Jahan Mantin & Boyuan Gao, Co-founders/Principals,  Project Inkblot

Jahan Mantin & Boyuan Gao, Co-founders/Principals, Project Inkblot

Race, gender, sexual orientation, diversity, inclusion…These terms can elicit different feelings in different people, from a sense of hope and progress to fear and discomfort. Viewed through the lens "diversity is a design process," conversations become softer, more open and accessible. Diversity becomes an opportunity worth investing in, a collaborative effort to design products and services that are more effective, efficient and people-centered.

Design for Diversity™ is the brainchild of Boyuan Gao and Jahan Mantin, founders of the New York-based consultancy, Project Inkblot. Boyuan and Jahan developed the Design for Diversity™ framework to help companies embed diverse perspectives and leadership into business operations. As they describe it, tech and media are at the critical juncture of humanity right now. As an industry, we need to shake things up, and create human experiences that all people can see themselves in. Tune in to hear how Project Inkblot took shape, how the framework works and how you can solve for diversity with your own team, within your own resources and community assets.


Carl Smith: Thanks for checking out this episode of The Bureau Briefing. Before we get to this show, there are a couple of companies we really want to thank. Our sponsors. 10,000 Feet, if you haven't checked them out lately, you need to check them out. They make this simple but powerful software, and it just helps you make confident decisions about what's going on with your projects and your teams. Also, MailChimp. MailChimp has been an amazing supporter of the Bureau community since day one. They are everywhere we go, and they just love digital agencies. And you need to realize they're not just an email tool, they're not just a marketing automation tool, they're a second brain for your business, they can give you insights and they can help you automate your e-com store, it's just amazing. Make sure and check out MailChimp as well. Now, let's go into the show.

Speaker 2: Welcome to The Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith: Swinging by The Bureau Briefing with us today, we have got the co-founders of Project Inkblot. Project Inkblot, it's a New York-based consultancy that's focused on developing strategies, processes and people-oriented solutions for diversity and inclusion. So please welcome to The Bureau Briefing Boyuan Gao and Jahan Mantin.

Boyuan: Thank you.

Jahan: Hello.

Boyuan: And you said our names correctly, which rarely happens. We're so happy about that.

Carl Smith: Especially for me, I can give you a list of people you can contact, they'll be like "Oh yeah, you got lucky, you should've heard what he said."  I'm so glad you all are here. We get introduced, it was Adam from ExpandTheRoom, who shot an email to us and when you're part of a community like the Bureau and you've got thousands of people out there, you get introduced all the time. So the first thing I did was I went to the website and I was just like, who are these superheroes? Because first of all your imagery is beautiful. Like, everything on the site felt great. But there was this phrase that caught me and it was, "Diversity is a design process." And it was almost like I'd been slapped in the face. "Like, oh, right, it's a design problem." That's what this is ... so would one y'all just dive in and talk about that statement and not only why its there on the site but it means to you. 

Boyuan: Yeah, sure. I can certainly start and I'll just have Jahan jump right in. But yeah, we address this also on our website because we often get that question, "Like what do you actually mean by that? You know, I kinda get it but what is that?"

Boyuan: So for us, it’s ... diversity doesn't just happen, it's not, you know, a default in most places. It's really something where, you know, for us, design is a ... diversity as a design process is a choice you're making, it's what you're seeing and not seeing. It's being mindful of, oh, okay who is this product or service designed for? Who is actually designing it? What is actually being design for? And who is it for and why is it for them? And based on that for us it's really always looking at, you know, who’s missing and what's missing in the picture, that if they were there would really make a difference for the end user, or the person, the human being at the end of the service or product or campaign? For us, it's really a process and a framework, to approach that. 

Carl Smith: Thank you, Boyuan. Now, Jahan what does diversity as a design proces mean to you?

Jahan: Diversity as a design process means a, like, implementing a thoughtfulness and a level of inquiry and integrity at the onset of creation. And so that's something we really saw and see is missing in a lot of industries. And again it’s really thinking critically from the beginning instead of tacking something on at the end. And in this case we're talking about diverse perspectives, leadership, input, as something you really embed into the design of a program, product or service. 

Carl Smith: That makes so much sense and it reminds me of a phrase we used to say when we were building anything which was, "You have to bake it in, you can't bolt it on."

Jahan: Yes. I like that. 

Carl Smith: And I think that probably explains why in my industry, in the service side and some of the product side of the web, everything was built and then we thought about diversity. 

Jahan: Yeah. 

Carl Smith: You know? Not that we weren't thinking about it, we were just so busy trying to figure out what we were building. 

