By Bill Darcy
As we go to press, we’ll be marking roughly 18 weeks of pandemic restrictions and about eight weeks of civil unrest that has shined a renewed spotlight on racial inequalities in our country. It has surely been an unprecedented time, and inspired some very necessary reflection on the state of diversity in the nation in general — and our industry in particular.
On a recent episode of NKBA Live’s “Brave New Business” webcast (available on the NKBA YouTube channel), panelists Jean Brownhill of Sweeten.com, an online home-renovation facilitator, and Alex Capecelatro of Josh.ai, a voice-controlled home automation system, joined me for a critical discussion on the importance of “Leadership in Times of Disruption.”
We began with a focus on what it takes to lead through crises like the pandemic, how to keep staff engaged in a time of extraordinary stress, and taking the bold steps necessary to keep businesses operating and, in fact, thriving.
As leaders, we need to step up and embrace the evolution that is a natural part of life. As Jean pointed out, “the only thing you really need to be good at is navigating change. That’s the core competency you need as a professional, because things are constantly changing, and the sooner you accept that, the more successful you’ll be.”
She boldly expanded into three new markets during the pandemic, because, as she noted, the markets in which she was already successful — New York, L.A., Chicago — were shut down, literally overnight. So she identified opportunity elsewhere and seized upon it. She courageously decided to speed up growth instead of slowing down.
Alex took a leap when he and his business partner identified a void in residential technology and founded Josh.ai as a transformational system for connected home. He added that during the pandemic, he has amped up the frequency of communication with his staff, who are all working remotely, to keep them confident and informed. He stressed how important it is to be completely transparent and honest, so the team isn’t blindsided by any developments. This instills faith and trust in leadership.
The conversation then turned to the leadership needed to address the struggles for racial equality, and how people of color are generally underrepresented in architecture and interior design. Both panelists offered steps to start to turn the tide, like examining how and where recruitment occurs, standing by core values — and being ready to walk away from business if partners act counter to those values — creating a welcoming environment for a diverse workforce, and addressing diversity among your own staff and the teams like accountants and lawyers that support your firm.
In thinking about how we, as the industry’s premier trade association, can help provide opportunity to all, NKBA conducted extensive research to learn why young people — regardless of race — aren’t pursuing careers in K&B fields, from skilled trades to professional avenues like design, architecture, sales and marketing. We discovered that awareness is a huge problem. No one suggests these careers to students, and if they don’t have a personal connection to the field, like a friend or relative who’s a designer, it’s just not on their radar.
This is why we initiated our NKBA NextUp program and partnered with the BridgeYear organization, to show high-school students first-hand that there are great career opportunities across the K&B design and remodeling industry. The Bridge Year/NKBA Career Tour brings these hands-on experiences to high schools in underserved communities. We reached almost 6,000 kids in Houston-area high schools between January and March this year. More than 90% of the students came away with positive views about K&B careers, and they told us they loved the design aspect, but they don’t know any designers. So if they didn’t know the career exists and have no role models, we have lots of work ahead. Our industry needs talent. Everyone deserves an opportunity to be part of this industry, and it’s a tragedy when someone gets to high school and doesn’t even know about these career options.
How can companies help make a difference? Consider internship or job-shadowing programs, reach out to local high school guidance counselors to participate in career exploration days, talk to young people in your community and beyond.
It’s a great start, but it’s just the beginning.