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Taking DEI Deeper than Content with Karen Williams

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:
From Creative Force, I'm Daniel Jester, and this is the eCommerce content creation podcast.
Daniel Jester:
Diversity, equity, and inclusion in eCommerce has been a topic that we've wanted to explore on this podcast since almost day one. During and following the George Floyd protests in the Summer of 2020, many brands and retailers acknowledged the events by posting imagery in support of our friends and neighbors who'd had enough of not being heard. When I met my guest for this episode, photo art director, Karen Williams, I thought the conversation would focus on that, how diverse and inclusive was the content itself? It quickly became apparent that we needed to talk about diversity of the crews creating the content. From there, it's really hard to have the conversation about team diversity if we aren't talking about opportunity also. Specifically, how we can create more opportunities for a more diverse team that would make our content better.
Karen Williams:
We need to do better. We need to go out. I've always been an advocate wanting to be like, okay, for me, it's always bringing in more people of color. Let's go to these colleges. Let's start internship programs, paid internship, because a lot of people of color usually cannot afford to have all these free internships that I was fortunate enough to be able to do, to get where I am.
Daniel Jester:
You'll hear me say this when we get into the episode, but I want to say it up top here too. Karen and I know that we don't speak for everyone. We're two people sharing our thoughts and lived experiences on this topic. I think one of the important lessons of the Summer of 2020 is that we have to acknowledge that we each have our own experiences. Those experiences inform how we live, how we think, how we interact with each other, and how we interpret information. With that, let's get into it.
Daniel Jester:
This is the eCommerce content creation podcast. I am your host, Daniel Jester, recording a fresh episode for you guys. It's the beginning of February. I actually definitely did not realize this when we planned to have this conversation, but it, in the United States at least, it's black history month. My guest on the episode today is freelance photo art director, Karen Williams. We're going to be actually talking about diversity, and equity, and inclusion in eCommerce content creation. Welcome to the show, Karen.
Karen Williams:
Well, thank you so much for having me. I'm so honored to be able to speak on this, especially through my lens of my experience in being in the industry of editorial, and brand, and tech, and how diversity has played a role in my career and how I've seen it evolve after, especially, the events of George Floyd.
Daniel Jester:
Yeah, absolutely. We reached out to you. Our listeners probably are aware of you on LinkedIn. We do a lot of our show promotion on LinkedIn. I mentioned when we first met that you're one of the people that we see out there just sharing those job posts, making sure people are aware of what's out there. That's a huge thing in our industry. It'll be no surprise to me that a bunch of our listeners are at least aware of you in that way. We reached out to you because this is a conversation we've been wanting to have on this podcast for a while. You, at some point, I don't remember when it clicked for me, but you had put yourself out there on LinkedIn as somebody who was interested in these concepts, specifically around media and content, and that kind of thing.
Daniel Jester:
We reached out to have the conversation. I wasn't joking. It was a total coincidence that we happened to be recording this on February 3rd, as we are getting ready to kick off ... We're kicking off black history month in the United States. I'm not sure if other parts of the world observe it, but we have listeners all over the world, so I specify that sometimes. Yeah, we wanted to talk about this. Originally, you and I had a conversation. I thought that the conversation was going to be about representation and inclusion in the content itself. We realized that, through the course of us talking through this concept and different ways that companies responded to George Floyd protests in the Summer of 2020, that we needed to get a little bit deeper, and that we really needed to be talking about diversity at the crew level and anywhere else at the creation point of this content, that the fingerprints and the DNA of the crew itself has felt in that content and in that media.
Daniel Jester:
That's where we're going to touch on this today. I want to give a caveat to our listeners, like you mentioned in your introduction, we're two people having a conversation based on our experiences. We don't speak for anybody. We just speak on our own experiences and the things that we've observed, and the feelings that we've had. Just to set that kind of ground rules for the conversation is that this is about you and I and our experiences. We are not here to speak for anybody else, or their lived experiences, but to our listeners, we're interested in hearing what your experiences have been. There's always opportunities to engage with us on this show, on LinkedIn and via email, but let's dig into it.
