An EMBA Student-Led Series Makes Space for Difficult Conversations
Through his experiences as an immigrant, an Afghanistan-deployed U.S. military veteran and now a U.S. diplomat, current student Lenton Davies (EMBA 2022) knows that difficult but worthwhile conversations with colleagues can promote a greater understanding of diversity, inclusion and belonging (DIB). Here, Davies shares what brought him to Kellogg and how his new discussion series invites fellow students in the Executive MBA Program to ask the tough questions.
What was your professional journey leading up to Kellogg?
I was born and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa, where I would walk by the U.S. embassy on my way to school. When I would tell my friends I wanted to be a U.S. diplomat, they would laugh. But fast forward, I migrated to the United States during my last year of high school, joined the U.S. military before graduating high school and became a U.S. diplomat 10 years later. As a U.S. diplomat and a member of the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service, for the past 10 years, I have lived and worked in five continents. I am currently assigned to our embassy in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, where I serve as the Management Officer, leading our management and operations platforms, programs, and teams.
The military gave me a foundation, as did my experiences as a consultant with Deloitte and serving overseas as a diplomat. As I was looking at transitioning into corporate America, I chose Kellogg because I wanted to have that business back-end.
At Kellogg, you’re helping to advance efforts that promote DIB. How did you develop an interest in that space?
I’ve been in situations where I didn’t feel that I belonged, and where I struggled to be part of the culture. And I’ve been in environments where people would talk about diversity and belonging, but not do much about it.
I’m Black, I’m African, I’m an immigrant, and I speak with an accent. And so, I want to take an active role and let people understand what it means to embrace folks. I want to learn, too — everyone has biases that we don’t recognize. I want to be able to understand those biases and take an active step in combating them.
Although I had moved around the world a lot with my family, we rarely got into conversations about DIB. My interest increased about two or three years ago, when my older son talked about going to his school, which was predominantly white, and not feeling like he’s a part of it. And then George Floyd happened. As a diplomat, I represent the U.S. overseas, so I took that as an opportunity to say, “Well, we need to have conversations about this, about where to learn.” When I got to Kellogg, I put words and actions together and started this Lunch and Learn discussion series.
Tell me more about the Lunch and Learn series you started for your EMBA classmates at Kellogg. How did it start, and what do you hope to continue to develop for your fellow students?
In my cohort, we had been talking about improving our EQ, emotional intelligence, and AQ, or adversity intelligence. I said that I wanted us, as hiring managers, as leaders, to learn from each other, and so I challenged us to have these open-minded discussions. I reached out to our cohort ambassadors and other students to ask what they thought about the idea, and they appreciated that I took the initiative to speak up and be bold about it. We ended up putting together a panel discussion with a diverse group of fellow students. Panelists included Brendan Dunne, Freedom McAddo, Asheesh Biyala, Candice Quarles, Danielle Neveles and Jacob Pat.
We had a simple format: share your story about a time where something happened to you that was challenging, in terms of diversity, equity and belonging. And then all of us attending were there to listen, ask questions and learn how we can prevent that from happening. I was amazed at the questions they asked and the depths of the conversations we had. Afterward, they said they even wanted more time to keep talking.
I’m looking forward to having more sessions focusing on my LGBTQIA+ colleagues, on women in leadership, and on immigrants.
What do you hope to achieve and influence among your colleagues while you’re at Kellogg?
I want to scale this. The end goal is to create an environment where people can share their stories, and I’m hoping that one day this series can be built into the schedule for all of the cohorts to take part in.
Kellogg does a great job at bringing people together and creating a family environment – and that’s the safest place to talk about these things. We shouldn’t shy away from those conversations because you can learn from them and become a better leader down the line.
I think about my conversations with my colleagues — they felt comfortable enough to ask difficult questions and we had some deep conversations going. I look forward to continuing to open the door to those trusted conversations.