Interview with Paul Francisco
“I had the opportunity to join the National Football League, so I ended up playing professional American football for a couple of years, before getting into corporate, so that also gave me a different perspective. I was part of a team and, in my experience, growing up playing in team sports is probably the best representation of what inclusion, diversity and equity need to be. It’s all about your skill set, working together to accomplish a goal, working through adversity, accepting different people’s backgrounds, religions, socioeconomic statuses, obviously ethnic and racial background and, again, coming together very effectively to get to the goal of a championship, a tournament, a win”.
Let’s meet today Paul Francisco, from Boston, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at State Street.
Q: So, what we’re trying to get at here is know a lot about you as a person, your experiences and what is it that drives you. If anything is too personal, please just tell us: we’re just trying to give and provide Italy an idea of what people’s experiences might be (or are) when you come from a different history and a different mix of cultures.
Q: You’re going to be in an issue of our magazine that is about multiculturalism so, we’re going to have a lot of articles on different perspectives. Could you tell us a little about you personally and what are the cultures that you grew up with? There is the US, but is there other aspects of culture that really sort of define who you were and impacted you as you were growing up?
A: So, I’m an immigrant to the United States, I was actually born and raised in Honduras in Central America. I grew up speaking Spanish, that’s my first and natural language. I came here when I was 17. I will say that I have had a sort of lifelong journey within inclusion, diversity and equity and the reason is because I grew up in a town where I was the only Black kid of African descent and my mother was the only Black woman, she remarried when I was three, my stepfather, who was from this part of the country where there were mostly a mixture of native, Indigenous people with Spanish folks. The area where I was born was the area that was colonised mostly by the British, and where the slave trade happened and so therefore there were more Afro-Latinos, there. So growing up, from that perspective, I kind of knew I was different than others but I was never made to feel different and that stuck with me for a long time. When I came here at 17 it all changed.
All of a sudden I became aware of my race, more so, I became aware of the limitations that only my race imposed on me because of what I looked like and my background. And that bothered me.
I grew up thinking that everything was possible, that I could achieve anything I wanted to achieve and I didn’t ever look at my race as contributing to me not being able to achieve anything I wanted to in life and, therefore, I became hyper-aware that I was a Black male in America and the implications that had and that did really shook me to my core, because I didn’t think that it was fair. This gave me the fuel to begin to sort of pursue this work, to try to figure out culturally what I could do to make sure that: - I wasn’t limited; -I could do whatever I could to help organisations or cultures I happened to be in, whether that was my school or place of work. To make the world a better, more just and fair place.
Q: All your family moved to Boston?
A: I’m the oldest of five children and when I came, I came to live with my aunt who had two children of her own, my parents stayed back.
I came here on what I thought was a two-week vacation and then, soon, I realised it was a pre-planned trip to have me go to school here, in the US, because my family thought I would have a much better future and they were absolutely right! So I stayed with my aunt, lived with her and my cousins for a period of time while going to high school here for two years, and then on to Boston University, where I graduated with a great GPA.
I had the opportunity to join the National Football League, so I ended up playing professional American football for a couple of years, before getting into corporate, so that also gave me a different perspective.
I was part of a team and, in my experience, growing up playing in team sports is probably the best representation of what inclusion, diversity and equity need to be. It’s all about your skill set, working together to accomplish a goal, working through adversity, accepting different people’s backgrounds, religions, socioeconomic statuses, obviously ethnic and racial backgrounds and, again, coming together very effectively to get to the goal of a championship, a tournament, a win. Those principles stuck with me, so when I got to corporate I found it very difficult that I didn’t feel the same sense of team, purpose; that I didn’t feel a part of many different moving pieces uniquely arranged to achieve a particular goal. And so, I’ve always tried to recreate what that looks like in corporate… What does winning look like with a number of different people that bring a number of different skill sets to the table that ultimately achieves a great outcome? And I think that’s what inclusion, diversity and equity does, right? It gives you a sense of belonging, achievement, purpose, identity, right? If you think about that jersey that you put on, whether it’s a team jersey or a State Street jersey or a DiverCity magazine jersey. You want to be proud of that, to wear that, to display that. And you wear the jersey typically with the team name in the front and your name is on the back. Because you are part of this greater collaborative that is trying to achieve what an individual can’t achieve, so I’ve always think of that as the basis for which I think I’ve pursued this work.
It’s critically important for corporations and for organisations and, when an organisation finds the right mix and the best way of doing it, it’s just the winning formula.
