The Phluidity of Individuality with Rob Smith, CEO & Founder, The Phluid Project

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This is a podcast episode titled, The Phluidity of Individuality with Rob Smith, CEO & Founder, The Phluid Project. The summary for this episode is: <p>Subscribe to Wunderkind's YouTube channel:</p><p><br></p><p>Follow Wunderkind:</p><p>LinkedIn:</p><p>Instagram:</p><p>Facebook:</p><p>Twitter:</p><p><br></p><p>More from Wunderkind:</p><p><br></p><p>Wunderkind is a performance marketing channel that delivers one-to-one messages across email and text at an unmatched scale.</p>
03:54 MIN
What Is the Phluid Project and What Are You Looking to Achieve?
04:08 MIN
With Younger Generations Leading the Way With Gender Neural Clothing What Should This Signal to Brands Regarding Their Marketing and Product Offerings?
03:04 MIN
How Should Brands Look to Embrace Authenticity in a World That Is Changing and Evolving?
01:41 MIN
How Can Brands Authentically and Inclusively Address Concerns?
06:03 MIN
How Does the Phluid Project Engage With Their Customers Effectively?
04:27 MIN
What's Your Perspective on Macro and Micro Influencers?
02:09 MIN
The Importance of Having the Right People at the Table
02:51 MIN
Which Brands Are You Focused on That Will Make the Most of the Next Few Years?
08:30 MIN

Rob Smith: I say this, inaudible because I probably shouldn't have that one last Old Fashioned last night. It's always the one last Old Fashioned.

Vern Tremble: You're like, " It'll be fine."

Rob Smith: They're so small. There's no booze in this glass.

Vern Tremble: It's mostly ice. Welcome to another episode of Individuality Unleashed, where we talk all things marketing, performance, brand, and all things about unleashing your individuality. My name is Vern Tremble, Senior Director of Content and Communications here at Wunderkind. I am joined today by activist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, all around amazing man, Rob Smith. Rob, did I miss anything?

Rob Smith: You missed a lot.

Vern Tremble: Tell me the rest.

Rob Smith: But I'm not going to into that right now.

Vern Tremble: You must.

Rob Smith: Well, I mean, God, I'm a great husband. I'm a yogi. I'm a traveler. I'm an avid drinker. Let's see what else. I try to just be a good human.

Vern Tremble: I love that.

Rob Smith: That's basically every day I wake up and I say, " How can I make a difference in the world?"

Vern Tremble: I love that.

Rob Smith: I go to bed with gratitude every night, and I fall asleep thinking about how grateful I am in my life to have everything I have.

Vern Tremble: That's the mindset that I wish many more people would adopt. I love that you're bringing that energy to the studio today. I'm so excited to have you here.

Rob Smith: Vern, every time I'm with you, we have that energy.

Vern Tremble: Yes, we do.

Rob Smith: Yeah, it bounces off each other.

Vern Tremble: Yes, we do. We're two tall, because I'm six/ seven... Rob, how tall are you?

Rob Smith: I'm six/ nine. No, I was kidding. I just want to be taller than you. I am six/ four. Yeah, six/ six in heels.

Vern Tremble: We have a lot of tall energies. I would be seven/ one in heels.

Rob Smith: Big boy energy.

Vern Tremble: Exactly right. Rob, I'm so excited to chat with you today. There's so many interesting topics that we're going to cover today. Before we jump into all of these interesting insights, I first want you to introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about your career. Set the stage for the folks so they know that you're coming with some power.

Rob Smith: Sure, sure, sure. Professionally, I started my career off 35 years ago in corporate America. I worked for Federated Department Stores. People might remember now it's Macy's. I spent about 22 years at Macy's. Then I worked my way up through leadership there. I went on to work for Victoria's Secret Direct for a couple of years, and then Levi's and Nike, and then I professionally decided to take a break and take a trip around the world, go on a bit of a walk- about, and backpacking through the world. I went through India, Nepal, and Tibet and learned about Eastern religion, Eastern philosophy. Then I went to Central America and did some Indigenous ceremonies. On that journey, the Phluid Project was born in the Amazon during a spiritual journey. I wrote down I remember going in with an intention, and I wrote down the next day my intention was what I do with my life. I wrote down on April 14, 2017" Consider opening a gender- free non- binary shopping environment." I wrote" Phluid" in quotation marks. And I opened the store 10 months later.

Vern Tremble: I love that. A couple of things there. Intentionality is very important. If anyone is trying to set a goal and achieve it, write it down.

