Donald Thompson: Leveraging privilege as a business leader – WRAL Tech Wire


Donald Thompson: Leveraging privilege as a business leader – WRAL Tech Wire

by Donald Thompson and Jackie Ferguson — July 7, 2021 . Editor’s note: Veteran investor and entrepreneur Donald Thompson wri

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by Donald Thompson and Jackie Ferguson — July 7, 2021 .

Editor’s note: Veteran investor and entrepreneur Donald Thompson writes about leadership, opportunity, diversity and other business issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays. Jackie Ferguson, host of the podcast “Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox,” co-wrote today’s column. 

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Recently, some of the most common questions I am hearing from my friends and colleagues are centered around the concept of privilege: What does it mean? What should I do about it? How can I learn more?

Often, the way people talk about privilege makes it seem like a black and white subject — as if you either have it, or you don’t — but privilege is more complex than that. We all have varying degrees of privilege and disadvantage that impact how we see and move through the world. 

When we think about privilege as a matter of “haves” and “have nots,” we make it into a divisive issue, but when it’s taught appropriately, it’s an exercise in empathy. It draws us together, instead of pushing us apart. It keeps us aware of how often we assume the conditions of someone else’s life and may not be aware of the obstacles they’ve overcome in order to get where they are. 

As leaders, one of the most powerful things we can do for our teams is to learn about and acknowledge our own privilege. Then, leverage it. There’s no need to apologize for your privilege. Use it to open doors. In that way, privilege becomes part of active, intentional, everyday inclusion, and it gives us a way to practice allyship with others. When we offer our teams the opportunity to learn more about privilege, with additional resources like articles, books, and podcasts to explore it on their own, we model inclusion and show them that “diversity” means more than race and gender. 

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I have many privileges. Among them are that I had two loving parents, that I grew up in a household where I felt safe, that I was raised speaking English in schools where the lessons were also in English, that my gender identity aligns with the sex I was assigned at birth, that I am a man in the tech industry and that I have the power and authority of my C-suite position. Yet there are also ways in which I am sometimes disadvantaged by other people’s assumptions about who I am and what I am capable of. 

Writing this weekly column is also a privilege because I have the great opportunity to share my life lessons and leadership philosophy to help other people challenge their thinking. This week, I want to use that privilege to pass the microphone to one of the experts from my team at The Diversity Movement: Jackie Ferguson, Head of Content and Programming. Jackie and the team regularly host virtual privilege walks that explore the concept of privilege, and in March, she published a longer version of this exceptional article in Forbes. I’m sharing it here because I know it will help you to reframe privilege and leverage it as a leader. 

Privilege is Not a Dirty Word

As a Certified Diversity Executive and a teacher, uncomfortable conversations are part of my job. At The Diversity Movement, we talk about racism, bias and exclusion every day. We dive deep into microaggressions, prejudice and identity. But privilege is the one word and topic that always elicits a strong allergic reaction. 

For many people, privilege is a dirty word. It carries a stigma that feels shameful and heavy. People who align themselves with privilege often feel guilty and embarrassed of it, and people who don’t align with privilege usually feel embarrassed too. In that mindset, it’s easy to believe there are only two sides of the coin. Yet, as someone who has led thousands of people through Virtual Privilege Walks, I promise you that’s just not true. 

Let’s get levelset

Privilege is a complex topic because people often associate it with one race, one gender or with affluence, and because it is sometimes interpreted as carrying an accusation or a condemnation. However, in order to move beyond the resistance I see regularly associated with the notion of privilege — and subsequently leverage its benefits — the first thing we need to do is broaden its scope. Privilege is not exclusive to White people, men or the wealthy, nor is it ubiquitous within those identity groups. For example, we often hear the term ‘white privilege,’ but are we considering the privilege of having two supportive parents? Of being financially secure? Of mobility? Of physical safety in daily life? 

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Privilege is reflected in many situations, many lifestyles and many demographics. We all see the world through our own limited frame of experience. Almost every one of us has some privileges that we can leverage to build a better culture, and almost every one of us has overcome some challenges as well. The more we are able to levelset the concept of privilege — and to be clear, not the experience of privilege but the concept of privilege —  the more we are able to recognize and discuss it.

It’s not about you, it’s bias 

Privileges often have nothing to do with how hard you, personally, have worked. In Privilege Walks, many people point out to me that they have worked hard for their successes. I think it’s important to celebrate those accomplishments and, simultaneously, remember that privilege is not necessarily a reflection of you so much as the perception and assumption to others about who you are and what you’re capable of. Do you feel safe, valued and welcome in every situation in your daily life? It’s important to recognize that not everyone has that equal privilege. 

Privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard; it simply means there weren’t additional obstacles for you to overcome on your way to success due to your identity, background, history, or culture. Often, the concept of privilege feels accusatory, and so we become defensive and resistant. We are asked to acknowledge and examine our privilege without knowing what to do with that knowledge. What are the next steps? Where do I go from here? 

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Understanding privilege is a step toward empathy and helps to build a more inclusive culture. It helps us realize that there is so much more to people than the few personas they introduce to us. Each of us has a complete identity iceberg: part of us floats up high for public viewing, but there is so much more hidden below the surface. 

Pay your privilege forward

When I talk about privilege, I ask people to focus on the future. If they discover high levels of privilege in our walk, I ask them to use those advantages to advocate for equity and inclusion across their organizations and communities. If they find they have overcome significant obstacles, I ask them to use that experience to inspire others to be empathetic leaders and culture drivers. 

At The Diversity Movement, we are focused on action and behavior change, not just awareness. We know that recognizing privilege does not naturally lead to changed behavior. In other words, it’s not enough simply to recognize your privileges and challenges. Go and put them to work! Whether your privilege is abundant or scarce, you can leverage the power of your experience to advocate for others. Your voice is so important to allyship. 

There are two primary ways to pay your privileges forward: time and resources. Invest your time by volunteering or mentoring. Accept more of those 20-minute (virtual) cups of coffee to give aspiring professionals actionable advice and a moment of real networking connection. Diversify your outlay of resources by supporting culturally diverse businesses, offering internships and investing in startups headed by underrepresented founders. Pour into others, especially those who have not been afforded your privileges. 

Leveraging your privilege and paying it forward encourages cross-cultural and cross-experiential empathy, providing authentic opportunities to see beyond the professional persona and connect with people on a more personal level. By doing so, we can destigmatize privilege and unlock its potential instead. 

About the Authors

Jackie Ferguson is a Certified Diversity Executive, co-founder and Head of Content and Programming for The Diversity Movement, and host of the podcast “Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox.” She’s also a member of the National Diversity Council and Forbes Business Council. 

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, and executive coach, recently named one of “Forbes’ Next 1000: Upstart Entrepreneurs Redefining the American Dream.” He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. He is also a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports, a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and a thought leader on goal achievement and influencing company culture. You can connect with Donald on LinkedIn and at