Q: One of the things that we see a lot, especially in Italy, is that the people who are doing the DE&I work tend to be either women or, sometimes, on the LGBT+ sort of spectrum. In your experience do you find that there is any reason (or there’s a good reason, or there’s a reason) that people involved in giving underrepresented groups a voice need to be and come from one of those underrepresented groups? I mean, there’s a lot of debate now, in the US, about who gets to tell the story.
A: There’s a lot of debate about it! So my answer is: do they need to be? Not always.
Do they bring a different perspective to the table and a lived experience that helps to inform some of the work? Yes. But that doesn’t preclude anyone. I do feel that a lot of companies and individuals tend to take on this work because they – they are passionate about it, because they believe in it, because they understand some of the complexities that come with doing this work and are willing to pursue that as a career option. Quite frankly, a lot of companies have stereotyped this role in which they believe that if they have a person that is representative of the diversity that they are working on, that it’s a good thing to do.
But I want to move away from what a person may look like and what her/his background may be, and into what the skillset is. Because to do this work, to be a diversity practitioner, there’s a special skillset that you need to have and you have to work really hard at pursuing it. And I will tell you that none of us that do this work take it for granted, take our diversity for granted and think that that is enough to do this work. Just because I am a Black man doesn’t mean that I am the most appropriate or skilled person to lead this work if I haven’t prepared myself for it. Any of us, whether we are part of the LGBT+ community, whether we are part of the disability community, etc., would want to feel that our particular identity is enough to lead this work and so, I want to make sure the focus on what are the skillsets necessary to be an effective diversity practitioner.
Q: Which is a perfect segue to our next question, which is – with all your experience in this work, what would be the top 2 or 3 learnings that you think are the most important to bear in mind for people just starting this work, companies that are starting this journey?
A: I have a top. Do you want me to talk about it from an enterprise perspective or from an individual perspective? Let me start with the enterprise… this is advice I’m giving to companies that are just beginning this work. I think there are four things that you need to think about and do that are really critical. The first one is, how are you talking about this issue? How are you communicating around this issue and who’s talking about it? I think you need to have a lot of senior leaders who are comfortable with the language, who are comfortable being inclusive leaders, who can speak to the relevance and importance of this work, as it pertains to their business, so make it practical for people to understand that diversity, equity and inclusion are good for our businesses and be able to articulate that in a clear way.
Number two, I think that you have to think about your current employees, and If they feel a sense of belonging. Then, you start to think about who you want to be your employees, and how to attract them. You need to be able to say to your employees . A lot of companies focus a lot externally as to how to position themselves to attract talent but, the reality, is that you already have a lot of people in your organisation that you need to make sure that they are able to be the most productive for your organisation.
The third thing you have to have in place is an accountability system. You have to be able to measure your progress, to be very comfortable with data to say . You have to hold your leaders accountable for achieving that, because your leaders, your middle managers, your first-level managers, they’re the ones who make most of the decisions in the organisation when it comes to human capital. They’re the reasons why people stay in their positions, get promoted, get hired or they exit the organisations, so they have a lot of control over that human capital pipeline.
Fourth. You need to invest a lot of time, energy and effort in educating people. This work doesn’t come natural to many of us, a lot of our companies tend to be homogenous – the reason is because people like to hire people like themselves – it is comforting to be sitting across from someone who reflects who you are and therefore you know that’s what tends to happen, it’s a natural human affinity that we have. So over time what happens is you develop these homogenous organisations and then we say to people and they’ll nod and say , but they don’t really know what that means. And so you have to spend a lot of time trying to educate people-managers on what does that look like, what are the traits of an inclusive leader. Therefore, the combination of those four things will allow most organisations to gain some traction.
Q: Are big companies able to do all this?
The larger the company is, the harder it is to do. This is a journey, this is not something that you ever necessarily arrive at a place where you say “we are done”. There’s always something that’s challenging you, as an organisation, and as individuals, there’s always something that we don’t know, there’s always something that we don’t do very well. And there are different sort of stages that you want to get to but the work is never done, right?
And you know in the last two years, companies, especially companies in the US may have been focused on the racial diversity and the social justice issues, but there are still issues we need to tackle around disability, gender, LGBT+, mental health, belonging, engagement. The work is ever-evolving and our cultures are ever-evolving, our cultures are not static so that’s why this work is so challenging: because you know when you juxtapose it with the business outcomes, we’re making products, we’re selling gadgets, we’re closing clients, it’s a very defined sort of outcome that has a strategy, implementation, execution and an outcome that is tied to a particular timeframe. Inclusion, diversity, and equity are hardly ever that linear.