Jahan: Yeah. 

Carl Smith: That we didn't have it in our field of view. So how did y'all meet and realize that this was something you wanted to do together?

Boyuan: Jahan, do you wanna ...

Jahan: Yeah, and I'm like this is a such a long story, what's the easiest version of this. Well I guess the short version ...

Carl Smith: Oh go with the long, go with the long version, come on, let us know. 

Jahan: And the episode would be like five hours long. 

Boyuan: Right. 

Jahan: So Boyuan and I met at a print publication, at a magazine. We were both editors there and it was like a music, culture publication, and we were acquaintances then. We were both like freelancing and you know, sometimes we worked remotely, sometimes we were in the office. So it’s not like we were around each other in conversation all that much. But we were friendly and we kept in contact after the magazine closed, or shut down and you know we just came to the point that I think lots of founders and entrepreneurs have ... there's like this moment where you're like, "Well dang, I've been working so hard and doing all of this for other people. What would it look like if I did that for myself?"

Jahan: And we were both at this point, where we wanted to create something that we could invest in and have responsibility and ownership over and kinda put out into the world, some of the things that were important to us. And we had a lot of synergy and overlap in what was important to us and a lot of that had to do with, you know, the stories and narratives and rights of women and people of color. And we loved, you know, art and travel and culture and design, and all these different things. So we decided to build something together. And we started running these creative workshops. Initially they were just for women and then we opened them up. We ended up co-founding an online magazine around creative entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs. 

Jahan: And I think a lot of times you teach and you build like what you want to learn for yourself and we really wanted to be those people, these kind of creative and social entrepreneurs we were profiling, interviewing. We had a team of contributors that worked with us as well and we ended up, you know, profiling these really incredible folks from all around the world. From like the first Yemeni woman photographer to, you know, food right activists in Oakland. We focused a lot on woman and people of color because we saw that was a huge missing in our own community. That these great people doing this great work we're getting the ... the, like the validation and the screen time and the press that we thought they deserved. 

Jahan: So we started there and eventually we were having success on a local level. But we really started to think about what would it look like to work with companies and organizations around diversity and inclusivity, though we weren't necessarily calling it that at the time. We were touting ourselves as more of a creative agency and did a lot of strategy work and built campaigns and services and internal programs for different companies and organizations. And we kind of fell into this niche where we were working with lots of companies building out programs for women entrepreneurs, aspiring in those that were a little more along the path. 

Jahan: So we kinda found this interesting niche there, building out these internal programs and designing them. Like actually designing what it is like for this person attending this conference? What are the different levels you want to bring them to? Who are the speakers? What did the curriculum look like? All of that. And that kind of led us down this path to really seeing ... to really focusing on media and the tech world and seeing how this process we were using naturally, which we ended up calling Designing for Diversity, kind of led us to where we are now. And that process really comes out of our own lived experiences. 

Jahan: You know we both grew up in very diverse environments and you know, we really saw for ourselves ... its not lip service, its not like diversity is a nice thing to do. But we saw for ourselves that this makes a huge difference in the quality of your relationships with people, the way that you see the world, the kind of products and services you create ... they're more effective, and efficient and people-centered. 

Jahan: And you know, for us it's a real thing, its something we live by, something that we experience. And we saw this could actually make a huge difference in these industries where that tends to be an afterthought. 

Carl Smith: Now Boyuan, can you talk about when you decided, collectively, to make that the forefront of Project Inkblot? When does it become diversity and inclusivity at the front of your consultancy?

Boyuan: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, to be very frank with you and your audience, its been pretty recent. Its been this past year, where we realized, "Oh, we've really codified a process," and though we say it's a design process, it's also a creative process. The way we approach our client worth, the way we approach developing this framework is very creative because it’s not about us providing the answers to people. Where traditional consulting is about expertise and we think you should do this and here's the right way to do it. With something as complex as diversity inclusion, which I think that, you know, people fully understand even what that means. They know it's a problem, they know its something to address in their companies, but they really don't know what that means to themselves. We're really looking it at it from all these different angles of business operations. Of, you know, how services are being created. Or why we focus on tech and media so much, isn't because that's where these issues are most pervasive ... there really is this in every single industry. 

Boyuan: But why we chose tech and media because for us this is the most urgent, the most pressing ... it's really at a critical juncture of humanity, right now. Where if we don't design for diversity and we don't have people of all different backgrounds being active participants in tech and media ... media that really, you know, paints for us what our ideologies, what our story ... or national story is, and all of that, or even globally what our story of humanity is ... and also technology, you know, how we live our lives, what we have access to in the future, if not all people are active participants and see themselves reflected in that, then that's really scary. That's a really scary ... you know? Not to be dark about it but this is ... the future is actually right this moment. And so for us it really was that critical that we put this at the forefront. 

