Q&A with Frank Starling on DE&I consultancy

Frank Starling is an entrepreneur and specialist in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I). He is the founder and CEO of Variety Pack, a consultancy that works with global organisations to build cultures of trust, psychological safety, and belonging. From 2020-2021 Frank served on PressPad’s board of trustees, working to champion our vision for a truly diverse and representative media industry. He also serves as an Enterprise Advisor to the Mayor of London and is a Fellow of The Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

We sat down with Frank to discuss inclusion versus tokenism, confronting internal bias, and how newsrooms can break down barriers of entry to the profession.

How did the idea for Variety Pack come about?

My journey in diversity and inclusion started in 2015. I was working with my local council [Hackney in London] to tackle unemployment among young Black men, which was the highest in the country. And having grown up in Hackney, I'd seen how individuals – because of their socio-economic background, race, or gender – weren't getting access in the workplace. And I really wanted to do something to change that.

I founded Variety Pack just over four years ago. My focus initially was trying to help SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] and growing organisations. If you're a growing business, and you've obviously got limited resources, diversity and inclusion won’t necessarily be front of mind. We created a solution where those organisations could still access high quality training expertise and frameworks which would help them grow and nurture a more inclusive culture. [Larger] enterprise companies may invest heavily in diversity and inclusion, but don't always get it right. But my focus was the changemakers of the future, which had an opportunity to really create equitable cultures that guide and stand for a narrative, which is truly authentic.

Even to this day, 80% of the companies that we work with employ under 1000 people, and then 20% are global enterprise organisations. The real premise of starting Variety Pack was the belief that everyone, irrespective of who they are, and how they choose to identify, should have the opportunity to be the best version of themselves.

Many of Variety Pack’s partner organisations are within the tech and finance industries. How does the experience differ working with media and creative clients? 

With organisations of that type, because they have a global reach, one of the core messages we focus on is how do we ensure that the work that's being done internally is equitable and not performative. A lot of the time when companies have such a strong external voice, and they're trying to do diversity and inclusion work, there can be a bit of a trade off with how that external voice is portrayed versus what's happening internally. The alignment of that is really important, because people are not looking for virtue signalling. They're not looking for a pat on the back or posts on social media. Individuals who are underrepresented are looking for equity, for opportunities, and for a level playing field. It's a challenge, but there are organisations out there who are global and also intent on doing this the right way.

Why is diversity so important in the media?

We need to look at it from the perspective of whose voices we’re amplifying. We've got global communities that are incredibly intricate, nuanced, and diverse. In order for organisations to challenge the bias and their approach, which can be built on an echo chamber, representation is key. It's impossible to speak to a community unless you're actively trying to represent that community internally with the team that you have and externally with the content that you put out. It isn't just about the fact that diverse teams are more successful – it's deeper than that. The only way that we can create a level playing field is actively focussing on increasing representation.

How do you ensure that representation isn’t simply tokenistic, and that people continue to be supported once in these organisations?

I think that's where this word equity comes in. Equality is where everyone gets access to the same thing. Equity is where we treat people as individuals and recognise that certain people need further accommodations, a platform, or equitable access to senior leadership roles. If I were to join a global organisation where I'm an underrepresented employee, and there were no diverse individuals in the senior teams, my first thought might be is senior leadership possible for me? It's very hard to be what you can't see. 

It starts there, in terms of providing the support and reminding that person and giving them the pathways to succeed in the workplace. Beyond that, organisations need to analyse whether their policies and procedures are fundamentally biassed – do they aim to amplify a single community, or a narrow definition of who should succeed in the workplace? – and we need to challenge that. The only way to challenge that is to look at things through an equitable lens and really think about how we can create processes that work for everyone.

Do you find that organisations are open to that challenge?

Certainly the partners that we work with, yes. So I'd say that the organisations that we work with typically are open to being challenged and uncomfortable. Not everyone is. But generally, when we've completed an audit, uncovered some unsettling or uncomfortable truths, it’s been met with a generosity of spirit and challenge of egos. It can be difficult, but I think it's necessary. It's a privilege not not to be an ally, and I think it's very easy to forget that sometimes.

Is it difficult to diversify certain industries in the face of wider systemic discrimination?

There's a strong connection where some organisations understand that we're up against the backdrop of systemic discrimination – racism, misogyny, transphobia, anti-semitism, the list goes on. It’s a mammoth task for us to dismantle those systemic barriers and the stereotypes associated with them. It shouldn't take a peak in social justice movements for companies to turn around and say, ‘Okay, now we're going to do something.’ Of course, we saw that at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Prior to that, hundreds of organisations and individuals that focused on activism weren't really heard. Fast forward from that point, we probably haven't seen enough of that commitment carry over. So we need to probably just take a pause, employ some slow thinking and really consider what society are we creating? Are we considering how these systemic barriers and issues play a part, not just in society, but in the workplace as well? And then we're thinking about what responsibility do organisations have to help level the playing field?

What do you see as particularly lacking in employers’ DE&I initiatives?

I think one of the biggest gaps is how we capture and share data. Global organisations, whether they're employing 50,000, or 10,000, or 1000 people, they've got to consider the importance of tracking data with an equitable lens – that could be anything from representation in the business to experiences of microaggressions, to who's getting promoted, etc. Then the next stage of that is transparency and the sharing of that data across industry lines. That is one of the ways that we could create a more consistent level of accountability. To me that is the future. We're still a way away from getting there, but that is certainly my advocacy when I work with organisations. Especially if you're based in multiple territories, you've got to consider how you’re showing up to the world, and how you're seeing the people that you work with. And that is a big way to indicate that.