How to Be a More Inclusive Leader, According to This Olympic Gold Medalist

Sponsored by Cognizant

Bonnie St. John at "It's Time: Inclusion's Role in Tech" / Instagram

Una Dabiero
Una Dabiero

“The business case for inclusion is common sense, if not common practice,” said Cognizant Chief Financial Officer Karen McLoughlin during the opening remarks of “It’s Time: Inclusion’s Role in Tech,” a conference Cognizant hosted in New York City. 

“It’s Time,” which focused on inclusive technology, gathered more than100 thought leaders on technology and the tech workforce. It started with a goal: to empower attendees to discuss the importance of diversity in tech development. But it ended with a much broader message: inclusivity isn’t just important, it’s the way of the future. And we all need to be prepared to realize our biases, then work to overcome them. 

Keynote speaker Bonnie St. John — Leadership Consultant, Olympic Medalist, Rhodes Scholar, and Author — spoke on cracking the code on inclusion. 

“It’s like we’re living in the enlightenment,” she said, lamenting that one day people will look back and wonder how we didn’t get it sooner. “Diversity makes us more competitive.” 

St. John exemplifies the power of diversity. She was the first African American ever to win medals in the Winter Paralympic competition as a ski racer. She said the U.S. ski team wasn’t recruiting “one-legged black girls from San Diego,” but her friend Barbara, who first brought her to a ski slope, knew that she would be a stand-out at the sport. 

Reaching across aisles and believing in people who don’t look like you, St. John said, is the power of inclusive thinking. And without Barbara’s inclusivity, America would have less gold medals. 

“I realized that without me, we would’ve won less gold medals... It wasn’t Americans behind me on that slope.” 

She shared a few ways all leaders can be more inclusive, starting with recognizing their unconscious biases. 

“You have to own it in order to change it,” she said, using the curtain large orchestras place between judges and candidates for auditions as an example of forward thinking to combat biases. 

St. John also provided a more practical example of forward thinking. She said one white male executive she knew set a goal of speaking to people who didn’t look like him at meetings and events he attended. He realized after a period of this outreach that he was no longer approached by the same group of people. Instead, a more diverse set of professionals felt comfortable approaching him to give their opinions. 

“He asked… ‘Did word get out that I’m cooler?’” St. John laughed. She said this small change made him visibly more inclusive, and underrepresented people had noticed. 

“We can all reach out to people different from us,” she said. “And inclusive leaders: reach out and involve quiet people.” 

She said diversity in temperament is also important, as you never know why someone is quiet. Someone may be suffering from a hidden chronic illness, or come from a community that conditions women to be passive, especially to superiors. 

St. John provided several tips for reaching out to team introverts, including sending information along for pre-processing or asking people after the meeting why they were quiet and what you can do to help. 

Ultimately, she said her mentor and ski coach, Warren Witherell, said you do not create individual champions, because you can only push one person so far. Instead, you must create a “community of champions” who empower each other. 

Beyond hosting “It’s Time,” Cognizant has taken many steps  to create an inclusive community of tech champions. The company has opened training centers dedicated to upskilling or reskilling people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to receive technological educations.

“It’s a business necessity,” said Eric Westphal, Senior Director of Global Corporate Affairs at Cognizant. “They provide the diverse talent we need.” 

The company has also sponsored education centers for children who may not otherwise be exposed to STEM — like the Lower Eastside Girls Club — to aid in giving all communities the chance to build the technology of the future.