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Detria Williamson: Making collaboration more inclusive
Episode 62 of the Design Better Podcast
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last year, Detria Williamson, former Chief Marketing Officer of IDEO, said that “diversity can be engineered and inclusion cannot.”
In this episode, we dive deeper into that statement, and also ask Detria what roadblocks she encountered over the course of her career—from working as a head of marketing in Dubai, to her most recent role at IDEO. We also ask her about what it means when design becomes commoditized, and how remote and hybrid work impact inclusivity.
Detria Williamson is an internationally recognized digital marketer, who for over 20 years has helped category-leading companies become experience-led and content-driven. Informed by her experiences living and working from the U.S., London, Singapore, and the Middle East, she created the ICX (inclusive customer experience) approach, enabling visionary leaders to embrace inclusivity as an end-to-end element of their business ecosystem.
Eli Woolery (00:00):
Detria Williamson. Welcome to the design better podcast.
Detria Williamson (00:03):
I'm so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Eli Woolery (00:06):
Well, we're really excited to have you, and you just started a pretty big role at IDEO. Can you tell us what you're up to there?
Detria Williamson (00:14):
Sure. Well, first again, just thanks so much for having me here really excited to be here and just sharing story about the power of design, which is actually a big part of my role. So I started not too long ago, almost eight months ago as chief marketing officer for IDEO. And I'm ultimately there to make sure that we are open, available, accessible to do more powerful design work through the world.
Aarron Walter (00:47):
So Detria, you've been at this in the design world for some time now. And I'm curious if you could just talk to us a little bit about your career arc, maybe not all the details because people I'm sure will look you up on LinkedIn and so forth, but along the way, did you encounter roadblocks in the course of your career where you, you know, needed to find a path forward?
Detria Williamson (01:10):
Yeah, I mean, actually, so first I come from just very humble beginnings, you know, I'm first generation to go to college. I'm I say a successful single executive mom, but as you can imagine that came with its own challenges, but I would say, you know, being chief marketing officer for one of the most prolific design companies in the world, I'm actually even myself, a scrappy designer. It's one of the things that attracted me to IDEO was that I think by the time I learned and was sort of, I would say, let into this kind of secret society, if you will, which is what I think design has been. I learned its power and that was as a marketer on the client side. So I would say one of the stumbling blocks that I've had in my career, it was actually just not having access to some of the most powerful tools. And one of those was certainly designed.
Aarron Walter (02:13):
And was there a point where you realized design was so central to business to your work, to your career and you started to investigate that more closely?
Detria Williamson (02:25):
I did. It was when I first attended as a client, my first sort of design thinking workshop and I said, oh my gosh, this is, you know, it's almost like a kid that sees a bowl of raw cookie dough. You know, I thought this is the secret and I just saw its power. I would say it was kind of first in design as what we might call a non-traditional design services buyer. You know, I was purchasing services to sort of design for really critical problems, as opposed to just purchasing a design service, to kind of pretty something up or just to kick it off with the workshop as kind of the way in, I really started to feel the power of design as the way through. And my background as a marketer sort of spans several different industries from travel and luxury to hospitality, to entertainment. I've also worked at Accenture and design has really been that safety net that I've I've used throughout my career. It's really been the through line as I solve really critical problems as a digital marketing expert, I would say,
Eli Woolery (03:41):
RI what are some of the ways that you've been able to get your non-designer colleagues more invested in the power of design, whether they're, you know, developers or, or even other marketers that maybe don't understand it the way that you do?
Detria Williamson (03:55):
You know, I would say that this used to be harder, but not now, particularly coming out of the pandemic, which hopefully we're coming out of the pandemic, we've all experienced some sort of pain and it's been different. That pain has either been felt at the talent level. It's been felt at the growth level. In some cases, people have felt that at the diversity and inclusion level, I would say that that's not as hard now as it was in the past. You know, in the past people really came to design, I would say for more sort of conventional problems solving. And now we're really seeing all sorts of shifts. We're seeing a shift in customer demand. People are kind of moving from this. I need a design solution for this product to really, I have a business problem or a market opportunity and how can design actually help me get through the right outcome and coming out of the pandemic, you add quickly to that.
We're also seeing, I would say a lot of shifts in buyer behavior. So traditionally in the past, the design buyer has been the CEO. You know, the CEOs really held the full agenda and now it's exciting. You're seeing, as I was mentioning before, you're seeing the chief technology officer or the chief marketing officer in my case. So I would actually say it's more about making sure that the budget is there as opposed to really educating people on the power of design. I think people are starting to understand the power hour of design. Now it's about how do I mobilize the resource for that? And that resource could be people and that resource could be budget.
