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Khalida Ali gave a talk on diversity and inclusivity at CultureCon, an event focused on workplace culture.

It’s increasingly common for businesses to start diversity and inclusion initiatives in their workplace. But Khalida Ali, a diversity and inclusion specialist, says “D&I” cannot be treated like a trend.

“It cheapens the efforts of bringing others to the fold when we merely view diversity and inclusion as a buzzword,” Ali told a couple dozen people at a presentation at the Madison Concourse Hotel on Thursday.

Ali laid out an argument that for diversity and inclusion to be done right, authenticity is the key ingredient. She made a case that true diversity and inclusion is imbued with uncomfortable conversations, honest self-assessment, and a genuine conviction that taking action to promote diversity and inclusion is necessary — not just for the sake of a business, but for the sake of social good.

Ali has a deep background in corporate diversity and inclusion, and recently gave a talk on the issue at South by Southwest in Austin called “The Art of Inclusivity in a Politically Divided U.S.” She’s a former Bank of America vice president who has worked on diversity and inclusion efforts at NBCUniversal and Morgan Stanley. Now, she oversees diversity and inclusion efforts at the San Francisco-headquartered tech company Zendesk.

She spoke at a national conference on business culture called CultureCon, organized by a co-founder of a local software startup company, ThirdSpace.

Her talk comes as Madison has been reckoning with diversity and inclusion in its workspaces. A recent survey published by the Madison Region Economic Partnership shows that the region’s workforce is disproportionately white and male, and the makeup of its business leaders even more so.

The survey also showed that a majority of workplaces in the region haven’t taken steps like creating a diversity mission statement, or have hired staff to work on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

MadREP has said that it conducts its survey for economic development reasons, pointing to literature linking business success and diversity. Ali said that there’s a need to “move on from the business case” for diversity and inclusion, and to take a bigger-picture approach.

“Companies that are diverse have more potential to be innovative. But we also think there’s a point in time to extend that conversation — you have the potential to have social impact as well,” she said.

Ali said that for there to be a “tipping point” in the push for equity in the workplace, people need to engage with diversity and inclusion in a way that’s sincere and vulnerable. She made a reference to the 1999 science-fiction movie “The Matrix,” in which the protagonist has a choice to swallow a blue pill to keep living a comfortable life under an illusion of normalcy, or to take a red pill to open his eyes to the world as it really is.

To do D&I right, people need to take the red pill, said Ali — even if it’s a painful process.

“It’s important to recognize that some elements of this might be uncomfortable, if you’re doing it right,” she said.

A major component of Ali’s talk focused on recognizing the unconscious cognitive biases that can affect corporate decision-making. She stressed that part of taking the red pill means trying to figure out what blind spots not only exist within a workplace as a whole, but within one’s own thinking.

She said it’s vital for people to not fall into the trap of thinking of cognitive bias as something that affects others, but not yourself.

“It becomes a veil of thinking that things don’t exist,” she said.

Ali also encouraged people to consider both sides of inclusion: Having diverse employees, and then having them feel like they belong. She stressed the importance of managers and lower-level workers engaging with inclusivity.

“There’s tremendous power there. That’s where the culture of an organization actually takes place,” she said. “What matters to people is what their day to day experience is actually like.”

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.