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November 21, 2023

Let’s focus on connection in Native American Heritage Month

Social and workplace connections are strongest when we value diversity and authenticity and ensure all voices are heard.

Technology can both bring us together and drive us apart. The cell phones, conferencing platforms and gaming consoles that enable us to work, play and communicate with family and friends can also burden us with the demands of an always-on world.

As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, now feels like a good time to take a literal step back from our devices and gadgets and remember what really drives human connection within our communities and workplaces and within ourselves.

For me, those connections are strongest when we can balance the demands of the modern world with the strength of our inherent culture, ensure a diversity of voices contribute to technological advancements and business decisions, and allow all people to be their authentic selves in the workplace and beyond.

Balancing culture and profession

I approach this conversation from the perspective of a Native American and Black woman who’s also a technologist. From a cultural perspective, I find power in my past as I can tap the energy and customs of my ancestors to overcome the pervasive presence of technology.

For example, when I feel overwhelmed with others’ energy and expectations, I turn to a cleansing ritual called smudging to clear out negative spirits and burdensome expectations. As a child, I remember healing weekends with ceremonies, swimming and hot houses to rejuvenate. Today, I emulate hot house meditation to clear my mind and recenter. Beading and sewing are other activities that connect me to my ancestors and help me be present in my own spirit and mind.

As a technologist, I accept that as technology advances, the pace of change will only get faster, and I understand that my future, both personally and professionally, requires active participation with the tools and technologies of modern life.

The strength I draw from my heritage is essential for me to not only navigate the digital world but also contribute my voice, experience and perspective to ensure technology works for everyone.

The value of diversity in the corporate world

Being able to show up authentically at work isn’t just for my personal well-being—it’s vital to the work I do. Many of the solutions developed in labs today are done without the benefit of diverse, multicultural teams. This leads to exclusion and spells trouble once these advancements enter the real world.

Take something as simple as an automatic soap dispenser. The tool uses near-infrared technology that is activated when light is reflected from a person’s hands to a sensor. This usually works for people with lighter skin but not so for those with darker skin. Because darker colored skin absorbs more light, it doesn’t as effectively trigger the sensor.

Some people have challenged my experience; after all, they say, the technology was tested, so surely it should work. And it does—for some people. This is a simple example of the criticality of diverse teams.

Of course, the stakes involved with having a diverse and inclusive workforce are higher than getting soap from a dispenser. A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology revealed that Black and Asian people were 10 to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white people through facial recognition technology. Women are more likely than men to get whiplash in a car crash because airbags were tested on average-size men. In healthcare, an algorithm perpetuated racial prejudices by relying on a limited data set of healthcare cost history to determine which patients qualified for extra healthcare services.

All these examples demonstrate how a lack of representation among technology teams could lead to solutions that serve a narrow slice of the population.

For technology to work better, we need more hands in the room. We need all voices, all perspectives, all experiences to be part of the creative process. This is how we can ensure we don’t inadvertently create and perpetuate bias into technologies and systems and that we start to solve some of the problems that already exist.

The question is: How do we get diverse hands in the room, especially when, historically, many of our systems have been meticulously built and maintained to prevent people of diverse backgrounds from “showing up” at all?

Authenticity at scale

Earlier this year, Richard Montañez, the business leader and author who started as a janitor at Frito-Lay and successfully worked his way up to an executive position at PepsiCo, spoke at Cognizant as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. During that session, he confirmed what so many people of diverse backgrounds already knew in our hearts: That we are not supposed to fit in.

It's a message that resonates deeply with me and holds true in Native American Heritage Month and beyond. Because we were stripped of our language and culture during colonization, it highlights the idea that we should stop altering ourselves—our appearances, our clothes, our names—and instead focus on changing the system.

As individuals, we should consider how we can use our unique perspectives, experiences and culture to excel personally and make space for others. At a corporate level, companies can take steps to foster a culture that encourages people to show up in an authentic way. Managers and leaders can start thinking about how they develop and build teams, so they better reflect the diverse, multicultural world we live in, providing us with a seat to participate at the table.

Taking these steps isn’t just good for employees—it’s good for the company. According to one study, teams that possess a high level of diversity across multiple factors, such as age, gender, ethnic background and geography, make better business decisions 87% of the time.

Diversity and inclusion also impact the bottom line. In a survey by Boston Consulting Group, companies with “above-average total diversity” reported higher innovation revenues and EBIT margins, by 19% and 9%, respectively, on average.

Empowering a diverse workforce also drives connection with clients and customers, reinforcing the idea that the company understands how the world is evolving. I’d like to think that when people work with more diverse teams, it broadens their mindset and sets off a chain reaction that can make them more likely to consider the perspectives of others in all matters of life.

Intentional action for real change

The key to building diversity into our businesses and teams is to do so intentionally—because it’s not going to happen by accident. The soap dispensers, the facial recognition software, the airbags—they won’t work for everyone until we get more people, more hands, in the room.

“We have a rich heritage of strong people who had visionary, dedicated and courageous leaders we must not forget. We Dare Not Forget. We dare not forget because today’s generation faces new challenges that will continue to ask us to have courage, integrity, persistence and vision to the same degree, and perhaps more, than what was required of our people in the past.” — Ilarion “Larry” Merculieff, “Elder Wisdom, Subsistence Rights, and Environmental,” Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways, 2006.

To learn more, visit the Diversity and Inclusion section of our website or contact us.

Tia Eady

Global Head of Innovation and Transformation, Digital Engineering

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With Cognizant since 2006, Tia leads a team of distinguished architects who transform clients’ technological landscape to become industry leaders and grow market share. Her team focuses on fit-for-purpose solutions, advisory, thought leadership and robust high-quality delivery.

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