Carl Smith: And the passion in your voice when you talk about it, and the sincerity and the realness, I think that shows you're in the right place now. Like if you had talked to me about designing an event and you said, "Well, we need this type of content and we need to make sure people sit ..., " you're not going to be as passionate as realizing that there's a difference to be made right now. 

Boyuan: Yeah. 

Carl Smith: And you have the experience and there's a ...Guy Kawasaki wrote a book called The Art of the Start and he said don't do a business plan because you won't know what is you do for three years. 

Boyuan: Yeah that's [crosstalk 00:13:21]. 

Carl Smith: You're just wasting a lot of time. And then there's also this idea ... theres a book called Traction, which basically is ... just focuses in on what are you the expert at. And if feels like the two of you have found exactly where you're supposed to be. So Jahan, what has the response been? Like what have you found in terms of people reaching out to you, or connecting with you, since you've made this switch?

Jahan: That's a great question. And I think you're right, Carl, it’s something we're definitely passionate about. I just want to say, that you know when we went to the future is like right now, it’s so true. Honestly, you can look at so many industries and you can find racial inequity, gender inequity, all of that, you know? So its not like a unique problem but the difference with tech, is like Boyuan said, everything is ... the future is already happening so there's like a real urgency to it, you know, and kind of getting behind that as quickly as possible. 

Jahan: And yeah, to answer your question in terms of how people have been responding, well it’s interesting. You know there's lots of different responses. Um, I think within the tech industry, one of the things that's really great, that works to our benefit, is that people understand what design means, what a design process is or what like human-centered design is. There are other industries where those live as buzz words people don't really get it. You know, like in the beginning people would think, " Oh you guys are designers, like you code stuff? Or like you design where like ..." And we're like, " Oh, no we're not those type of designers." You know what I'm saying?

Jahan: So that's like in someways its easier with a tech industry because we're using language that's understood. And in someways also there's this idea that like, " Oh, we have a problem, can you fix it?" And we're like, "No."

Carl Smith: It's not quite like that. 

Jahan: Right, like we can't fix racism. If we did, we wouldn't have a job. That'd probably be a good thing though. So we can't fix it because it’s not ... there's sometimes a level of education around, like Boyuan was saying, what diversity inclusion means, like, this is something that's evolving. It's constantly checking. That's what diversity as a design, as a process, a framework, is effective. Because we're actually providing a framework that folks can go back to … to use, as they're continually building out new products and services. 

Jahan: So going back to your question, that is something that we get a lot, is like, "Can you fix this?" And we were speaking to this woman recently who made this kind of analogy. She was speaking about sales trainings, you know, and if you're working in sales in a company, you don't have one sales training and that's it. You have multiple sales trainings. There's actually budget that's allocated to becoming agile in how to sell the product or service. Because we know that people need to get better at that, they need to improve at that, but there's not necessarily budget set around D&I trainings, whether that's unconscious bias trainings, whether that's around hiring/retention, there is so many different avenues of D&I. So people need to sort of get that it’s not a one and done. It's evolving. This is something that's tackling very deep mind, mental frameworks and behavioral shifts ... you know, the root cause of it is racism and that exists throughout many different industries, so its like how do you tackle this?

Jahan: And then on the positive side, we have folks that reach out to us, who are like, "We really ... we know there's a challenge, we know we have a challenge here and we're not quite sure what to do." And that's understandable and that's fine. It's not fine but its understandable. We're not in the business of shaming or blaming folks, it's not as effective. So it’s useful that people are saying, "Hey, we know something's off, we don't know where to start." And we're always happy to go in and speak to those folks and see what we can do. 

Jahan: But buy-in is also needed from across levels, because we're also finding as a response and as there are people that are like, "Oh, we need to do something. We don't really, deeply care about this but we know we need to do something,"cause there's been a PR crisis or something ... you know?

Carl Smith: Yeah. 

Jahan: So, you know, we're also not D&I, like ER doctors. We'd much rather work in like preventative ... preventative approach as opposed to going in managing a crisis. 

Carl Smith: Everything you've said makes sense, and I think one of things I've observed, and I don't know the owners of digital agencies or the people managing product teams, that they would recognize this, and I've said to a few that I was close to, but there's a fear.