Rob Smith: That's right. That's right.

Vern Tremble: That's exactly what you did and you were able to execute because you set a very clear and precise goal of exactly what it is that you wanted.

Rob Smith: When you go inaudible... When you have an intention, what you manifest then is what is meant to be. I believe in Dharma. I believe that when you get away from all the clutter and all the noise, and you think about what really brings you joy, and sit with that, it comes to you. To me, this is the life that I want to live, a life of Dharma. Dharma is when you're aligned with your gift and your purpose, and that's what you do to share with the world and maybe make some money at the same time doing it.

Vern Tremble: I love that. So you've aligned with your gift and your purpose, you're making money. Around the Phluid Project, I know you just mentioned that, could you describe what the Phluid Project is, and the mission, and what you're looking to achieve?

Rob Smith: Sure. Sure. The mission statement itself is very interesting. It's to challenge boundaries with humanity. We question everything and say the way it is and the way it was isn't necessarily the way it should be, and are there better ways to be? Is there a better way to serve humanity? It's the intersection of, I call it" Conscious Capitalism" where we can still make money but do it with consciousness and inclusion. Phluid itself, the word says a lot. It's the space between two binary spaces. The fluidity, almost water in a river between two sides flowing easily between the two. There's many binary spaces that we live, and actually the world is all created on constructs that are binary constructs.

Vern Tremble: Sure.

Rob Smith: I think this space in between is super interesting. Sometimes that's where we find our authentic selves. The P- H in front Phluid is the P-H is for balance, this idea that they would find a balance in us and a harmony.

Vern Tremble: Interesting.

Rob Smith: The Phluid Project is a gender- free fashion brand with apparel, accessories, scents, more categories launching next year. Started off as the world's first gender- free store, a place where folks could shop without being in gendered spaces to dress yourself authentically. It was also a community space, a space where folks of all identities and all ages, all races, all ethnicities, all faiths could come in to be their authentic selves. We had about 250 events in two years when the store was opened. It was panel discussions, and fashion shows, and poetry reading. I learned a lot in that space. Phluid door closed, but that one door closed, then 10,000 doors opened. So, Phluid is in 10, 000 doors right now across the country and launching globally, which is really exciting.

Vern Tremble: Congratulations.

Rob Smith: Thank you. It's wild. Get Phluid, one of our social codes at Phluid is we're all students, we're all teachers. I took that to heart and sat there and listened and learned to young people, especially in the Gen Z space. Then I started to become a teacher and go into corporate spaces and teach, and kind of take this information and share it. So then, we launched Get Phluid, gender expansive training, and that's helping corporations prepare for a gender expansive and gender expressive workforce and customer base. Then launched the Phluid Foundation two years ago, which is raising money for critical funds for grassroots organizations across the country. Most people give to the Trevor Project or HRC, these big companies. But I created a national organization that gives to grassroots local organizations, specifically focusing on the most marginalized in the queer community, trans women of color, and homeless queer youth.

Vern Tremble: That's very important. Very, very important. You know what's phenomenal about what you've established is you talked just earlier about Dharma and intentionality. A lot of investors are afraid to take a bet on you and your vision. If my research serves me correctly, you took a big bet on yourself.

Rob Smith: I took a big bet on myself. I think if I look at the investment, I had a few angel investors who I am deeply grateful for, deeply grateful for, and a small crowdfunding. Ultimately, 97% of the investment was my own personal money.

Vern Tremble: That's major.

Rob Smith: It's major. I am almost out of debt. Still not done yet. Still working there. But it looks like by the end of this year I'll be in a much better personal physical position. It's been five crazy- ass years, I can tell you that.

Vern Tremble: Wow. Wow.

Rob Smith: Throw a little COVID on top of it, having a store, it's been a wild ride. I would do it all over again. That's the interesting part, is I would do it all over again. It's nothing at all what I planned, but everything that it's supposed to be.

Vern Tremble: That's phenomenal, Rob. I want to dive in deeper around your mission and what you're looking to achieve. You spoke very adamantly and eloquently about the communities that you hope to serve and that you are serving. I have a few stats here that I wanted to run by you and get your position on as we talk more about your legacy and the positive change that you're effecting right now. Research shows that 55% of Gen Zs globally have purchased fashion outside of their gender identity, and around 70% of consumers say that they are interested in buying gender- fluid fashion in the future. With younger generations leading the way, what implications does this have for society? What should this signal to brands regarding their approach to marketing and their product offerings?

