When Inclusivity Inc.’s founder Erik Smith came to Tampa Bay in 2011, it was for a vacation. Burned out on a job in corporate finance, he needed some time away before embarking on a leadership program in Cleveland, where he was visiting from. But when his three weeks off were gone and the offer of a full ride to Bridge Builders, a premier leadership program, came, Erik knew he had to stay.
“As I started to pack for Cleveland, I physically got ill. Sick to my stomach. And in that moment, I said, Cleveland, we’re done. I calmed down, everything subsided, I called the program back and said it was an incredible opportunity and I hope someone else gets it, but I’m not coming back,” Erik remembers. “And that’s when all the goals I had for my career and all the prayers I had of wanting to be a husband and a father came about.”
Within six months of making that decision, Erik earned his first consulting gig, and three months later came the largest contract he’d ever had in his life.
“It was like, I’m living in paradise,” he says.
Inclusivity LLC. continued to grow into what it is today: a full-service organizational development firm with a core focus on cultural competence. Its mantra reflects this perfectly: the presence of diversity plus the practice of inclusion within an equitable environment is the context for innovation.
“We look at organizations from a diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint. We want to understand how the company is serving the community that they’re in, how they’re serving their customers and clients, and internally how the structure relates to the community in which they reside,” Erik explains. “Basically, in terms of demographics, do they mirror the community that they’re in? Do they mirror their customer base? Do they even understand who their customer base is?”
Even though studies have shown that diversity in the workplace directly correlates with that company’s success, many organizations (like many people) avoid the elephant in the room that is racial and ethnic diversity by claiming geographic diversity or diversity of thought in their workplaces. But to not embrace diversity in the workplace is to put a pretty low ceiling on the organization’s potential for innovation.
“We know innovation comes from having different perspectives and being able to weigh in on different projects and situations. When you have that in the mix, you are guaranteed to have that different perspective that allows you to be more innovative,” Erik says. “From that perspective, your bottom line is in danger if you don’t confront that. And if you’re not having these conversations, then you’re losing your bottom line.” It’s a truth Erik knows not just from his current role at Inclusivity but also from his time in the music industry, where he worked with new artists to get them on the map. In collaborating with influencers and big-name liquor and tobacco companies, Erik learned that many of them wanted to break into the “urban market”—communities of color—but didn’t know how.
“I realized if I could break an artist, I could break a brand,” Erik says
Carlton Consulting, as Erik’s company was known then, came to work with marketing and PR firms out of Manhattan, Chicago, LA, and DC. But soon after, the bottom fell out of advertising and Erik was forced into the corporate finance role that burned him out and occasioned his serendipitous trip to Tampa in 2011.
It wouldn’t be the last time that a troubled economy—a troubled world— would open doors for Erik and Inclusivity.
Erik explains: “When Covid hit, most people were at home and they were watching TV—following the news more, following social more—and they watched this person, George Floyd, being murdered for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. It turned the world on its head. Black folks knew events like this had been going on for I don’t even know how long, but white folks were like, Whoa, how does that happen? And why did this happen? And then all of the things that may once have been dismissed couldn’t any longer be dismissed. They reached a boiling point.”
As egregious as those circumstances are, they have brought new opportunities to Inclusivity LLC.’s door—especially in conjunction with the firm’s pivot to offering entirely virtual services. In fact, business has grown significantly since March 2020.
“We’re bringing clarity to our clients, and to the population in general, as to the devastation of inequity and what that does to us as a community. We’re here to be disruptive in the space and to change the discourse,” Erik says.
The work on cultural competency that Erik and his team are doing now is work they’ve been doing in their own ways for most of their lives. It can be exhausting, but Erik knows the only way through is forward. “There are so many people coming to us right now who are legitimately asking for help,” Erik says. “We’ve done two virtual conferences and because of that, the doors have opened and people have come out to support the effort. The firm is organically growing with people who want to help the community, help it do better, help it to emerge stronger together.