Aarron Walter (05:52):
You spoke a little bit there about diversity and inclusion. I know it's a topic that you're particularly passionate about and you've spent a fair bit of time thinking about brands and how they can present an inclusive brand. Could you talk to us about the elements of an inclusive brand? How does a company go about shaping that and bringing more people into their world?
Detria Williamson (06:15):
You know, I've lived many parts of the world I grew up overseas. So first I would say that it's really part of my backbone. I think at a time right now where there's diversity politics, it's trendy. I often advise leaders that, you know, diversity can be engineered, but inclusion and a sense of belonging and cannot. And that to me is what's critical is really ensuring that you have radically inclusive leaders. And I actually think finding radically inclusive leaders, there's no discrimination against that. That can, you know, be men, women, a variety of sexual or orientation that can come across different ethnicities. But I think what's critical is ensuring that you have radically inclusive leaders. That is the way that we're going to get there. So that I would say is first is making sure that you hire in that way. I also designed a tool called ICX and cohesive customer experience, which is really about creating this bridge.
So we all know that we have to work on our culture. We all know that we can do better from a diversity standpoint and any company or brand that feels like they've ever sort of made it or arrived, then they're not doing the right thing is what I would say. Really, if you ensure that you have this human and community-centric basis or foundation at sort of the core of what you're doing, which design ensures that you do, ultimately it ensures that you're constantly on the pro for what I would say is an inclusive customer experience it's end to end because hiring our way through is not the only way that we can are going to be able to solve for this. We need to make sure that we design for an end to end inclusive customer experience or client experience.
Aarron Walter (08:14):
Couple of follow up questions there. What does it mean to be radically inclusive as a leader?
Detria Williamson (08:20):
I think radical inclusive leaders, you know, don't have to be told for example, that hiring a diverse team is important because it's part of their makeup. I think radically inclusive leaders are not forced to, you know, sort of seek out people of difference. They embrace it, they cherish it, they demand it. Those are radically inclusive leaders. Those aren't really things that you can be taught. In my opinion,
Aarron Walter (08:52):
Are there companies that you've seen who have built a brand that really embodied this idea of inclusivity, you talked about diversity can be engineered. And I think what you mean by that is like we could hire a variety of people from different backgrounds and perspectives, but inclusivity is really about action. Are there companies who have figured that and maybe could serve as examples for listeners?
Detria Williamson (09:17):
I don't know that I would actually say there's any one company that has figured it out because I think as a society we're constantly evolving. So it goes back to that notion that you never quite reach the promise land, but I think there's some companies that are doing a good job. So one company that comes to mind is actually Microsoft. I think Microsoft has really stood in and stood for making some drastic changes. They've been humble. They've been public about it, but I'm sure. Or if you were to talk to people at Microsoft, I'm sure many would say we can do better and we can go further. And that's the right attitude to not sort of celebrate that. You've made it. And I think those who are inclusive along the way, those are the brands that are doing the best that are really not out there.
Just trying to engineer diversity. I, myself, I was abroad. I was in the middle east for many years and I could not believe that after being away for 10 years, a decade, I came back and we were dealing with the same questions and problems and challenges. And I, I really think that that is because of all or many companies sort of chasing diversity. But I think when you really go for inclusion and belonging, that's when you start to see retention, that's when you start to see innovation, that's when you start to see heightened creativity, I myself have won a lot of awards and I, I always tell people the secret sauce to that was having an incredibly diverse and inclusive team that everyone felt apart. Everyone felt heard, everyone felt valued. Everyone felt respected. I didn't learn that in college. There was no course on that. That comes through exposure that comes through having great leaders. And that comes from, I think, having this value and this sense of purpose around inclusion. So I wouldn't say that there are any companies that have made it or are perfect, but I think Microsoft has come a long way their brand, I would say to be celebrated for
Aarron Walter (11:37):
Sure. It's a, a fascinating example because I think anyone who's been in the tech space, not even as, as a professional, but just as a user for a few years, we'll remember that Microsoft was not that long ago seen as the evil empire. And now they're really seen very differently. They have different leadership. And if anyone is curious about some of the specific design principles and tactics that Microsoft uses, you can Google Microsoft's inclusive design framework and you'll find they've got a great site. That's just super thoughtful.
