Target’s Caroline Wanga Is Here to Change the World: raceAhead

Three years after transitioning into her role as inclusion chief, Caroline Wanga says Target hit seven of eight major diversity goals, and made enough progress on the remaining one that they issued the next set of long term goals. But typical ones like hiring, representation, retention, and employee experience were only part of the mix. “It’s the first time Target ever had enterprise goals tied to philanthropy, product marketing, and supplier diversity… [and] owned by the business leaders,” she said.

In this extraordinary podcast, she breaks down how she got there. 

Wanga began by creating and iterating a “diversity product,” which is based on an idea she calls “courageous listening.” It was an iteration of the “courageous conversations” that became popular in corporate circles after the summer of 2016. She found pretty quickly that getting people into a room to have tough conversations wasn’t working well. “And so, what I became passionate about was what we actually needed to teach people to do was how to listen to other people’s perspectives, without feeling like somebody was trying to change their personal narrative,” she says. Sharing was never the problem. “Can you co-exist in your differentiated perspectives without violating the law, policy, dignity, or respect? It was getting people to listen and still exist.”

How she did it was nothing short of revolutionary and deeply personal. 

You can find the full interview on the latest episode of The Design of Business |The Business of Design podcast, now in its seventh season. 

And, not to bury the lede, but you’ll also hear my voice in the mix: I’ve been given a chance at the microphone as this season’s new cohost, along with host Jessica Helfand, an award-winning graphic designer and writer, long-time educator, and the founding editor of Design Observer. (Her original conversation partner, Pentagram’s Michael Bierut, is on hiatus this season.)

It has been a unique (and humbling!) opportunity for me to take the raceAhead conversation to an entirely new audience. 

Wanga has been many things in her life, an immigrant from Kenya, a single teen mother, a community organizer, a supply chain expert, and now the shaper of a global corporate culture. But it has been her journey to understand her own authentic identity that, she says, makes it possible for her to make room for everyone else’s. 

Early in her corporate career, she hit rock bottom. “I hit a climax of faking it. And what became essentially an internal conflict between my psychology and my physiology rendered me paralyzed psychologically for 60 days. I was in a state of crisis and what I realized through getting help for that was that I had been carrying the burden of being somebody else for too long.”

Changing her style (she has strong opinions about cardigans) was part of lightening her load. She wears African fabrics and hairstyles along with artist-made accessories that help connect her to her Kenyan roots—and which she describes in gorgeous detail in the audio. But the why is more important than the what. “I got rid of my closet that I didn’t care about and I started owning what I wanted to look like and what I wanted to wear… and if some guy didn’t think I was pretty, screw him,” she says. “I have a saying I say all the time that I live by which is ‘who you are is where you are. If you can’t be who you are you change where you are.’”

In this clip exclusive to raceAhead, Wanga and I wade into tender territory, in which she listens while I share the familiar pain of being a person who is technically of African descent, yet robbed of the experience of my own family origins. It led to a rich conversation that revealed the depth of her leadership philosophy.

“I’m your cousin, we just don’t know how far removed,” she began. “And one of the things that’s really true about my journey is that when I couldn’t walk people walked for me when I couldn’t see people saw for me.” That, along with self-acceptance, explains how she approaches her work.

“I think that what I am blessed and have the privilege to do is two things—because I am okay with the fact that I broke to be better. I have this really weird sense for people that are on the verge of breaking. And when I find them I just make it safe for them to break.”

She sees diversity work about making people possible. 

“I take huge responsibility for where I can play a restorative role in disrupting the pathologies that have been formed,” in society and corporate life, she says. “Where I can play that role [or design a system] where I can play that role, I do.”

You can find the full podcast interview here or here. (Please subscribe if podcasts are your thing, since there are more wonderful business, design, and raceAhead moments to come.)

And if you haven’t yet subscribed to raceAhead, please consider doing so now. The work only works when we work it together.

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