Daniel Jester:
We want to talk about diversity in eCommerce. Your background is in photo editing, art direction, creative direction, not necessarily in eCommerce, but a lot of other places where images are used and the concepts are still the same. We have to build a crew. We have to get a team together. These teams are generally pretty large. An editorial shoot has a large team. eCommerce photo production has a large team. It's really important that we be talking about the diversity of the crew, maybe even before we're talking about representation in the content itself, because we run the risk of things appearing superficial. Are we building opportunities in our crew for diverse perspectives, or are we putting content out there that is intended to be, and I'm not deriding any particular company for doing this, but you've seen them. They could feel performative. Let's talk about that. How important is it to have a diverse crew with different perspectives and different backgrounds?
Karen Williams:
It's extremely important. Coming in from where I started, and again, my background is not necessary eCommerce, but just editorial. We're on set and we're on a photo shoot. When I started, it was basically an all white crew. It was kind of intimidating to speak my mind and to elaborate on ideas that I might have had because you usually have one linear thought pattern when the crew looks the same, or you're hiring people who think like you, who look like you. I think, time and time again, studies have shown, when you have a diverse set of people talking about an idea, pretty much most of the time you come up with a better solution, because you're looking at this one idea from different viewpoints that you might not necessarily have with people who look like you, who think like you, who speak like you.
Karen Williams:
The problem is, for everyone. It's hard for me as a black woman. I want to tend to hang out with people who look like me. That's a problem in itself as well. For us, we have to step out and want to work with other people, to listen to different ideas, to bring different perspectives in, and really work hard at it and not take the easy way, I feel like sometimes, and I'm guilty as myself, as the easy way out where I've worked as the same people and crew. I don't have to explain it to them. They can go and do it.
Daniel Jester:
You brought up something that I was thinking about earlier before we had this conversation, which is that race and skin color is one of the more, I don't want to say obvious, because I don't want to make it sound like that, but it's one of the ways that it's more visually diverse crew, is skin color, but one of the things that you mentioned is you want to hang out with people. We bond over things like the music that we listen to, and our shared lived experiences, and where we come from. You know what it's like to work on a crew where it's like, there's two people from the same small town in Ohio and all of a sudden they've bonded on that. We bond on our shared experiences. It creates a situation where these are people that we want to be friends with, who want to hang out with people who listen to similar types of music.
Daniel Jester:
One of the most obvious and systemic issues in diversity is around skin color, but it's also just about having a diverse set of perspectives of socioeconomic backgrounds, and people who don't necessarily listen to the same kind of music all the time that are all together. I had this thought. It was kind of amusing because this is another topic, it's admittedly a silly topic, Karen, but one that we want to talk about on the show, which is when you have a big studio with a lot of people, how do you figure out the music situation? Because you've got a lot of different people. Hopefully, you do have a lot of different people who have different tastes in music because then you have at least some amount of diversity on your crew. It's one of the things that I think you hit it right on the head, which is that if you've got a lot of people who have similar aesthetic values, and similar taste in things, and come from similar backgrounds, the process can feel really easy, but you're then imparting all of those interests, all of those aesthetic tastes, onto the content itself. That may or may not be right for the brand. It certainly may or may not be sending the right message about inclusion.
Karen Williams:
Totally agree. It's not a silly question at all when talking about ... Okay, what music are we going to play for this? Usually, the default is whatever the talent, when I'm onset, wants that wants to listen to, so it doesn't even matter. This is what we're listening to. It's the same with debate of when you come Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas, to a please. But, when you're so tunnel visioned and working with the same crew that thinks and acts the same, then you're bypassing a whole subset audience that you could be tapping into. If you had one person who could think, "Oh, what about maybe this kind of group? Or what about this?" And not being so tunnel vision of this is the brand, and this is who the only people we want to gear to.
