talent. You have to be active and respond to it. People are out there, improving their work every day.

Sarmiento: Of course we should be a diverse workforce. For me, it’s been homogenous. I learned you have to be better and rise above with good work to be noticed.

Cantor Aye: ‘Cultural fit’ is the term people use to justify hiring white men. At Greater Good, we’ve counteracted that thinking by asking what candidates are looking for that represent their culture. Things like resourcefulness and resilience.

Donaldson: I started looking at other portfolios as mostly white; it’s the general market. I thought, ‘If they can have a ‘super-white’ POV, why can’t I be ‘super black’? Voice and authenticity matter. Make sure you show up in the way you preview yourself. I can’t represent myself fully if I can’t show my passion.

Bora: “There’s educational diversity as well. People with science degrees and English degrees bring solutions to the table that I wouldn’t have thought about on my own.”

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Q from an Audience Member: “How do people of color make connections in the creative field? When I get a job, how do I create a welcoming environment?”

Donaldson: Leo Burnett offers resource groups to recognize and accommodate people’s personalities and preferences. It’s a genuine effort, and while I appreciate their intentions, it can separate people even further.

Lopez: Consider design education first - it’s basically white. Ask yourself - is this what’s valued? Why? If you don’t know design is a career, how will you know who can help you find a job? Study everything around you: from publications to this city. Step up your portfolios. Raise the bar. Stay informed. And mentorship is key.

Bora: We’re focused on making sure our people are conversing about projects from start to finish. We don’t pay attention to diversity; we choose who brings the most to the product and structure teams around production and delivery.

Cantor Aye: If you hear ‘diversity’, but not ‘inclusion’, it’s not diversity. We work to have an equal say at our company. If it’s a decision, we all make it. We’ve even begun to limit times at meetings so everyone has equal time to share.

Sarmiento: When I started in this business, I was the only person of color. In college, I was one of five males in a 24-person graphic design program. I decided early on to be encouraging and get others to participate. I currently work on a pharmaceutical account. Disease doesn’t care what race you are, so it’s up to me and my team to help patients and health professionals understand better.

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Q from an Audience Member: “How do you get people and employers to listen to us? I feel like the loud, angry minority who has to accept the scraps.”

Donaldson: With each graduating class from Marcus Graham, I have a chance to give back. I ask myself, “How are you going to stay? How are you going to be effective?” My work lets them know.

Bora: Keep talking about it and bring it up. The danger is in not bringing it up. The only thing that fades awkwardness is persistence.

Lopez: Make sure you take care of yourself in ways other than work. Recognize the work situation for what it is: is there potential for change? Can you contribute on a level that will sustain you for awhile? Remember, life is short - you can always quit.

Cantor Aye: Can you find allies within your group or your team? Try to go sideways, not to the top. Seek out books and resources that address the lack of opportunity, and use that data to stay informed. Racism invalidates success.

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To keep the momentum going, Elaine has gathered materials for the audience and those who could not attend. Feel free to review the incredible content Facebook has put together on Managing Unconscious Bias. Encourage your team to watch the videos and inspire a natural dialogue. She also referenced this worksheet of tips to manage bias, and incorporate them into your hiring practices.


Our events are driven by the community, are always free, and welcome all levels of experience and creativity. Follow us on InstagramTwitterFacebook and Tumblr for more photos, quotes and insights from the event. If you have an idea for an upcoming topic, please get in touch with us.

Recap by Anne Hagerty. Photography by Julie Goldsberry.

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