Patrice Tanaka, Founder & Chief Joy Officer of Joyful Planet LLC, interviews people who are actively living their purpose and contributing to a more joyful planet. This interview spotlights Judith Harrison, Senior Vice President, Staffing and Diversity & Inclusion at Weber Shandwick.
PT: Judith, I know you to be a very purpose-driven individual. That’s what I admire and adore about you. Can you share your life’s purpose with us? I define a life’s purpose as one that leverages your greatest talent and passion in service of people and planet.
Thanks so much, Patrice. Opening doors and driving the advancement of women and people of color is my life’s purpose. It’s what I was born to do.
PT: How, when and why did you set out to discover your life’s purpose? Was there a triggering incident?
JH: I didn’t set out to find it; my purpose pretty much found me. It was there all along, but I was too busy or perhaps just not wise enough to see it.
There wasn’t a triggering incident. Rather, it was the sum of my life experiences and deeply held beliefs that led me here. I think of the movie, Slumdog Millionaire, in which the main character goes through a series of seemingly disparate and sometimes terrible experiences, only to have them come together in the end to provide him with the right answers for India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Fortunately, my life hasn’t been nearly as dramatic, but there were enough formative experiences to lead me to this place.
I grew up in New York, watching the civil rights movement in the south play out on TV. Churches were bombed, people trying to exercise their right to vote were attacked with fire hoses and the National Guard had to be called in to protect children who were simply trying to get an education. I was well aware that had I been born elsewhere, one of those terrified children shown walking to school could have been me. I came of age in the 70s, when Gloria Steinem created Ms. Magazine, giving voice to a problem I had never articulated, but felt to my core.
I’ve had challenging experiences in my career, including working at a multinational firm where the HR manager had a Confederate flag the size of Montana on her wall. And after years of watching society move way too slowly, if not backward, on true equality for women and people of color, and watching our industry move way too slowly on becoming as diverse as the stakeholders we serve, my purpose became crystal clear: I had to do everything in my power to drive the change I wanted to see.
PT: And once you determined your purpose did you find yourself begin to actively live it? How did you begin? What did you do?
JH: I started to live it in some ways before I realized what it was. I had always supported organizations aligned with my beliefs and found myself becoming more active in them shortly before I identified my purpose. I joined the board of New York Women in Communications, whose mission is to empower women in all communications disciplines at all stages of their careers to reach their full potential. I had always advocated and worked to hire people of color and women, especially at the executive level. I started cataloging diversity and inclusion best practices and speaking with D&I leaders from companies that were ahead of mine on the diversity journey, then started writing long memos to my manager about what we should be doing to create a more diverse and inclusive environment. And almost before I knew it, I was in a new role that was created for me to do the things I had been writing and speaking about so passionately.
PT: How do you live this purpose in your personal and professional life today?
JH: My purpose is the center of my personal and professional life. To increase diversity across the PR industry, I conceptualized the Diversity Distinction in PR Awards, presented it to the PR Council and worked with them to develop the program, which is heading into its sixth year. As Weber Shandwick’s diversity and inclusion leader, I drive programs designed to build a diverse workforce that leverages different backgrounds to bring the innovative thinking and creativity clients expect, and maintain an inspiring, high-performance workplace that fosters collaboration and attracts the best minds in the business. I recently ended my term as president of New York Women in Communications Foundation, which provides scholarships, internships and mentoring to young women entering the communications business, and I remain an active executive committee member of the organization. I’m vice president of PRSA Foundation, which is dedicated to increasing diversity in the PR industry. Last year I brought the United Negro College Fund together with the PR industry under the auspices of the Foundation to create the PRIME (Public Relations Internship, Mentoring and Education) Program, which was piloted in Atlanta last summer with 15 sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and other Fortune 500 companies, as well as leading PR agencies. We will expand the program in 2016 and will replicate it with an organization focusing on Hispanic students. I’m on the advisory board of the Ron Brown Scholar Program, which provides scholarships, mentoring and leadership opportunities for African American students of outstanding promise.
I mentor and speak to young women and people of color about embracing the opportunities and preparing for the challenges that may lie ahead. Most recently, I addressed Georgetown University Women of Color, which seeks to support and encourage the leadership of women.
I’m also working to change perceptions and increase opportunities for other underrepresented groups. I recently joined the Clinton Global Initiative Disability working Group, which is exploring and codifying best practices for bringing people with disabilities into the workplace, with a special emphasis on the entertainment and media-related industries.
PT: What is the result of knowing and actively living your life’s purpose?
JH: Living my purpose has enabled me to activate agency and industry-wide diversity and inclusion efforts. It has given me the great joy of helping people who otherwise might not have had the opportunities they’ve been offered or the tools to pursue their dreams. It has opened doors for me in completely unexpected ways. Once I identified and stood in my truth, everything changed: my job, the organizations and people I had access to and my ability to influence. Opportunities to impact the lives of populations still fighting for their place at the table came serendipitously.
PT: What is your biggest dream and vision for the life purpose you have chosen?
JH: That someday my purpose will be obsolete. I have woven the threads of my most deeply held beliefs and my professional commitments into a fabric that gets stronger every day. I hope it will continue to level the playing field long after I’m gone.
PT: What do you think you would be doing now if you hadn’t discovered and then actively begun to live your purpose?
This is a tough question because I’m so invested in what I do now, I can’t imagine being this engaged doing anything else. I was an HR and recruiting leader for many years before I began to live my purpose, so it’s likely that I would be doing something along those lines. But, as we know, life is full of surprises.
PT: How important is it for people to discover their life purpose?
JH: It makes all the difference in the world. Because I know what my purpose is, I am inspired and driven every day to make sure my actions serve to further it. Knowing one’s purpose is critical in so many ways. It taps into a person’s strengths, aligns their work with their values and makes them part of something much bigger than themselves. It increases joy, deepens connections with others and gives them the satisfaction of doing their part, no matter how small, to change the world.