Sharing Stories, Humanizing Challenges, Taking Action: Booz Allen's 2021 Unstoppable Together Summit

Mar 30, 2021 8:00 AM ET
Blog

Humanizing the toughest topics facing the diverse workforce while exploring how technology can build, or challenge equity, are the central pillars of Booz Allen’s Unstoppable Together movement—which is rooted in an annual summit intended to unite Booz Allen’s 27,200+ employees in an increasingly disconnected, demanding and complex world.

Now in its third year, Unstoppable Together was launched in 2019 with a deep exploration of the challenges for women and allies in today’s workforce. Following firmwide interest, the Unstoppable program expanded to more than 30 offices around the globe, and in January 2020, explore the themes of multiculturalism and racial injustice, bringing together over 300 employees for an in-person gathering just before the COVID-19 pandemic reimagined life as we know it.

In 2021, the third annual summit saw over 3,000 employees and guests register to attend virtually, coming together to discuss the challenges to equity around the globe. Over three days, sessions explored the many ways equity plays out in daily life: on the personal and professional levels and through technology, relationships, and communities. Highlights follow.

Stories, authenticity, and serving as a resource

On a personal level, equity starts with self-expression and empathy, from helping colleagues understand what it’s like to work with a disability to encouraging others to open up and be vulnerable.

“It is through stories that we are reminded of the abiding resilience of the human spirit,” said Senior Associate and Booz Allen Global Equity & Inclusion Leader Alexe Weymouth—one of several employees who shared their perspectives, TED Talk-style, in the panel discussion “What Equity Means to Me.”

Lead Associate Dan Hamilton discussed his experiences with being deaf and advice for others.  “Seek to expand your knowledge about people with disabilities and understand that just because I may have to do something a different way doesn’t make it good or bad, just different.”

“We as individuals can make a difference,” said Lead Associate Zoha Imam, who works on the firm’s commercial cyber team. “We can be a resource to others to access equity.”

Yet serving as a resource and accepting help requires trust and vulnerability. In another session, “The Inequities of Toxic Positivity,” Booz Allen Principal Nate Aiken and Vice President Matt Carter joined Jennifer Sabas, Director of Hawaii-based Daniel K. Inouye Institute, to discuss the importance of processing emotion, reflecting, listening with empathy, and being vulnerable—even when doing so challenges cultural norms.

“Holding in all of your emotions is not who you are. At some point, it becomes detrimental. What you need to be is genuine,” said Sabas.

Equity at work, from active listening to allyship

Equity is also about how you grow as a professional to empower others. Sessions explored experiences such as serving on a non-profit board for the first time, learning from other generations in the workplace, and building leadership skills like active listening.

“If you approach every conversation with empathy, we will have more productive conversations in our public discourse and in everyday life,” said Lead Engineer Vini Sundaram, a leader of Booz Allen’s Summer Games program.

Senior Vice President Nans Mathieu, based out of Booz Allen’s Beirut, Lebanon office, discussed gender roles in the Middle East and North Africa region and how gender equity is everyone’s issue. “We have seen significant progress and women being empowered in the workplace,” he said. However, he added, “Gender equity is not only felt at career progression milestones, it is sometimes felt on a day-to-day basis. We should make it our mission that every woman who works at Booz Allen never has to choose between her career and her family life.”

Many characteristics—such as gender, age, race, and life situations like being a caregiver—can make one feel like an outsider at work. Summit sessions talked about the power of belonging and self-acceptance.

“We need to bring belonging to the forefront,” said Senior Lead Technologist Pooja Sawhney. “We have to do the hard work to fix the systems that have been broken for a long time.”

Building more equitable technology

From designing models that pick up biases in data to having the right people in the room to help clients navigate complexities, equity and technology go hand in hand. Summit sessions explored diversity in design, engineering, and innovations like artificial intelligence (AI).