Detria Williamson (12:11):
Yeah. Microsoft has been a former client. They, I would say were pioneers in believing in this notion of inclusive customer experience. So they really are a brand. Not only that I enjoy like so many of us, but I'm also, I'm proud. I'm proud of them leaning in.
Eli Woolery (12:30):
You mentioned growing up overseas, tell us a little bit about that, where you grew up and then also your work abroad. I believe you worked in Dubai for your few years and maybe other places in the middle east. Tell us about how that influenced how you think about designing and marketing across different cultures.
Detria Williamson (12:46):
Sure. So I did, I spent most of my childhood in Germany and then moved to Colorado, which was and moved to the suburbs in Colorado. So as you can imagine, it was, it was quite homogenous even coming from Germany. So I then went and studied abroad and Argentina, and then came back, went to university in the us and then quickly went into an international role. So I was head of marketing, international marketing, actually at discovery channel. We had global offices peppered throughout the world. So I spent a lot of time in Singapore and Tokyo parts of Europe. And then to your point, headed over to the middle east. And I think what it did do was it, it exposed me to lots of different approaches. It's certainly made me a better manager. I think those that are built to be a better manager, honestly have been exposed to different types of people. And that really has been my life. And it's certainly been my career. So when you can pull a lot of different people who have been educated differently who have had different life experiences and you bring all of that around a problem, I refer to it as a really good feast. And usually what comes out of that is impact is innovation. And it's certainly a better way to solve a problem.
Aarron Walter (14:19):
So as we're thinking about building diversity into our teams, we can hire for diversity. And I know a lot of companies are thinking about that and they're trying, and they're still just in many situations not getting it right. How should we be rebuilding, rethinking re-engineering our hiring process to have more diverse teams with diverse perspectives that could inform the way that we design.
Detria Williamson (14:47):
So, you know, first I'll be honest. I'm not a chief diversity officer. I'm not a chief people officer, although people have tried to pull me into those roles, but that's not my expertise. I think it's a tough job. I think that's a big question that you're asking. Certainly I would say when it comes to the design industry, as you know, it's so homogenous, I mean, I don't know, even coming from luxury, coming out of entertainment, I have not seen an industry or an experienced an industry that has actually been so homogenous. I will say though, I'm finding great hope, great hope because there are programs, you know, for example, there's a school it's going to be the first design, H B C U design school pencil. And that's really exciting. There's hope. So I certainly think that if there's any industry that will come through this, it will be design line because we, you know, as an industry are human focused, but I myself would go back to, you know, getting back to your question about how, how do we make these shifts?
I think we all have to open up to new sorts of talent. You know, I certainly appreciate that every company bet on me for, from companies that had not had women that were executives, they took a chance on me when I was at a very large media company. I was the first African American woman to be in an executive role there. It just takes someone to sort of unlock the possibility and belief in someone. So that's the diversity part, but then once they're there making sure that they feel included, making sure that their ideas are brought forward are valued and are cherished. As I mentioned before. And I think that takes a lot of effort when you're working with people that are sometimes different and I'm not talking about the difference just in terms of color or gender. I'm talking about difference in terms of how we were raised difference in terms of how we were educated difference in terms of our life experiences. When you find leaders or managers that see that as a gift, that's where I think we really start to progress forward in a rapid way.
Eli Woolery (17:18):
So at these points in your career where you said companies may have taken a chance on you, quote unquote, what were the things that helped you push you in that direction? Did you have mentors that helped along the way? And if there are other folks out there who want to help people like you step into new roles, where there not, you may have tradit been underrepresented, what are things that those folks could do?
Detria Williamson (17:37):
I've always had a mentor I still do. And I would say one of the prerequisites. So I would say this is also advice for those who may feel like they are the one that's different. You know, whether you're in an interview process or you're already at a company. For me, it's a prerequisite that it's demonstrated that someone believes in who I authentically am. That's really important because it is hard when you step into organiz and you are different, just standing in that difference can be hard. So I think it's really important to, as a prerequisite, make sure that that exists when you go into a company, particularly if you feel that you are very different from the way that that company looks. I think that's something that's really important. I think other ways to find mentors, you know, thank goodness we have Google because I do think that there's a lot of resource out there and we have to not be afraid to tap into it.
