“That is your privilege talking.”

In my early days at Sprout, I was taking part in a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) leadership meeting when that statement stopped me in my tracks. As we were having a discussion about conducting business with companies whose values don’t always align with our own, I said something about preserving freedom of speech. My colleague looked directly at me and checked my privilege right then and there.

She wasn’t shy about challenging me and sharing her knowledge with the group. She went on to explain systems of oppression and why you can’t use freedom of speech as a defense when that speech directly contributes to the marginalization of people of color. I sat in awe of her knowledge and fearlessness in unpacking something so emotional.

In that moment, I realized the importance of creating an environment where anyone, at any level, can speak up and challenge assumptions and opinions. You will grow and learn from those moments, and they will challenge you to do better and keep learning as an individual and a leader.

When I graduated from business school in 2011, I felt confident, excited and well-equipped with the technical skills and expertise to translate business needs into individual and team level goals, create strong teams and so much more.

But a lot has changed in the last decade. The technical skills marketers need have evolved, and arguably more importantly, so have the leadership skills we need to guide our teams. Today’s CMOs need skills we didn’t learn in business school. In particular, we need to develop empathy, confidence and fluency in applying diversity, equity and inclusion concepts to every aspect of our leadership.

As our consumers and the world around us changes, we are writing the new playbook of marketing. It still includes business drivers and KPIs, of course, but the future of marketing also lies in our ability to educate ourselves, ask tough questions and build a strong internal culture where diverse people and ideas can flourish.

The wave of the future

More and more we’re seeing consumers buying from brands that align with their values, take a stand and represent diverse audiences. The visibility of racial injustice and global protests in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, have had a very telling side effect: a surge in consumer support and increased venture capital funding for Black-owned businesses. That’s huge!

For years, people have believed that brands have the power to drive change. Today, consumers are realizing their own power when it comes to influencing brands’ actions and holding them accountable.

U.S. consumers across the board agree that the most important actions brands can take to support the movement for racial justice starts with hiring diverse people. They also want brands to challenge the status quo and go beyond corporate statements and donations. In a recent survey, we found that more than half of consumers expect brands to announce new initiatives, goals and involvement in industry-wide coalitions focused on social issues.

Projections show that between now and 2045, white populations will get smaller and drop below 50% of the U.S. population while minority race groups will all keep getting bigger. That shift in the consumer population will change the entire marketing landscape. Investing in DEI initiatives is not just the right thing to do, it’s a smart business move as well.

Business school never taught me, or many CMOs, to anticipate change on this scale—but it’s time to step up to the plate. In the survey I mentioned above, we found that when brands fail to stay true to their commitments on social issues, 42% of consumers will buy from alternative brands and 29% will boycott the brand altogether, so we must fully commit to the challenge.

Start with recruiting and retention

I care deeply about the growth of employees and have always felt the broader calling to make a difference in people’s lives. But when I learned about how to build strong teams in business school, they were teams that looked and thought like me.

Studies from McKinsey & Company, Deloitte and Gartner have consistently shown that the more diverse teams are in terms of experience, race, gender and background, the more successful they are in meeting their goals and coming up with unique, innovative solutions. We certainly need to recruit more diverse candidates, but we also need to learn how we can remove systemic roadblocks and create paths for people of color to break into industries that have struggled to make progress toward building diverse workforces.

We also need to be more intentional with not only recruiting, but also retention. If BIPOC, LGBTQ+ or other people within an underrepresented group don’t see a whole lot of people like them within their organization, showing them that you care about their growth and are ensuring that they get the opportunities and recognition they deserve becomes even more important.

Of course, these are the best practices any leader should implement for their team. But we need to over index on the amount of support and career investment we provide for our BIPOC colleagues if we want to counter some of the systemic inequity these groups have faced. These concerted efforts will help team members feel welcome and see a path and a future at your company.

Set the example, ask questions and challenge your assumptions

Meaningful and lasting change starts from within and works its way out. Before you can fix systemic issues and build strong, diverse teams, you have to identify the problems, set an example and educate yourself first. Fortunately, self-learning is one skill business school definitely teaches you.

Reading “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo really impacted my thinking. I had never seen how systemic racism and the way it plays out explained so thoughtfully and powerfully, from micro-aggressions to institutionalized racism. You can certainly learn a lot from reading, and I have, but to deepen your perspective you have to listen to BIPOC and other members of underrepresented groups and ask questions, not to validate assumptions but to understand their experience and truth.

At Sprout, we’re lucky to have incredibly vocal, caring, intelligent people leading our DEI initiatives, including our monthly DEI Guild meetings. These meetings are a space for our team to learn about different cultures, identities and societal challenges that marginalized groups face. Our business resource groups regularly share resources and insights, like Black@Sprout’s letter to our community, with our entire organization. That education has been critical and has made it so our team and leaders can continually learn how to enact real solutions.

Always be growing

As marketing leaders, we still have a lot to learn and change. Our role is bigger than ROI, managing a budget and developing our teams. We have to be great leaders at work and in the world, advocating for equality and justice for our BIPOC communities and other marginalized groups.

Sure, I didn’t learn this in business school, but interpersonal connections and a responsibility to do more with our place of power is learned through experience. Moving forward, we must continually absorb and enact the lessons we take away from conversations with our BIPOC colleagues and friends. We must embrace our own self-led learning, humility and empathy in order to leave our team, our company and our world in a better place than we found them.