Viacom’s Marva Smalls Talks About Creating a ‘Culture of Inclusion’

“It’s necessary to start this work at the top,” Smalls tells TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman

marva smalls
Marva Smalls (Photo courtesy of Viacom)

Marva Smalls, who serves as EVP and global head of inclusion strategy at Viacom, has led  an ambitious initiative that recently featured a week of speakers, workshops, master classes and more within the corporation, all about creating a culture of inclusion.

Smalls will be speaking at the Power Women Summit next week in Santa Monica at a roundtable where leaders will be exchanging ideas. I recently sat down with her and got insight on what she’s aiming to achieve.

What was Inclusion Week about?
I felt as if I had a week of one giant master class — every session, every day, was a crescendo of  thought leaders, influencers, who participated in the engagement of our employees.

It’s a program that we first launched in our U.K. office a year ago. There, the government asked corporations to declare Inclusion Week as an opportunity to demonstrate their spirit of inclusion across the UK. We had initiatives in place, but there we programmed a week using internal and external thought leaders as well as entertainment. Here we Viacom we believe in every day inclusion, so it isn’t to suggest we are one week and done.

So in this case we modelled what we began a year ago in the U.K., we had it domestically for a week here, and then internationally.

It involved the whole of Viacom, our board members, Bob Bakish as CEO, our external business partners. There was one panel: “Are white men critical to driving inclusion?” moderated by Deborah Norville, that included Comcast’s (Chief Diversity Officer) David Cohen, as well as Sean Moran, on our sales team here, and Alexis McGill Johnson of the Perception Institute (and interim head of Planned Parenthood).

There were sessions every day. Every day our employees came in with different entertainment – one day a Brazilian drum line. Second day a string quartet of African-American musicians. A trio of musical performers from China. And then the last day was the Gay Men’s chorus.

I felt like a freshman in college navigating the change of classes on a campus, moving from one professor to the other.

This was a pretty big investment, wasn’t it? Of time, of people?

It’s necessary to start this work at the top, and that included Bob Bakish.

It was for us to create moments of authentic conversations with our employees. To have those “aha” moments, to understand and begin to deal with disruption to your own biases that you may not even think about.

There was a session with the Fluid Project that dealt with new nomenclature around non-binary, gender fluidity, the nonpejorative use of “queer.” We had sessions around privilege. We also had a VR experience — started through the lens of a black male at 4 years old through applying for a job. He plays with 3 white kids, they ignore him — what does that feel like?

How does this intersect with your participation in the Power Women Summit?

One of the things we want to do is we want to help people get more comfortable being uncomfortable in having these types of conversations, with the assumption of good intent.

We aren’t interested in reinventing the wheel. The convening of this panel and roundtable allows all of us who are thought leaders, drivers in this space to both learn from each other.

We aren’t interested in best practices alone, we’re looking for next practices. Through this conversation, I can pick up some great program that another panelist has. And we can have authentic conversations where we’re not sure if we’re getting it right. What approaches we can take and elevate the conversation and be smarter.

It takes everyone in the company to create a culture of inclusion.

About the Summit

The Power Women Summit brings together 1,500 of the most influential women from the entertainment, media and technology industries, making it the largest gathering of its kind. With the theme of “Toward 50/50,” the event highlights women of achievement, encourages discussion on topics of impact and creates a lasting community of powerful women. The summit will provide two days of education, mentorship, workshops and networking.

Additional speakers for the event include Eva Longoria, Chrissy Metz, Nicole Richie, Gigi Gorgeous,Rachel Zoe, Gina Torres, Stephanie Beatriz, Diane Guerrero and Jenna Dewan.

Sponsors include LinkedIn, Loeb & Loeb LLP, Warner Media, Accenture, Viacom, Showtime, Lionsgate, Starz, AMC Networks, Annenberg Foundation, WME, Twitter, Lifetime, NBCUniversal, Mettel, Greenberg Glusker, Condé Nast, Paradigm, Sony, Comcast Ventures, Fremantle, Red Arrow Studios, First Entertainment Credit Union, Motion Picture Editors Guild, #SeeHer and Imagine.

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