Rob Smith: That's a lot rolled in there.

Vern Tremble: It's a lot.

Rob Smith: What you've signaled is there are two different things to separate. There is gender identity and gender expression. I think the can co- exist, or they can be separate. What we're seeing now, especially in the runways, we're seeing it in red carpets, is that men are dressing a bit more feminine and women are dressing more masculine. We've seen that for a while. I think that the big shift is men embracing the femininity, this idea of jewelry and pearl necklaces. I'm thinking about Harry Styles and Timothee Chalamet. It's starting to become mainstream. Now, not everyone's going to walk away from cargo shorts and Polo shirts. I totally get that. That's a mainstay. What I love about this is this is creating more fashion in the men's space. The women's space has already been a place of fashion. But I love seeing the men's movement being embracing a bit more feminine. It's actually always happened. If you know anything about the 70s, like how the hippie look was very universal.

Vern Tremble: That's so true. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rob Smith: And the 80s, everybody was wearing Polo shirts with their colors turned up. It was very-

Vern Tremble: I remember the shoulder pads.

Rob Smith: The should pads, yeah, yeah.

Vern Tremble: inaudible era.

Rob Smith: There's always been this bit of androgyny, but it's coming into a new way. It's really, if you go way up, men presenting feminine has been the opposite of what... For thousands of years we have wanted as men are masculine, and men are presented as men, and women present as women. A sign of femininity is a sign of weakness. That's how it's been portrayed. Now I think we're at a place where we see femininity as a place of power and strength, and leaning into that beauty of the feminine side. There's that whole dynamic of male/ female, not necessarily about genitalia or your biological way you are, but about your spirit and your essence. I think about femininity is, compassion, empathy, this really kind of creativity, and masculinity is other aspects. I love the fact of celebrating the feminine.

Vern Tremble: With the shift in the zeitgeist, in the shift in just the way that people are choosing to present themselves, how should, with our audience listening, how should brands be thinking about embracing in an authentic way how the world is changing and evolving?

Rob Smith: The thing that I always say is more business. That always gets people's attention. This is creating more business. I think about things like beauty brands. How do you bring into a social media or a campaign people who present as male wearing makeup or nail polish, and jewelry? How do we find spaces in retail, which is very binary, very male/ female whether it's online or in stores, spaces where there's a gender- inclusive space? It's really good for business. It's good for... Even small little details. I recommend to stores if they move with this journey, just take the word" women's" off of dresses, and make it" dresses". Take" men's" off of suits, and make it" suits". You start to invite more people into your space, make it more inviting. It doesn't change the product necessarily, but invites more people into your space. It's really about inviting more people into space to spend more money and make the business more successful.

Vern Tremble: I think about this evolution of virtue signaling that's occurring. I'm sure many people have experienced it, whether it be rainbow- washing during Pride Month, or talking about regenerative materials for only during World Earth Day.

Rob Smith: April, yeah, yeah. April 20th, yep.

Vern Tremble: But you don't talk about it for the rest of the year.

Rob Smith: Right.

Vern Tremble: How can brands authentically and inclusively address these concerns that doesn't come off as patronizing, but ultimately, which also missed the marks, but in a way that's authentic that actually helps to embrace their audience, and their community, and their shoppers, uplifts them, and allows people to feel included as opposed to marked only for a certain time of year?

Rob Smith: I think there's two topics here. There's one identifying the LGBTQ community and speaking to them year- round with an authentic intentional campaign. Then there's gender freedom in clothing, apparel, fashion that has nothing to do with LGBTQ. So, just being liberating in the way you express yourself. I put those into two different buckets.

Vern Tremble: Okay.

Rob Smith: Want to talk about each one of them?

Vern Tremble: Yes, yes. Please.

Rob Smith: All right, let's talk about LGBTQ. Lots of companies jump in in June. The queers have a lot of money. I think we're at$1. 7 trillion in spending a year, so we have a big budget.

Vern Tremble: That's a lot of money.