As I mentioned, I'm an executive I'm at the C level and I still have a mentor, certainly I believe and reverse mentorship. You know, sometimes those mentors are people that are just coming into their careers. The, the amount that I learned, I would say from people that may have been 10 roles in terms of earlier in their career, I learned a ton. So opening up to reverse mentorship, you know, maybe mentors are not necessarily always someone that is above you in a role. So I think opening up to different types of mentorship is important. I think, seeking out the resources that are there and being humble in that. And then I think making it a prerequisite where you go and saying, you know, some kind companies may not have a formalized mentorship program or some companies do, and you don't know how to unlock it and ask the question. Or if you find someone, Hey, I really like something that you said or that you did. Would you be willing to mentor me? It really is. I think sometimes just standing in bravery and being career ages and in some cases, for example, in my career at the sea level, it's humbling, but I still do it. Would you mind being my mentor?
Aarron Walter (20:01):
That's fantastic. I love that. You know, one thing that marketers are so good at is really sensing change before many others see it. And that could be a superpower, especially in a role like yours, where you're visiting clients, helping them think about their marketing or brand strategy. And with this lens of diversity and inclusion, I wonder what you see happening in the world with young people with kind of shift in perspective. I mean, certainly been a lot of conversation around inclusion and lack thereof in a global sense over the past year. And the pandemic really accelerated that. How does that shape the conversations you're having with the companies that you're working with?
Detria Williamson (20:48):
I think it kind of goes back to what I was sharing earlier about how, you know, the most relevant brands and brands that I would say have the most resonance are staying true to and staying close to the communities that they serve. And those communities are shifting. They're shifting be cuz communities particularly, I would say younger generations are no longer bound necessarily by color, but bound by purpose, whether that's sustainability, whether that is inclusion, whether it's fashion, those are the things that they are actually bound bound by. So I think that's great hope because it means that we can take a quicker leap forward in that we're not dealing with certain things that I think have centuries of history that we have to get through. So I would say one of the things that we certainly see and advise on is ensuring that as you design for inclusion, that you ensure that you are also designing for trust and in, in order to design for trust, you have to ensure that your purpose is at the heart. And that you're clear on what that purpose is, ensuring that you can be declarative about your purpose. And I don't think you can do that out if you're not close to the community that you serve.
Eli Woolery (22:11):
So we've obviously experienced a huge shift in the way that people work day to day over the course of the pandemic, and there's a lot more remote work and hybrid work. And how do you see that impacting both the happiness of your employees the day to day happiness, but also the opportunities to have kind of a more inclusive environment if it allows, you know, working moms and dads to, you know, be close to their kids, that kinda thing.
Detria Williamson (22:35):
So I would certainly say from a marketing perspective, how I found joy is really connecting with an understanding that this moment has been so difficult and challenging. That really there's sort of an act of returning, how do we return and making sure that you co-create the conditions for each other together. And thankfully, by being at IDEO, we're given the space to do that from a marketing perspective, we have moved into a fully hybrid model, which is allowing people to make the choice for themselves. And that's where I think the world is. I'm sure you're seeing and finding this in California. If you're not giving people the choice or the conditions that they need coming out of this pandemic, they'll go find it somewhere else. I think employees and colleagues and the communities that are working for brands right now, they're really the ones that are in control. It's no longer the companies themselves that are in control. I would say it's the employees, that's the shift that we've certainly seen for ourselves. And also for the companies that we serve.
Aarron Walter (23:47):
One thing that really fascinates me about marketing is how a marketing campaign in one particular culture can do so well. And then when it's transplanted to a different culture, a different part of the world, it can absolutely fail which to just our differences. And sometimes the idea of designing inclusively is like you said, being very closely connected to those communities, understanding value systems and the way people see the world. What have you encountered in, you know, living in so many places, working in so many places and at being a marketer, how have you seen design of marketing shift from culture to culture?
Detria Williamson (24:32):
Well, I think one of the reasons that I've found success in my career is actually almost flipping that question because to your point, those differences that you just highlighted are always there. And I think the companies that market to the difference specifically probably lose. But when you market to the emotion, when you market to the need that they have, those are the brands that win. And that's where you actually start to find success. That's where you, you start to find power and impact. I would say that I've traveled all around the world through parts of Africa, through parts of south America, all over the middle east and Europe and the us. And regardless of where you're from, for example, as a parent, we all want the same things, our kids to have a great education, our kids to eat healthy, our kids, to have more TA more time with their siblings and their families, our kids to not suffer.