Jahan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carl Smith: And the fear is that something that's good is going to change. And that they don't understand ... so it’s beyond ... it's not imposter syndrome, although most people in any creative field ... some people have a much bigger burden than others ... but it’s one of these things where they're like, our culture, our this or that, and it’s like your culture's going to change. 

Jahan: Yeah. 

Carl Smith: Yes, otherwise you're not including. 

Jahan: Right. 

Carl Smith: Right? So but that doesn't mean its gonna get bad. 

Jahan: Right. 

Carl Smith: Its just gonna be different. And I think another thing is a lot of times, you mentioned racism, there are these little pockets within the organization, where people just don't want to look. 

Jahan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carl Smith: And that becomes part of having a process and putting a budget ... you're making a statement, you're saying this is going to be something that we do. So, Boyuan, I'm curious, when these clients come in and they're asking ... what is the onboarding process? What are the questions that you're asking to identify the good clients that you'll be able to help?

Boyuan: Yeah, that's ... that's, yeah. We've been thinking about this very deeply for some time now. And part of the realization we came to is that we can't be everything for everyone. Not everyone's going to be the right type of client for us. And it took us a while to come to that realization because we truly believe that design for diversity, or diversity as a design process, can benefit everybody. But, you know, if you're in a position where you're not, you're not open to change, you're not open to dealing with what will become unearthed in the process of doing this or talking about this, then they're probably not the right client for us at this moment. And that doesn't mean, that we work with people who, you know, know everything. Certainly not. I think that part of it is, what we've identified is that folks who are actually implementing things within teams, who are dealing with, communicating with teams and delivering projects and you know dealing with a day-to-day ... those are folks that are best suited for doing work with us because they are impacted by this on a day-to-day basis. 

Boyuan: It's really great for us to work with whole teams, you know, agile team or a small group of people who are intimately, you know, connected to a process already to see, okay, well just given what you already have, you know, meeting them where they are, like where could be some blind spots? Where could be some human touch points that there might be some sort of a bias apparent? 

Boyuan: And as Jahan said, we're not in the business of making anyone wrong or pointing something out to say, "That's not how you should do it," but it’s really a process of discovery for them. You know, if you input your work within this framework, it’s really amazing for us, because our clients get to discover for themselves, "Oh, that's where that was missing and I can, you know, do something about it. And here's a solution that I'm sourcing with my own team, within our own resources, and our own community assets.”

Boyuan: Where, you know, as working with, let’s say somebody who’s just coming from the top down and creating a mandate, that's not ... that's not really how we work because its actually it's going against the core principle of designing for diversity, which is really bringing the people who you want to reach into the fold as leaders. 

Carl Smith: Is there like a success story? Can you share ... and obviously it’s gotta be an ongoing success story, right, I mean that's the whole point.

Jahan: Yeah. 

Carl Smith: But, Jahan or Boyuan, either one of you, could you share one of the success stories of your clients? 

Jahan: Sure. Um, I think a good ... a good example, is Rent the Runway. So they are a like tech fashion company and they've been super successful. And we were brought in to help design this program they started for their nonprofit arm, called Project Entrepreneur. And that program was really all about supporting aspiring woman entrepreneurs. And you know, Boyuan and I did a lot of work around design the internal program. You know our lens is always like who’s missing, or who, if X person was here, or if this product or service was offered, you know, how would that make a difference so that people attending this would actually feel a sense of inclusivity, would feel a sense of belonging. 

Jahan: And you know, Boyuan and I have been to a lot of women's entrepreneurs conferences and we sort of know, there's kind of like a formula to it. And we were really thinking critically about how could this be different? And so we started bringing in different speakers, designing the curriculum, designing the flow of the event, etc. And this ended up being these sort of national summits that were done in three cities: New York, DC and…

Boyuan: Austin. 

Jahan: Austin, yeah. And so what was interesting was one of the success stories was we brought in this woman named Jodi Patterson, who is an entrepreneur, she's a mother of five. She's like really powerful. She's started a beauty company, just really, just powerful woman. And we brought her in and she ran this workshop around how actually sharing, and being honest about your personal story can really lead to opportunities for your brand. And really what she was sharing about was how her daughter became her son. She has a son...

Carl Smith: Wow. 

Boyuan: Right. And she really spoke her experience. So this was ... what she was sharing was, "Hey, I documented this experience, I shared about it personally," really just to share what was happening in her own life. And her son is fairly young, maybe around 8, and you know, what she shared, "Sharing about this so authentically and so vulnerably provided so many opportunities for my brand, things I never could have imagined." And it wasn't that she shared because she wanted that to happen ... 

Carl Smith: Right. 