Karen Williams:
That's not necessarily even skin tone, or about age. We need to do better. We need to go out. I've always been an advocate wanting to be like, okay, for me, it's always bringing in more people of color. Let's go to these colleges. Let's start internship programs, paid internship because a lot of people of color usually cannot afford to have all these free internships that I was fortunate enough to be able to do to get where I am, but let's go out and make a connection. Let's build a relationship, versus being performative of all of a sudden being like, "Oh, we now need this, and this amount, a percentage of this culture, or this culture, or this culture." Be organic and start those relationships from the beginning, mentorships, internships, and then hiring them to entry level and to the crew, so therefore, they could get that experience and then they're learning on the job. They're building relationships. They're networking. Then you have more and more people. Even if they don't stay at the same company, they can go out and just continue to grow and add value to other companies.
Daniel Jester:
Right.
Karen Williams:
They have that knowledge and wisdom that you have given them so they can hit the ground running.
Daniel Jester:
I'm glad you brought that up because this was one of the things that was really profound for me when you and I first met to talk about this, which is that it's really hard actually to talk about diversity in your crew without talking about opportunity. Opportunity is one of those key issues. It's one of the things that can make this feel really difficult. I know that coming out of the Summer of 2020 and just realizing how many things were so systemically stacked against people of color, and realizing how difficult it felt to affect positive change in that way. Especially trying to avoid feeling performative, or doing the things that are very public because you want to be seen in that way, but then not building this right foundation of what boils down to opportunity. I'm going to totally agree with you on paid internships.
Daniel Jester:
The good thing about this podcast is that we can live in a little bit of an idealistic world. In our world, it's opportunity and paid internships, always, but that's one of the things that I wanted to chat with you about for a little while, is this idea of opportunity in a photo studio, or on a photo crew, because I've experienced this a lot. I, unfortunately, probably played into some of the machinations that resulted in people not getting opportunities that they could have excelled at, because I know when I was managing photo studios for different retailers, you would always meet that person who was working as a sample coordinator and was like, "Look, I'm actually a photographer. I'm actually a stylist. This was the only job that I could get, but I figured I wanted to get my foot in the door."
Daniel Jester:
I always was really admirable of that individual, but also realized that we didn't have an actual process for trying to advance people in our own studio. Those people who were really hard working, who wanted to get their foot in the door, a lot of times ended up pigeonholing themselves because they were so good at what they were doing that we were like, "Well, we don't want to take you off of sample management because we need you over there. Now, you're never going to get an opportunity to work on set." One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is how important do you think it is for studio managers to build these opportunities for people to move from role to role within their own organization?
Karen Williams:
First of all, I just want to prelate, if you're working for a corporation who's been around a long time, they don't have diversity inclusion built, probably, really into their system. It's going to be hard. It always comes down, I always say, in finances wise, for the company to make opportunities, to give more entry level positions to people, and give more opportunity. But I think as a studio manager, I think it's vital important that you create opportunities. Now, again, it's not like I'm saying every studio manager should, "Oh, you need to have five open entry level positions to give people opportunities." No, there's other ways to do that. Again, I think one of the easiest ways is internships, but I always tell people, I think people, when they think about opportunities, they automatically think of the financial component.
Karen Williams:
I always say people, it's like, no, it's not that. It's, what are you good at? What can you provide? For me, example, I can give people time. If a photographer or someone who wants to get into photo art director wants to meet with me one on one for 30 minutes just to chat, and just figure out, gain some knowledge, or they have questions, I can do that. Or, it's just like you see me on LinkedIn, as you've brought up at the beginning of the intro, what can I do to help just show people opportunity in my network that might not see these jobs? I post that. That is something I can do on my own time. That is free.
