Marsha Bonner is vice president of people and culture at the Urban Resource Institute, a New York City-based nonprofit helping domestic-violence survivors and homeless families, and one of Crain’s Notable LGBTQ Leaders of 2021.
She oversees a rigorous recruitment process as well as helps shape the nonprofit’s vision and culture. Standing against discriminatory ideas and stereotypes “through a message of love” stems from personal experience, she told Insider.
“I have been in recovery from active drug and alcohol addiction for over 30 years,” she said. “As a result of that, I know what it is to have nothing. I was homeless, I was a victim of domestic violence, I lived on the streets.”
- Marsha Bonner is VP of people and culture at NY-based nonprofit Urban Resource Institute.
- As a 20-year HR veteran, she says diversity and inclusion need to be looked at separately.
- Leaders and organizations should value the journey of creating a more welcoming culture.
- This article is part of a series called “Secrets of Success,” which examines specific leadership tips from prominent business leaders.
The turning point in her life was entering a treatment facility to get help — and she said that “never, ever forgetting where I’ve come from” is the secret to her success.
Her over 20-year career in HR has included stints at the New York Times, where she spearheaded efforts to expand the diverse talent pipeline and boost minority outreach efforts, and The New Jersey Performing Arts Center, where she launched mandatory training on sexual harassment and unconscious bias.
“My career journey was intentional in merging my leadership skills with my focus on diversity and inclusivity,” she said.
Bonner believes that creating a successful company culture comes down to helping people feel welcome in their environment, starting with an employer who understands who they are. Here’s what that looks like.
Look at diversity and inclusion differently
A good starting point for organizations is separating out the concepts of diversity and inclusion.
“Getting me in the door is diversity, but whether I can go to that meeting is inclusivity,” Bonner said. “We have to model behaviors that support what you say. It’s important that we don’t give false narratives.”
Bonner doesn’t like “playing HR diversity-and-inclusion paintball — throwing it out there and seeing what sticks.” She believes that the roots of a good culture lay in talking and understanding.
“People can’t do things unless they accept that there is a problem. Organizations need to understand what they’re ready for,” she said.
Bonner uses a model called compliance to maturity, which assesses where an organization is and takes them to where they ought to be.
“You start by doing specific things for legislative and regulatory compliance, then you move to developing the understanding that a diverse set of people in your organization will help you look at different ways of doing business,” she said.
Creating an inclusive culture is then the “intermediate steps,” such as reviewing policies and the way you hire and promote.
Bonner’s favored tactics to improve inclusion include keeping employee names off resumes, recognizing unconscious bias through the implicit association test, 360 assessments, and focus groups, as well as different forms of equality training. The best way to put it all together is with scorecards that measure inclusion through things such as diversity retention and promotion.
“In the model, you’re at maturity when you’re leading from the front. You’re no longer in compliance mode when everybody understands what needs to be done, and everybody is in lockstep because you’ve done the work,” she said.
Value the journey
Bonner showed what living inclusively looks like after she appeared on hidden-camera show “What Would You Do” in 2013, when she confronted a woman in a barbershop who expressed disapproval over an interracial couple.
In the clip, which has over 7 million views on YouTube, she helps the woman uncover what led her to discriminate and apologize to the other woman. “Sometimes you have to step up so that you don’t fall back,” Bonner said of her actions when the hidden camera was revealed.
It’s this style of leadership that Bonner brings to boardrooms, helping executives genuinely value the journey to becoming an inclusive workplace. She calls it “strengthening the organization from the inside out” — and ensures that organizations such as the Urban Resource Institute look like the communities that it serves.
“At the start of my career, I learned how to listen,” she said. “You have to stay in the humble position. You have to help someone, no matter where they are in their life.”