(L–R) Inclusion Experience Project’s Sara Jones, James Jackson III, Shawn Newell and Sui Lang L. Panoke provide tools for local businesses and their leaders to champion diversity.

Inclusion Experience Project: Why Utah leaders need to value vulnerabilty

Activism, Outreach and Education

Utah is blossoming into a multicultural and economically thriving hub. Its homogenous, conservative reputation will stick, however, until business professionals are willing to dig deep.

One in five Utahns identify as a minority, yet many corporations aren’t having crucial conversations about diversity in the workplace. Hence, observing one year ago that there was continued need for effective diversity-and-leadership training in Utah, Co-Founder Sara Jones, Co-Founder Shawn Newell, Co-Founder Sui Lang Panoke and Co-Founder James Jackson, III came together to create Inclusion Experience Project (IXP).

IXP’s mission is to create inclusive cultures in the workplace by facilitating a safe learning environment centered around trust, growth and connection. Their training experiences are highly interactive and applicable to a broad array of industries, from corporate finance to nonprofits. IXP offers thoughtful, tailored curriculums for teams, individuals and corporations. IXP Public is a workshop-style training open to the community, while IXP Corporate occurs onsite and is adapted for the unique needs of the team at hand. The team believes that they are able to cultivate rich, meaningful conversations—no matter who’s in the crowd—by sharing their personal stories and perspectives.

“One in five Utahns identify as a minority, yet many corporations aren’t having crucial conversations about diversity in the workplace.”

Newell is the Vice President of not only Business Development at Industry Supply Company but also the Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP—and heads the Utah Multicultural Civic Council, to boot. He has borne witness to the benefits of diversity and inclusion in both private and nonprofit contexts. He says, “Diversity and inclusion builds greater cultures and environments, allowing businesses and companies to flourish in an ever-changing economy.”

What’s more,  the need to educate about the benefits and nuances of diverse and inclusive workplace environments has long needed to be made visible and available for Utah. “The minority is the majority in not only West Valley City but also in the larger school districts, Salt Lake and Granite. Utah is already diverse,” says Jackson, III, who’s the Founder of Utah’s Black Chamber of Commerce and J3 Motivation. “Since diversity impacts the economy, it’s important for the Utah business community to be proactive in understanding diversity so we can retain the future village we are raising.”

IXP's James Jackson III, Shawn Newell, Sara Jones and Sui Lang L.
Photo: John Barkiple

The four IXP leaders comprise a team of peers that make for coequal leadership in the program. Their backgrounds provide a firm foundation of intersectionally diverse people and corresponding experiences to set up IXP programming for success.

“I know what an inclusive and an exclusive culture feels like. I have been the minority and the majority, the insider and the outsider, the leader and the learner,” Panoke says. Coming from Utah and having lived “in Washington, D.C., for 13 years working with multicultural leaders around the world to diversify the political arena and democratize the media landscape,” she has a multifaceted perspective on how IXP can nourish our state.

“People know that, when they come to us, this is not ‘you will be lectured to’; this is ‘we are all on this learning journey. Be a part of it.’”

“I see great opportunity in Utah because of our value system,” says Panoke who is the Founder of Rethink International. “Utah has always valued family, community and a strong economy—and it has always been the values of any given society that determines how inclusive its culture will be.”

Jones explains that building a diverse team with a wealth of lived experience was key in the creation of IXP. “Just saying that we are a group of POC is far too simple—we’re diverse in gender, religion, industries, thought, faith, background and education,” she says. With collective areas of expertise ranging from higher education to politics to sports, the leaders of IXP have an unmatched breadth of life experience and wisdom to share. “There’s a lot of power when people are able to come together and build that collaborative momentum,” says Jones.

Jones is a community leader with decades of experience in disciplines such as law, tech and entrepreneurship, and is the CEO and founder of InclusionPro and cofounder of the Women Tech Council. She contends that the time is now for business leaders to be intentional about building inclusive environments in order to change the narrative about our state. “Utah leaders can be working now to learn inclusive leadership skills so that companies benefit from strong and diverse teams.”

The IXP curriculum is built around concepts such as authentic conversations in the workplace, building resilience in leadership, understanding unconscious bias and exploring privilege in leadership. Trainers focus on breaking down barriers in mindsets and allowing relationships to form organically through breakout groups and guided conversations. The experience emphasizes tools that could be used in any given workplace. A participant should be able to leave thinking, “I can go and do this tomorrow.”

“There’s a lot of power when people are able to come together and build that collaborative momentum.”

IXP doesn’t take an academic approach, but entrenches the learning in experience. “People know that, when they come to us, this is not ‘you will be lectured to’; this is ‘we are all on this learning journey. Be a part of it,’” says Jones. Participants are encouraged to leave their ego at the door and allow themselves to be challenged. Jackson III notes that many people may enter the space feeling some fear or anxiety around having hard conversations about diversity. He says, “It’s OK to say the wrong thing. We’re not here to judge—we’re here to educate.”

Jones notes that IXP groups tend to be 70% white people and 30% minorities. Though this demographic breakdown may come as a surprise to some, the trainers welcome this trend and hope that more white executives begin to see the value in diversity inclusion. “Leaders develop and create changes,” Jackson III says. “Culture starts from the top.”

One challenge that IXP faces is ensuring that those in positions of power and influence at corporations attend and embrace the experience alongside their team. As Newell says, “We need the CEOs and presidents that drive policy in their organizations to be present. That’s what drives change.” The IXP team has sold out several of their trainings, and they believe they can continue to move the needle as word spreads about this necessity.

“It’s OK to say the wrong thing. We’re not here to judge—we’re here to educate.”

IXP is optimistic and energized about the significant impact of their experiences, which they bring to life with qualitative stories from participants. All of the trainers relate that they’ve seen incredible transformations happen in front of their eyes when leading an experience. Panoke says, “It’s how you feel leaving a training—whether that’s inspired, empowered or motivated.” Newell adds that although understanding others takes investment, “equity is forever,” he says.

Another compelling aspect of IXP’s success is the trainers’ commitment to living out the core values of their mission. Jones describes the importance of authenticity within their leadership team, saying, “It’s been one of the most enriching professional experiences to see a group practice our values themselves. We all ‘walk the walk,’ and that is reflected in the ways the trainings are received.”

As Utah continues to boom, Inclusion Experience Project will carry on responding to the need for comprehensive, compassionate training in the community. They hope that by building bridges in the community and enhancing opportunities for learning, they can help ensure a prosperous future for Utah. To learn more or to sign up for an upcoming experience, go to inclusionxproject.com.

Editor’s note: This article previously neglected to represent fully the coequal influence of each Inclusion Experience Project Co-Founder. SLUG took the story down from SLUGMag.com on Friday, Feb. 7, to adjust and add to this online version. It was republished on SLUGMag.com with this note on Tuesday, Feb. 11, with suggestions from the IXP team.