DE&I program highlights changing systems to foster equity

NRF 2022: Conversations about business, technology, ethics, fairness and policy

The acknowledgement of Martin Luther King Jr. Day marked a fitting opener for targeted sessions Monday morning as part of the DE&I Stage and Showcase at NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show. Further, a quote from the civil rights activist provided context for his actions then — and our society’s continued efforts today.

“In a real sense all life is interrelated,” read entrepreneur and educator James Rhee. “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be ... . This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Big Show 2022
NRF 2022: Retail's Big Show is happening Jan. 16 – 18 in New York City. View the event recap.

Rhee moderated a panel discussion, presented in partnership with Indeed, that featured Marc Morial, president and CEO, National Urban League, and Frida Polli, CEO and co-founder, Pymetrics. Polli is a Harvard and MIT neuroscientist turned entrepreneur; Pymetrics uses behavioral science and artificial intelligence with the goal of eradicating bias from the hiring process.

Rhee began by asking Morial what King might have thought about how we’re doing as a country in light of the last couple of years. He’d have mixed emotions, Morial said, depending on the topic: vaccine development; government assistance for businesses, individuals and institutions; growth in technology to allow so many to work from home; politicization of public health recommendations; attacks on voting rights; or racial justice protests and conversations. The work — the fight — must continue.

The panelists explored several systems, including the difference between the instinctual and more thoughtful systems of the brain, and how the instinctual one allows bias to kick in.

“Someone looks at a resume for six seconds before they decide whether to pass or not pass,” Polli said. Studies have shown that, using the exact same resume and credentials, “John” might get 10 interviews, “Jamal” will get seven and “Juan” will get eight. “The whole premise behind a platform like ours: We call it changing systems, not minds,” she said. We learn, she continued, from what we see in society.

“If we see a lot of men who are CEOs or a lot of Caucasians who are in positions of power, we learn that those things are associated, even though we shouldn’t,” she said. “The point that we are making is, to really try to transform society, we need to really focus on systematic changes that we can make that are long-lasting rather than sort of these quick hits.”

NRF 2022 On Demand

Watch DE&I sessions from NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show on demand.

New York is increasingly involved in requiring the disclosure of AI and algorithm-based technology used in the hiring process, Rhee said. Morial highlighted the importance of ensuring that the people designing, creating and evaluating such technology are committed to sensitivity, equity and inclusion. Creating these systems without built-in bias, he said, “requires a self-awareness that we all bring biases to the conversation.”

Jill Dvorak, NRF vice president of content and retail strategy, noted at the start of the session that the day’s offerings would look at both the “why” and “how” of diversity, equity and inclusion in retail. Also included: a product showcase featuring roughly 40 Black and Latinx/Hispanic brands, and roundtable discussions.

“We thought it was important this year more than ever at NRF not only to have sessions about DE&I, but to showcase people out there actually doing it,” Dvorak said. She encouraged attendees to visit the vendor booths, have conversations, share tips, gain understanding and make connections.

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