Karen Williams:
I hope that studio managers are starting to now think in their minds that for people of color, or people who may not have an opportunity to get a free internship, or have the connections, that creating opportunity within where they're working for someone just to get some experience and to network, it's beneficial not only to that person, but to them and to the studio at large, because it just gives you a fresh perspective. I've been in environments where people have been in their jobs for a long time. There's nothing wrong if you love what you do and stuff like that, but sometimes you can get tunnel vision, or kind of stuck, or like, "This is how we've always done it." There's a time and place where this is the bread and butter and you need to stay on course, but there's going to be times where events happen and you've been so tunnel visioned, you can't pivot.
Karen Williams:
Just take the year of 2020, the last year and what COVID did, where a lot of companies had to pivot. If you were one of those people who just stayed in your ways thinking, "Oh, it's just going to go back to normal," and you didn't try to pivot, you didn't probably survive, versus companies who quickly did. It's same way in creative and being in the studio. It's like, yes, you can continue to do things as you've always done, but then when something happens. Maybe there's a financial loss, or you get bought out or something, and then everything changes and you have to quickly pivot, it's nice to have people on your crew who's learning and eager, and willing to just pitch in and do what is needed, and not be stuck with people who are kind of like, "Well, we've always done it this way. We should just wait it out."
Daniel Jester:
You really got the gears turning in my head over here, Karen, because now I'm thinking about this idea of, we talk all the time about how fast technology has changed in the last 10, 15, 20 years, and how fast everything is moving, and how quickly and suddenly ... COVID felt like it was quick and sudden when shit hit the fan here in the United States, but obviously, we had a lot of warning signs and that sort of thing on what was coming, but it's also occurring to me that it stands to reason that as technology, and as information can change, that social values are going to start to change more and more rapidly.
Karen Williams:
Exactly.
Daniel Jester:
You're exactly right. That people who aren't willing to be open-minded to some new social ideas, and I am not talking about the people who are entrenched in their toxic or negative ideas and refuse to get out of them. I'm just talking about the people who just haven't given it a lot of thought. Whatever the social value might be, they just haven't ... It hasn't been front of their mind, could absolutely find themselves awash in a wave of changing social values, in a position where they're not able to do what you said, which is adapt and pivot to a new environment suddenly. We're not talking about a physical environment, but we're talking about a social environment that is dramatically different than it was a few years ago.
Karen Williams:
Just to bounced off, again, my gears turning is, some of the most successful people, they are learners. I think a lot of people get to a point thinking I've made the peak and this is it. It's not it. For me, that's what drives me every day. I always want to learn something different. When you are working with people who don't think like you, or look like you, or listen to the same music as you, you learn something new. That what is exciting to me. I think that's the mindset that people need to start having, is a learner's mindset. If you have that, then it's not hard to start opening opportunities for different types of people, having an open mindset. You may not have the skills, exactly what the job posting, but if you talk to the person and you see how skills that they do have can apply, and the person is willing to learn, and is eager, you're going to have someone for life, because they're going to remember you gave me a chance.
Karen Williams:
It's just going to reciprocate over and over through networking and stuff like that. Opening doors to more people is only a good thing for me, in my mind. This is only a good thing and stuff like that, because there's thing ... I don't want to be in a place ever to be narrow minded and be like, "I was taught this. I only do this and this." No, I want to continue to expand and be like, "Hey, I might not know this, but this person does. I'm going to learn from that person." Why am I going to try to reinvent the wheel? I'm going to learn from this other person about this other thing, and just keep expanding my mind. No one's ever going to know everything. You have to learn to keep up with what's going on.
Daniel Jester:
I want to touch on a specific example of a situation where there may have been an issue with the diversity of the crew, or something. I sound very cryptic, but I promise it'll become really clear in a moment. I want to say, beforehand, I remember this incident. I think a lot of people will remember this incident, but I don't know anything about the crew. I have no idea who the crew was made up of. I don't know their backgrounds, or whether or not they were a relatively diverse crew, or if they weren't, but you might recall a few years ago, and I haven't gone back to try to look this up to see exactly when it was, but I think it was ... You know what? I'm not going to say the retailer. It doesn't matter. A retailer came out with an image of a young black kid who was wearing a t-shirt with a monkey or something that referenced monkeys on it.