Rob Smith: And people want our dollars, and I don't blame them. We spend freely. In large part, lots of the queer community are affluent no kids type of people. So, we have lots of money to spend on travel, luxury goods, that type of stuff in general. Listen, there's people suffering. I'm not going to ignore that. In large part, discretionary money. And so, how do you speak to this customer base in a way that's authentic? I think what's really happening right now is people are leaning in and being more inclusive, and we're seeing marketing strategies blow up because we are in the middle of a cultural war right now. I'm not going to be shy about it. I think what happens is we need our partners in corporate America, I'm speaking as a queer man, to be unwavering in support for us, and not to when people come and attack through social media to not to bend. When a company bends, you lose both sides. You've already lost one side for standing up with the queer community, and then you lose a queer community for bending to the radical groups of people. So, be unwavering in your support, and do it year- round. Don't just do it in June. I believe that there are key elements in supporting the queer community, which include beyond parades and parties. We're more than that. Education is key. Philanthropy is key. Giving back to the community. So yeah, that's Phluid is. Phluid really works with the companies to have strong strategies that are solid, that we stand with our corporate partners, and we help them navigate through tough times. We really build with their Employee Resource Groups authentic campaigns and strategies that make the culture really solid.

Vern Tremble: Yeah, so it would be in the best interest of brands when considering adopting or participating in any of these movements or causes for any group, but specifically the LGBT groups or groups that typically have been marginalized and haven't been supported. So, take a stance and be adamant and firm about that stance. You have to be unwavering.

Rob Smith: That's right, be unwavering. Be unwavering in your support. That's what people are seeing is, we're seeing really, really solid supporters for years wavering and bending. I understand. Listen, nobody understands more than me. I also sit on the Board of Directors for Steve Madden. I have sat in the C- Suite at Macy's and other corporations, so I understand the desire to keep the comp sales growth, and also the stock value increasing for shareholders. DEI is a part of that, but it's got to be really a commitment that like I said, can't bend under pressure.

Vern Tremble: Absolutely. Absolutely. No, that's-

Rob Smith: Then the other part is just creating a gender- free space, or inviting people into areas. So many retailers talk about" her, she". Our customer is" she's this, and she's that." I think first of all, you're alienating a large of group of people identified as male. There's a lot of men who are shopping. It used to be that the woman shop for the man, and everything's always based on a heteronormative relationship of male/ female. There are lots of people who are men who shop for themselves. Unless you're a men's retailer, people still talk about" her". They feature" her" in social media, and they also don't have a very... Now we're starting to see more people of color in campaigns, which is great. More body positive people in campaigns, more people with different abilities. I think now is the time to actually push into self- expression beyond the gender binary. That's inviting even more people into your space.

Vern Tremble: I agree. I think that's cool. A little off- topic, I remember when Rihanna, with Fenty, she had some big plus- sized guys in her ads. I was like, "Oh, a big guy like me."

Rob Smith: I see me, yeah.

Vern Tremble: inaudible okay.

Rob Smith: I see me. When you see yourself in a campaign, you're like" Hell yeah." I haven't seen me in a campaign at all. When people see themselves, it's so affirming. I think that it's not about marketing, and I think sometimes the one thing I want to talk about is marketers get ahead of the company sometimes. They jump ahead like" Yeah, let's start doing that." Let's start marketing to... Where traditionally a beauty brand that is primarily Caucasian- skinned people, let's start marketing to people of color. But if you don't have the shades of colors for those inaudible, it's problematic. So, marketers just have to work in tandem with the merchants, with the company strategies, and not get ahead of themselves. Or that creates an uncomfortable situation for everybody.

Vern Tremble: Yeah, that's great. That's great. I wondered, as a CEO and founder, with all of this is mind, and obviously these insights, you've obviously deployed for your organization for Phluid. Other brands could adopt the same process. I want you to share your primary priority for this year in terms of reaching and connecting with your customers. How do you plan to engage with them effectively?

Rob Smith: With my customers, Phluid customers?

Vern Tremble: Yes.

Rob Smith: Customers meaning shoppers and community, and customers meaning corporate partners?

Vern Tremble: Let's do both.

Rob Smith: Okay, how do I work with... Our Phluid family, I call it, our Phluid family is our community. Phluid is a gender- free fashion brand, but it's grounded in community and education. Community is a big part of who we are. For our pride photo shoot, I went down to Virginia Beach and did a photo shoot, getting into community, going to communities and spotlighting people. We are all about spotlighting people who are often overlooked and their voices are not heard. So, we want to amplify voices of our community. We continue to do that through social media and just activations. We're adding lots of activations this month, but I will continue to travel around the country and activate, especially start spending more time in focusing on the South. That's a lot of where our funding is going too from our foundation. So, meeting with the executive directors of these nonprofits, and showing up and saying, " What else can we do to support you?" Sometimes it's a virtual call. Sometimes it's being in person. But I continue to be educated by our Phambassadors by our community. They continue to lead and guide me, and be my counsel. I appreciate them deeply. I am... Because of my team, and whose on my payroll, but also beyond that, the people I lean into help keep us focused on the right path.