Q: In the US there’s a melting pot of cultures and there’s a topic of conversation about race and about social justice. This movement - awareness - consciousness and maybe even activism…- How do you see the interplay between all of this social engagement and corporate activity on DE&I?
A: It’s interesting because I almost see it as the next stage of inclusion, equity and diversity work, which is social issues are becoming now more so part and parcel of what we as corporations have to deal with. Whether it’s income inequality, climate change, because what happens is, our employees are thinking experiencing these Issues – the way that traditionally companies have thought about it is, when you’re here, in our four walls to do work, that’s all we care about. We don’t care what’s going outside of the workplace. And what I would tell you is that a lot more companies are becoming much more socially-conscious– They are much more focused on ESG approaches. There are social Issues happening that companies need to at least be aware of, and that our employees are actually expecting us to take a stand and to have a say… I’d say, companies now realize that they need to have a say on larger social issues and I think that is just part of our new world and our new reality. I think some companies do better than others, some companies shy away from it.
And I think that now those two worlds are coming together and are becoming part of the work of equity, that’s the latest set of work that’s happening with organisations, that started with diversity and moved to inclusion; in some companies we like to say we started with inclusion which then led to more diversity but the work of equity really is a broader sort of issue. It calls you to question what are our practices, our policies, culture: is it fair, is it equitable? Does everyone have the same ability to succeed in our organisation? And that sort of speaks to larger social issues, whether we’re looking at economic diversity, whether we’re looking at health disparities, issues that your employees may be dealing with, mental health issues that may be more prevalent in one community or organisation vs another. So I think that now the two worlds are coming together more so and you can’t necessarily keep them very separate. If you want to do this work really well I think you have to understand and realise that though some of these larger social issues are happening outside of your four walls that you need to at least pay attention to and be aware of and what the implications are for the workplace.
Q: So it’s this social justice and the expectations perhaps of a different generation that’s coming in as well. Are there any other sort of big macro factors?
A: You brought up the generational differences and I think that is one of the main aspects that I see in the workplace now and we have five distinct generations working together and some of us that may be in an older generation, Gen Xers, even Boomers, may not have grown up in an environment where we could speak up about these types of issues or that we thought it wasn’t acceptable to do that…
To bring religion to the workplace, gender, status into the workplace or even race or ethnicity to the workplace, where-as the younger generation are absolutely socially active, I would say more apt to challenge and to ask, why aren’t we saying something about this issue, why aren’t we helping on this issue? So as companies we’ll have to grapple with that and if they want to create a sense of belonging for all employees. I think that those are some of the issues they’re going to need to start paying attention to because you have a generation that eventually is going to represent the larger part of the organisation that is demanding that you become more involved in issues that affect us all. And again, whether they be issues that affect us outside of our own countries and are more global in nature we have to start thinking about how do we respond to them, how do we engage them and how do we get some really great ideas to move this work forward.
You have to hold your leaders accountable for achieving that, because your leaders, your middle managers, your first-level managers, they’re the ones who make most of the decisions in the organisation when it comes to human capital. They’re the reasons why people stay in their positions, get promoted, get hired or they exit the organisations, so they have a lot of control over that human capital pipeline.
Q: How do you work with this one generation without alienating the other?
A: That’s why this work is so complex, because you have to figure out the right balance, you can’t be all towards one end or all towards the other end, you have to figure out a balance where ultimately we have a well-oiled machine and that’s why again back to the sports analogy, right? You have some veteran players that have been used to work under a particular type of coaching and new players that have new moves and newer ideas but ultimately they all come together somehow, and again: purpose, what is the stated goal? what is our competitive advantage as an organisation? And if we’re all going to be here working together, we need to find a way to do it in a way that’s seamless, in a way that it actually keeps us ahead In the score, in front of our opponents, or competitive in the market in a way that makes it more attractive for others to want to come play with us and be part of this team, and I think that’s why this work is so complex. You’re talking about dealing with humans, we are of a complex nature, and making sure that we all; despite our differences, despite our different beliefs and different backgrounds, can come together for one goal I think it’s where the magic is and again it’s a very difficult thing to do.
RC: So we have two more questions left. One is about immigrants. Italy and other countries in Europe aren’t really able to take benefit from their presence and to value their contributions in growing our country, our knowledge, our experience. Was there in US a specific turning, were there specific factors that have to help place, really in light of what can we do now where people are “outside of the community” or “in the community”? Here, we are stuck in the problem.