Karen Williams:
Yes. I remember that.
Daniel Jester:
It went big. It got a lot of attention all over the place. It was on Twitter. I remember it being on LinkedIn. At the end of the day, there was a lot of discussions about it. Some of it was pretty bad, but some of it was giving the crew a lot of credit to say that maybe they just didn't realize, or they were just having fun and they didn't think about it, but the point that I certainly took from that, and I think it was a reasonable point for a lot of people to take, is that was the crew diverse enough with enough various perspectives and backgrounds to understand that there could be a segment of the population that find this offensive? If there was somebody on the crew who felt that way, did they feel empowered to speak up? Because it's not just a matter of having a diverse crew, but it's a matter of having an environment where people feel like they can express themselves that this might not go over great.
Karen Williams:
I remember that incident, because I remember it all over the internet and socials. First of all, I want to say, because I had nothing to do with the crew. I don't know these people. I don't know the people who were involved in all this, but for me, and my perspective, I would have to say is that probably the crew wasn't diverse enough, but I want to give the benefit of the doubt that maybe someone did catch it. But I always say, if it got all the way up there where it got released, then the higher ups signed off on that.
Daniel Jester:
Right. Yeah.
Karen Williams:
You know what I mean? It's like, sometimes it's like ... It's easier now. In companies after George Floyd events where now companies, at least the ones I've been a part of, you can speak up and they're listening, and they're taking everyone's concerns about like, "Hey, you shouldn't do this," or, "Maybe you should think about it in this perspective." A person could have, what happened in that case, could have spoke up, but they were like, okay, that's below your pay grade. You need to be quiet, and we're going to do this. Then the public backlash is what made them be like, oh, it was the public, because if the public didn't say anything, they were just going to keep selling that show.
Daniel Jester:
Yeah, absolutely.
Karen Williams:
You know what I mean? For me, that perspective that not knowing anything about the situation, or the people involved, from the outside looking in, my take is that probably the crew wasn't diverse enough to know that imagery, because there's been stuff that's come along on just editorial photo wise where I have to raise, "Ding, ding, ding. This is not good. This is what this symbol means. You might want to rethink that," or, "Hey." Because, and again, I have to get educated sometimes on different cultures of I am not part of this culture, can you tell me if we do this or this, is this offensive? Or, what would be a better approach about that?
Daniel Jester:
Absolutely. I think that adding in how global many organizations are, and people selling their products, or companies selling their products all over the world, also really informs a lot of this. I have a specific story of a past employer of mine, where we had to, something was coming through the studio and I happened to be looking at it. It was sort of a military style jacket that had a bunch of buttons and pins. I think the manufacturer, the designer of this jacket, I want to say that every jacket was unique. They went to the LA Rose Bowl flea market and just bought a million pins or something and was sticking them on these jackets, but I caught one that had the Confederate flag pin on it, and references to the Confederate flag. I said we should probably run this up the chain and see if we're comfortable selling this.
Daniel Jester:
I should say that this was well before George Floyd, well before a lot of the conversations about the appropriateness of Confederate symbology. I know that there's been a lot of people who have been offended by it in the past. I'm not saying that there wasn't the ability for offense, but I'm just saying that it wasn't part of the more recent conversations we've had publicly about these symbols. But for some reason, I just said, "Let's run this up the chain." I actually had to explain to a colleague that lived in another country what this symbol was and why it could be interpreted as being offensive, because they had no idea. They weren't brushed up on American history, or the history of that particular symbol. The global nature of trade and eCommerce absolutely informs this. It's probably somebody's job to do the rather unpleasant task of learning about hateful symbols and making sure that they know about them to avoid them.