And that's the through line. And I use that as an example because therefore brands that are serving anyone within say the family dynamic, as long as you're serving the emotional need that you have, then that's when there's real impact. That's what I found as being so consistent is serving for joy, serving for convenience, serving for the CRI need that they have. And it's actually more consistent than you would imagine. Sometimes the expression of that would vary, you know, making sure that you're doing that in a thoughtful way, not necessarily just looking to sort of hit your growth target. Although if you do it this way, you do end up hitting your growth targets.
Eli Woolery (26:28):
So we already touched on the, the fact that design is becoming more understood through the organization that its impact is being recognized, but possibly with that becomes a, a danger of design being commoditized to some degree. What do you think about that and sort of the risks and benefits for both designers and marketers for this potential commoditization of design
Detria Williamson (26:50):
That's I, I feel like we could have a whole nother podcast just on that. It's interesting because I do see design being commoditized in the same way, for example, that content is, but I think that that's a good thing provided that you continue to have companies, for example, like IDEO that can maintain, I would say the quality that can maintain the fluency, the gravitas, and also we ourselves have to make sure that we continue to sort of grow in terms of kind of meeting the outer edge and pushing ourselves to the outer edge of innovation and design. So I think there's a place for both where we're seeing that right. And content, everyone thought, oh, you know, companies that do content are gonna go out of business. Now that that's been commodity high, that that's been democratized even, but it's not, it's just created a greater space because there's greater demand. I think it's safe for us to say seeing the success, I would say of many tech brands in terms of them racing to design more products. I think it's safe to say that there will always be a space for, I would say commoditized design and for design to sort of maintain a high level, if you will.
Aarron Walter (28:15):
I wanna rewind a bit to what you were saying about design and its connection to communities. Cause I think there's something really interesting there, you've said that innovation off and happens with products, but products can actually create innovation inside of communities. Could you talk to us about that? Like how do you think about that and what are some examples of how communities can be innovated by a product?
Detria Williamson (28:40):
Well, I think when you, co-create a product with the community, the, in this is where you, again, start to see impact. And in some ways this is where you might start to see commoditized design because of this notion of co-creation. But I think that that's, what's important, you know, sort of creating products in kind of a back you and doing it in an insular way is not the way forward, the way forward is actually designing for and with community. And thankfully with digital, we can now do that together. So I think there's real power and actually bringing communities into that. Co-Creation, we're seeing the height of that. Right, right now, coming out of the pandemic, you're seeing things that people would've never thought of before, but it's been by design, but by demand of communities, not necessarily because it was planned for, you know, as part of a 10 year evolution of their product, it was because it was designed for based on a need of a community.
Aarron Walter (29:56):
Are there any concrete examples that come to mind for you or something you've seen and been kind of impressed with how it's played out in a community?
Detria Williamson (30:04):
Well, I would certainly say this is an example. You take fast fashion right now. I would say at the moment we have communities which are demanding companies to be more responsible and thoughtful of our planet. And they war you have a brand, for example, like H and M who has completely created different packaging now, which is more sustainable. And that again was meeting the need of their community, but also making sure that it was absolutely in line with a, our purpose and their responsibility that they feel they have for the planet. I think that's a great example. And also an example that we're proud of. We've done some work with H and M and also I think the H and M sustainability project just won an award for the Baco innovation a couple weeks ago. So that's an example. That's top of mind,
Eli Woolery (31:06):
What's inspiring you right now? Are there any books or movies, podcasts, anything along those lines that you're finding real inspiration from at the moment
Detria Williamson (31:16):
I am most inspired at the moment just being in nature. I think we've all been kind of locked up and locked inside and I'm finding real healing being outside and being with people. I'm actually a bit of an introvert. And I find myself now talking to more people talking to more strangers and saying hello, and you know, whether that's through a park and those are just things that I think, you know, we weren't necessarily trained to do in our busy lives. But I think after not having that for so long and being locked up, there's real power and just being out in nature, being close to people, it's really important.
Aarron Walter (32:02):
Absolutely Detria. Where can people learn more about you and what you're up to?
Detria Williamson (32:07):
Well, we are so excited. We actually just launched a new podcast called IDEO's the big question it's on apple podcast. Spotify, Google can go to ideo.com/the big question. You'll find it there. And I I'd love to actually have you on the show. We ask some of the biggest questions right now in the world so that we can hopefully all take a brave new step forward in listening to some of the most prolific leaders in the world. Sort of answer these questions.
Aarron Walter (32:42):
Well, Detria, thank you so much for being on the show.
Detria Williamson (32:45):
I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.