“In design, one of the strengths is our ability to take a critical and thoughtful lens to question the assumptions that are inherent in an organization,” said Design Strategist Jenna Petersen. “We also need to turn this lens on ourselves and on our clients. It is about making sure we recruit and listen to a group of people we most need to serve to be most effective.”

“We need to be intentional with questioning the why-nots and barriers, whether it’s around budgets, legislation, or culture,” said Senior Associate Michael Dumlao.

For equitable and ethical AI, organizations need diverse talents to build trustworthy solutions in a transparent way. “I believe when we do this we get to not just more inclusive and unbiased solutions, but also more robust and powerful solutions,” said Senior Vice President John Larson, a leader in Booz Allen’s digital, analytics, and strategy practice.

Working together to advance racial and social equity

Throughout, the Summit featured guest speakers from the Equal Justice Initiative, Year Up, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund—three organizations that have been critical partners in and contributors to Booz Allen’s ongoing efforts to advance racial and social equity since the launch of the firm’s new Employee Giving Campaign and as key pillars in the firm’s Commitment to Advancing Racial and Social Equity.

The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment, and promotes racial and economic justice. Founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson kicked off the Summit with a keynote speech. “Each of us must find ways to get proximate to people who are marginalized. We have to be proximate to be an effective change agent,” he said.

A session by Year Up—which helps young adults gain the skills, experiences, and support to reach their potential—put such proximity into action, even in a virtual world. It paired Booz Allen employees who signed up for the session with young adults from the Year Up program for one-on-one breakout sessions and early career connections.

Lead Associate Richard Lilley participated in the 1:1 networking session and plans to stay in contact with his assigned mentee—who is pursuing an IT career—and serve as a future professional reference, and looks forward to providing outside perspective on pursuing a career and how to obtain continuing education and certifications to succeed. Lilley sees the networking session as another way in which “Booz Allen provides opportunities to extend into the world the Booz Allen culture and approach to employment and professional growth.”

Year Up Chief Financial Officer Ellen McClain also joined panel discussion “What Equity Means to Me,” sharing her personal experiences with race and equity. 

“I remember the day I found out I was Black,” she said. “I can still see my first-grade classroom in my mind’s eye. The kids in school told me. When I went home, I asked my white Irish-Catholic mother if I was Black, and she said yes, and we had a conversation about race in America--the first of many.”

“My childhood self immediately understood that it is much harder to be Black in America than it is to be white,” she said. 

Another summit discussion featured The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), which provides access to opportunities for students of color to journey to college, through college, and into their careers. In a panel discussion “Education Equity, Then and Now,” Dr. Harry L. Williams, TMCF president and CEO, talked about the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“Without HBCUs, there would be no Black middle class,” he said. Dr. Williams also emphasized how important it is to support these institutions and their students. “The number one reason students who attend our [HBCU institutions] don’t graduate is not because they can’t make it academically, it’s not because they aren’t smart, it’s because they can’t afford it.”

Dr. Williams also emphasized how important it is to support these institutions and their students. “The number one reason students who attend our [HBCU institutions] don’t graduate is not because they can’t make it academically, it’s not because they aren’t smart, it’s because they can’t afford it.”

Conversations that “continue to move the needle”

The ideas and stories exchanged through Booz Allen’s Unstoppable Together program amplify the work of the firm’s five business resource groups (BRGs), deepen the firm’s commitment to advancing race and social equity, and continue the work of creating a more just, inclusive, and equitable future.

"This was by the far the best DEI event I have attended in my 35 years as a professional, including military, government and private sector service,” Lead Associate Richard Lilley noted after joining the summit—an event he participated in as a newer employee in order to feel more connected to the firm. “From my perspective, if the needle on these challenging issues could be moved, this event provided both a foundation and specific strategies to accomplish those programmatic and culture aims for Booz Allen.”

“These are the types of conversations we need to continue to have to move that needle,” said Consultant Andrea Lise Rivera.

Watch sessions on demand from Booz Allen’s 2021 Unstoppable Together Summit.