Karen Williams:
Yeah. It's unfortunate. It's kind of sad because when that happened, if you just look, before George Floyd, I would say it's before George Floyd and after George Floyd. Just look at the different decades, what things were acceptable. You know what I mean? When you look in the lens of today, and then you remember in the nineties, and what was acceptable then, yes, people were always offended, but it seems like after George Floyd, people are now saying, "Look, enough is enough. No, we're not going to be spewing out hate. We're not going to be doing this. We're going to make sure we want to be inclusive," which is a good thing, but there's also a point where you kind of, the pendulum has swung way too hard and it's like, "Okay, we're going to slam everybody and everything into this one little ad," or something, and stuff like that.
Daniel Jester:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Karen Williams:
You have to be a balance.
Daniel Jester:
The unfortunate reality is that things move so quickly that we often can only consume things. Things have to be consumable in bite sizes, but the issues of race, and diversity, and representation, are really nuanced because you can do the right things performatively and be just as harmful as ... It really requires a little bit of slowing down, a little bit of nuance. That's kind of why we ended up discussing this topic the way that we did is because we realized that it's not necessarily about the content, although diversity, and inclusion, and representation in the media itself, in the content itself, absolutely does matter. We're not saying that it doesn't, but the crew, the process, it has to be the result of a diverse set of perspectives so that ingrained in the DNA of that process is the diversity itself.
Karen Williams:
You say the crew, but it also, I want to emphasize, it also needs to go trickle up,, all the way up to the management, and the VPs, because it's one thing where you can have a Topsy Turvy, okay. I don't know if you've ever seen this meme going around. I know on YouTube where it's like, "Okay, the company says we want diversity," and then you see white male, white male, white male, then white male, white male, white female, and white male. Then down at the bottom is basically the people of color. Where I think, yes, you need to have diversity in your crews, and you need to have diversity throughout.
Daniel Jester:
Absolutely.
Karen Williams:
Therefore, say that incident, if someone, if you had a diverse VP or something, that people would immediately be able to flag that and be able to make a change really quickly.
Daniel Jester:
To really put a fine point on that, it's not just having the diverse perspectives, but it is management's responsibility to protect the feeling of empowerment to speak up when something is not okay.
Karen Williams:
Yes. I think, and the companies I've worked at, have worked at, they've done a good job of that, but we still got a long way to go. There's always a balance, because yes, you want to be able to be your authentic self and be able to speak up, but then there's always a balance of you're in a business, you're at work. There is a proper way to do that, to be able to speak your mind freely, but not go off completely wild and crazy at the same time, but be able to feel comfortable to be like, "This is not right."
Daniel Jester:
I really think, as we talk about it, I feel like it really becomes about equipping middle and senior managers to be effective moderators of conversation. The way that we communicate these things, you need to protect everybody's voice and everybody has an opportunity to speak up, but that's one of the areas where I think a manager can really make a difference for the opportunities for the people on their team, is becoming a good moderator of the conversation to make sure that it stays productive, but that people's genuine concerns are being heard.
Karen Williams:
Exactly. Also, equipping the managers with the tools and the language to be able to have a discussion with their team and with their coworkers, and their employees, as well, to have these safe spaces and be able to navigate these issues.
Daniel Jester:
Well, Karen, I don't think our half an hour conversation solved these problems, but I hope, I genuinely hope that our listeners learn something and have something to take away from this. Thank you so much for coming on the show to have this conversation with me.
Karen Williams:
Thank you so much, and would love to have a part two with you.
Daniel Jester:
That's it for this episode. While there is much to cover on this topic, I sincerely hope this insight is helpful to any one of our listeners, even in some small way. Many thanks to our guests, Karen Williams, and thanks to you for listening. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by the amazing Calvin Lands. Special thanks to my friend, Sean O’Meara. I'm your host Daniel Jester. Until next time, my friends.

About the host

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Daniel Jester is an experienced creative production professional who has managed production teams, built and launched new studios, and produced large-scale projects. He's currently the Chief Evangelist at Creative Force but has a breadth of experience in a variety of studio environments - working in-house at brands like Amazon, Nordstrom, and Farfetch as well as commercial studios like CONVYR. Creative-minded, while able to effectively plan for and manage a complex project, he bridges the gap between spreadsheets and creative talent.