Vern Tremble: I love that. Did you call them Phambassadors?

Rob Smith: I call them Phambassadors, yeah.

Vern Tremble: Did you trademark that?

Rob Smith: I did not, but I should.

Vern Tremble: inaudible do that.

Rob Smith: We put a P- H on everything we love. So yeah, they're called the Phambassadors, and they're our Phluid family with the P- H. The Pham. We're called The Pham. Our corporate partners, we're really leaning in and helping them navigate. It's an interesting time where corporations are moving to be more inclusive, ESGs, Employee Resource Groups, corporate social responsibility. Everybody's leaning in, and there's this pushback right now happening. We help companies with, we call it" Gender 101", helping companies navigate gender language, and just the entire cis- normative- heteronormative existence that we live in, and how do you create a space for folks who don't identify as being cis or hetero, and then understanding language. We get deeper into strategy work with impacting culture. I love to do the leadership teams. Sometimes I go in and I do a leadership session, and go into a C- Suite and talk about language and DEI, and I think that everyone thinks that's nice squooshy stuff, warm and fuzzy. Then we talk about business, and I do a SWAT analysis of what their competitors are doing. Then we go into opportunities and challenges of how this could do more business for the company. Like I said, once we get to talking about business, people start to pay attention. You create a space in the middle which doesn't necessarily take away from the other two sides of male/ female, but you create a space in the middle for more business and more people. That's where the sweet spot is. That's where you mentioned those stats. That's the place that people just figure how to do it, because the infrastructure is built so solidly around male/ female, how do you do it beyond marketing?

Vern Tremble: That's so great, because effective positive change, and I firmly believe this, it starts with the top. So, your ability to insert yourself or be a part of these corporate conversations, speaking about D& I initiatives, but also being able to correlate that with the bottom line and margins, is very powerful.

Rob Smith: It's very powerful. That's why I say you get people's attention when you say" We're going to invite more people into your space to do more business." That's ultimately what we want. We want to do the right thing that feels good. It feels good to be part of the DEI journey, but it also feels really good to deliver to shareholders, to investors, everyone, comp growth. More business.

Vern Tremble: Before we started, we actually were talking about influencers as a part of this, and how creating authentic moments in what makes something viral, what does that actually mean? I want you to just briefly talk about your perspective on macro and micro influencers and how they can impact big brands.

Rob Smith: That's right. I think we've seen campaigns where people go for the big numbers, like" That person's got two million followers, let's go after them." What I've seen is that sometimes the micro influencer might be the better person. I'll use an example, like a beer company used a transgender model. I am very encouraging of people to have representation from the entire LGBTQ community and to spotlight someone who identifies as trans, which is an incredible campaign. I think what the challenge was, the person who uses the model didn't look like a beer drinker or a basketball enthusiast.

Vern Tremble: Probably not look, but admittedly.

Rob Smith: But admittedly didn't know what the heck March Madness was. I would have advised, and I don't know if anybody looked at it, but could we have used a trans model still stuck with a campaign with somebody who loves beer and loves basketball, and maybe is a micro influencer, and might even have more engagement because micro influencers, people have more engagement with. So, somebody instead of 1. 8 million followers, maybe they have 500,000 followers and the engagement might have been better and less controversy.

Vern Tremble: I agree. I dare to say that if they had found a model or an actor of that type, they might have experienced less pushback.

Rob Smith: There would have been less pushback, right. Yeah, exactly. It seemed very performative. It seemed like" Let's take this, put this here, and create a campaign." It just seemed like it was like head scratching.

Vern Tremble: Marketers always run into that, like the Flavor of the Month, like" We have to be a part of this," without really understanding or having the people in the room that could help make these decisions. They'll run a campaign and they realize in hindsight, " Oh, we didn't think this all the way through." Can you talk to us a little bit about the importance of having people in the room at the table that can help with making these sorts of decisions?