Boyuan: It was a by-product of her sharing. And I bring this story up because we got some push back. You know this was being done in Texas, although it is Austin ...

Carl Smith: That circle of blue in that state of red. 

Boyuan: Right, exactly. And so we're like, "Oh, she'd be a great addition," etc. And we received some push back and some of that was based in fear. It's like well yeah, it’s Austin but still ... and this might a little too risqué, etc. And the point is that was one of the most successful workshops at that event. 

Carl Smith: Wow. 

Boyuan: So when we're talking about diversity, we're certainly talking about race and gender and sexual orientation, and everything but we're also talking about diversity of different types of narratives and stories ...

Carl Smith: Yeah. 

Boyuan: The fact that Jodi Patterson is a black woman telling this story, adds another layer of intersectionality that you wouldn't normally hear. So that's what we're always look at, is like how can we shake this up a bit and how can we create these types of human experiences that have people see themselves in it. And one of the best sort of like qualitative responses or data we received were, like multiple women of color saying, "This is one of the most diverse, like woman's entrepreneurial events, or seminars, or you know, conferences that I've ever attended." And that came out of Boyuan and I going to so many of those conferences and seeing like hey, these are mostly white women. 

Carl Smith: Yeah. 

Boyuan: And not just mostly white women, mostly educated women, like Ivy Leaguers. Yet, Boyuan and I are looking at our own community, but we know tons of successful women entrepreneurs who don't come from those backgrounds. And there's like a real richness, there's like a real rich, robust, flavor when I think of women's entrepreneurship that really benefits all when all those stories are told, that was not ... doesn't typically ... is not typically reflected. And like the question we're always looking at is like, well why? Why? You know, Carl, when you said earlier, that there's a fear for some folks, "Like, oh I'm working this industry, etc. and I'm afraid ... things are good and I'm afraid that things will change." My question would be, " Who is it good for?" 

Carl Smith: There you go.

Jahan: Yep. 

Boyuan: And can it be good for everyone because I don't think it has to be like some ... let’s get rid of all white men in tech. Like that's not where we're coming from. It's like actually how can we co-exist and like commune and collaborate to create the best, most effective, efficient product and service. 

Carl Smith: Well, I just have to say, wow. I'm a little goose bumpy over here. 

Boyuan: Oh wow. 

Jahan: Aw. 

Carl Smith: First of all, congratulations. That's an amazing success and not only because of that instance but because you showed what's possible and you showed yourself and you're able to show others now, so that's just amazing. 

Jahan: Thanks, Carl. 

Boyuan: Yeah, thank you. That's so encouraging [crosstalk 00:28:26]. Can I just add one thing to that actually, because we're speaking to founders and entrepreneurs and things of that nature is that often exactly what Jahan spoke to, like these women ... women's entrepreneurship conferences or let’s just say entrepreneurship conferences in general, there's usually a template or a way that we approach these conferences or events and I know one of the biggest issues and we all do in this community, is imposter syndrome. That's something we spoke about before, you know. And it’s because there's a very narrow definition of what success should look like and what you should be doing, how you should be behaving, within this space. 

Boyuan: And so, I think also, another thing to mention about this particular conference that we designed, these different summits we designed is that we were really looking at need. Like these women who are coming to be participants at this conference, what do they actually need, that's going to make a difference for them to succeed in pursing these different ventures on their own, to feel equipped, you know? And so that's really where we're coming from. It wasn't just to diversify, just so we had different perspectives but you know this particular set of values and tools and things that Jodi bestowed upon her participants in this workshop was really about, you know, what's it really gonna take for you to live your authentic self, so that you can be ... you can show up true, you can show up fully to this new venture that you're creating in a way that is gonna be different that what you have been doing. Because often times we become entrepreneurs to leave the space where we can't fully show up, you know? And so I think, yeah, that's a really key thing to mention about this success. 

Carl Smith: I think its wonderful thing to add and without a doubt, you're both right where you're supposed to be. You have this opportunity to make a difference, to make a dent in the world ...

Jahan: Yeah. 

Carl Smith: And have it carried on further. So Jahan and Boyuan thank you so much for being on the show today and actually for opening my eyes to a whole lot of opportunity ... I'll definitely be back in touch. And if you're up for it, I'd love to have you come back by the show maybe like in six months and we can check in and see how things are going. 

Jahan: That's sounds great. We'd love that. 

Boyuan: Excellent. Yeah, what an honor. Thank you so much. 

Carl Smith: Oh you're absolutely welcome and everybody listening, thank you so much and we will be back next week. 

Jahan: Great thanks guys, thanks Carl. 

Boyuan: Thank you Carl. 

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