The Barber Shop: Inclusion & Diversity Through Personal Narratives

DEIDiversity & CultureBoard and CEO AdvisoryHuman Resources OfficersDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
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Evan C. Sharp
February 01, 2019
3 min read
DEIDiversity & CultureBoard and CEO AdvisoryHuman Resources OfficersDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
Diverse leaders should create events, forums and other spaces where people can be comfortable and celebrate what makes each of us unique.


As an executive recruiter and leadership advisor, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about…well…leadership! As a black individual, I particularly think about black leadership and the challenges black leaders face in corporate America. You can correctly presume that every year during Black History Month (February in the U.S.) my mind stirs at the intersection of leadership and the rich contributions black people have given to culture globally. Last year, I discussed how to improve diversity and inclusion in organizations, but this year I'd like to discuss a bastion of black culture and leadership: The Barber Shop.

Barber shops and hair salons are widely known to be community hubs in Black American culture. They're places where people gather not only for personal grooming, but to talk about events of the time (e.g. politics, business, sports, and of course, neighborhood gossip.) "The shop" offers a respite from daily stresses and a comfortable place to laugh, learn, and celebrate. It has also been a vehicle for entrepreneurship in black communities – a phenomenon discussed by Vassar College history professor Quincy Mills in his book, "Cutting Along the Color Line." In the 19th century, most black-owned barber shops served wealthy white clients. However, emancipated blacks in the 1880s and 1890s began to open shops that served their own communities, gaining a way to earn money and control their time.

This was something my grandparents understood. In 1958, William "Bill" and Edith Sharp opened a combo barber shop / hair salon in Des Moines, Iowa. The photo shown here is from The Iowa Bystander, a black newspaper that highlighted them as entrepreneurs in the community. Their leadership and ambition created a place where businesspeople, clergy, educators, and working class could congregate. Men, women and children came to get their hair done so they could look fresh for the week ahead. Sharp's Barber & Beauty provided me the opportunity to grow up in an "everyman/woman" kind of environment, engaging regulars and newcomers as I matured into a young man. My grandparents owned and operated that shop for 50+ years. My mother did hair in that salon. My father still cuts part-time today, 61 years after the shop opened.

You may ask, "How does this tie back to leadership in large organizations? And how can I drive change in my company?" You see, the barber shop is uniquely interwoven in my personal narrative. It shaped the man I am today. It taught me about respect for others, humility, hard work, business ownership, and the importance of family – all things I carry with me every day when I serve clients, collaborate with colleagues, and develop and mentor youth. Creating spaces where people can share their stories and be their authentic selves without checking parts of their identity at the door is integral to increasing inclusion. And diverse stories enrich the cultural fabric of the organization.

Russell Reynolds Associates' research shows that black leaders believe culture and accountability are the #1 barriers to their organization's D&I strategy. Of the black leaders we surveyed, forty seven percent believe that organizational culture is resistant to change and approximately fifty percent believe that diverse talent has left their organization due to lack of inclusion or engagement (in comparison, only one-third of white leaders believe the same). One cannot be engaged or included if one cannot fully be him or herself. Disengagement leads to lack of retention, and we all know how the story goes.

You don't have to be an "executive" to exhibit leadership in these ways. Small, entrepreneurial initiatives can lead to big change within your organization in much the same way a two-chair barber shop can bring a community of people together. All it takes is two people and a couple chairs – you don't even need the clippers.

So, create events, forums, or spaces where people can truly be themselves. Celebrate what makes us different as well as the things we have in common. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable or have empathy as you build relationships with peers, superiors, or direct reports. Seek ideas from people who have different experiences than you.

What personal narratives do you and/or your colleagues bring into the organization? Let's share.