A: Being an immigrant myself, I think that at the end of the day, immigrants add value to society, they add to the culture, and so there’s a debate, especially for homogeneous cultures, that want to preserve their heritage, their background, their language and even their “race”. But we are all part of the human race. We are all 99.9% share the same DNA. Just because we grew up in different parts of the world does not exclude us from wanting to add to the strength of a particular country, and the story of immigrants has always been that, people migrate because they are willing to do the work, they’re looking for better opportunities for themselves or their families, they’re not moving into a country to automatically sit back and siphon off their resources – most immigrants don’t even know what the resources are that are available to them In the country they’re going into – so they’re not doing it because they’re lazy or because they don’t want to add value. They’re doing it because they’re seeking to add value, they’re seeking better opportunities and therefore they’re seeking to integrate into whatever culture or society they’re going into.
And so the US has become a richer society and become the nation it’s become, because of immigrants background, skill sets and desire to work, and the fact that they have been traditionally welcoming.
There are so many different things that we nowadays take for granted that wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the contributions of immigrants. So I just think we need to take a look at immigrants from a strengths-based perspective vs a deficit perspective.
We need to sort of start to say, if we were to maximise the contributions of these populations what would our countries look like in terms of progress? , what would be the benefits of adding different perspectives? And ultimately as humans, if we are a country that has enjoyed great privilege from an economic perspective and development perspective, how can we share the wealth without feeling as though they are taking away from us, the natural-born citizens of this country? And I will tell you that on balance, that there’s a lot more that countries gain from immigration than they lose and so from a personal standpoint I think that we need to become more understanding that just because a person comes into a particular situation doesn’t take away from my benefits, from my access, from my opportunities. Because oftentimes, immigrants, the jobs they take are not the jobs that people that are part of the majority culture want to do. In the United States food growers are mostly immigrants, no one wants to do that work that is born into a moderate-income family so a lot of the lower wages or lower-level jobs that are necessary for our communities to thrive are being done by immigrants. And the last thing I would say: is that we would not have survived the pandemic the way we did had it not been for immigrants. The ones that were out there when everybody else was quarantined, producing food, staffing our supermarkets, cleaning our hospitals, those were majority immigrants, those were all people of very low socioeconomic status, while the rest of us that had the privilege to stay working from home could do so. And so I think that and again as an immigrant myself I’m proud of my heritage but I came to the US to add value to it, . not to siphon off the resources but rather to pay taxes, to positively contribute to the diversity and fabric, and to create something that was value added for society.
Q: In all of Europe, we have never seen “a Barack Obama”. And we don’t even see one down the road… a different leader, has that made a difference? And do you think it’s changed the way that people look at what leadership could look like, or do you think that not much has changed and it’s a longer game?
A: The answer is yes and yes. What Barack Obama represented for a lot of people that there is hope, there is pride, and that leadership can look different, and so history will be better able to tell us whether his presidency had a deep lasting impact on how we look at leadership. While it took a long time for it to happen in the US, the important thing is that It did happen so It made us reflect on what is possible.
I believe that we owe it to ourselves as organisations to just take a deeper look and say who’s best positioned to lead regardless of their background. Is someone having a different perspective good for us? Is someone having a heterogeneous approach to problem-solving good for us? And we still have to get through the gender biases that happen in the workplace, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to female leadership, We still have not seen a female president of the United States and that to me is unacceptable. We still have a long way to go.
Q: I would like to know if in this journey you were talking about you have found more happiness and courage or more fear and danger?
A: That’s a great question. I think I am always, always encouraged by the passion and the courage and the ability for people to see the good in other people and to ultimately be understanding and supportive of the work. I’ve seen in the last year and a half, the work that allies have put into understanding and actively seeking to support issues, and to me it’s highly encouraging. Of course you’re going to find opposition, people who are not inclusive, who are who are racist and have racist beliefs, but ultimately I think what this work has proven to me is that there is a lot more positives that come out of this work and a lot more positive energy and passion for the work than there is opposition to it and so I continue to be hopeful. Of course there are challenges at every step of the way, but there’s a lot of goodwill and passion and positive intent towards making our organisations better places to work. And even if it doesn’t work every time and we still have a lot of challenges to confront, the important thing is that we are continuing to move the dial in a positive way.
Being an immigrant myself, I think that at the end of the day, immigrants add value to society, they add to the culture, and so there’s a debate, especially for homogeneous cultures, that want to preserve their heritage, their background, their language and even their “race”. But we are all part of the human race. We are all 99.9% share the same DNA.