Rob Smith: That's right. A lot of people ask that question, " How did this get past the Employee Resource Group? How did this get past maybe a board member who might identify..." By the way, there's very few board members who identify as LGBTQ. I think it's. 06% of board members, with 7% of the population. So, largely under- represented in the boardroom. Even in executive teams. Did somebody scratch their head and say, " This seems peculiar to me," and maybe not speak up? But also, when you think about who the Employee Resource Groups are, they are largely people who look like me and look like you, that tend to be people who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, probably gay or lesbian. There's not a lot of folks who are trans in companies to speak up on behalf of the trans community to sniff out something that doesn't seem right. So, gay and lesbian people might be like, " Wow, this is great. I love this idea." I think that sometimes the answer isn't within your company. That's why going to external companies, Pluid is a good example, going to external specialists who specialize in this and can sniff out something like, " Hey, wait a second, this doesn't smell right." You mentioned other campaigns that somebody or a person of color might have seen that and been like, " This ain't right. This is not sitting right with me." So, how do you have those and encourage a work dynamic where people can step forward and say, " This doesn't feel right." I'm not sure that some of places... Maybe they don't have that environment where somebody can step in and say, " Hey, I'm speaking out. This isn't right. I saw this train coming."

Vern Tremble: Exactly. I was mentioning to you, I don't want to call the brand because I can't remember precisely what it was, just a shirt, and a kid, and completely off- color. If the people that run the campaign understood the implications of what the meaning of the shirt, and the history behind that type of language, someone would have immediately pumped the brakes. But it didn't happen.

Rob Smith: Didn't happen.

Vern Tremble: It makes you believe... Where is everyone? No one? Multi- million dollar campaign, nobody thought this was problematic?

Rob Smith: It went through so many people's hands and yeah, nobody thought about it. Nope.

Vern Tremble: That's wild. That's wild.

Rob Smith: I also think it's important that we do reflect in this moment and not pull away from inclusive marketing to having inclusive people. I think it's just about doing it right. What I'm fearful of is people are going to pull back and not spotlight trans influencers, or transgender models. I just think it's very scary if people just decide to pull back altogether-

Vern Tremble: I agree.

Rob Smith: be fearful of the backlash.

Vern Tremble: Yeah, we have to move forward.

Rob Smith: Yes, move forward. Together.

Vern Tremble: Yeah, and so to kind of sum all of this up, because this is a fantastic conversation, Rob. I could talk to you all day about this. Looking ahead to the rest of the years, which brands are you particularly focused on to make the most of the rest of this year and the next several years?

Rob Smith: I think when we work with companies we like to build a three- year plan. You can't just eat the whole apple in one bite. It's one bite at a time. The first year, it all depends on where people are in their journeys. Some companies are just now building Employee Resource Groups, so we're helping with that. Sometimes it's just starting with the leadership team first and then letting them process it, and see how to roll it out. I think it's really for us working with the DEI team along with the Employee Resource Group team, and leadership together to build a strategy that's a three- year strategy. What's the goal? The goal is to create an authentic engagement with the LGBTQ community, really also focusing on intersectionality and then the strength there of the intersectionality of being queer plus black, queer plus Asian, understanding the integration and the intersection, and really getting a solid company because of that intersectionality. And, understanding that Gen Z, who is a third of the world's population, a quarter of the population here in the United States, is coming. They are starting to work. They want corporations that stand up for values that they believe in, and they are very fickle. If the company's not doing that... I'm not going to say it's easy. We've got five generations together working in the workforce. If you're 65 and you're 22, you're not going to see a lot of stuff in common. One person may not really be totally down with pronouns, while another one is. I think it's really how a company navigates that is just making people aware. We're never trying to sell something. We're just trying to educate people to be aware of things.

Vern Tremble: Totally.

Rob Smith: You don't have to jump in. You just have to be aware and respect people, and just respect your colleagues and respect your customers. And really creating a strategy that includes philanthropy, that includes continuous education, that includes the intersectionality where I like to believe that when you do a training in a company, that you can go in and train the other Employee Resource Groups and other employees to become advocates on behalf of other under- represented groups, that's when success and change happens.

Vern Tremble: I already hear them.

Rob Smith: When you're in the room and I'm not, you're like, " Hey, I'm speaking up on behalf of the LGBTQ community." When you're not in the room and someone says something, " I'm speaking on behalf of the black community, the brown community, Indigenous communities," that we are speaking out for each other through education and empathy, and understanding.

Vern Tremble: I love it. I have to put this in here because I hear them in the back of my brain and out there listening, how do we measure that, Rob?

Rob Smith: How do you measure that?

Vern Tremble: Yeah. How does that move the bottom line?

Rob Smith: You know how I measure it? I measure when I worked at Macy's and we launched Employee Resource Groups, I was asked as an executive to oversee one. I chose women of color. I chose, as a white man, to be the executive sponsor for women of color. I sat there for, I don't know, maybe 18 months until Sunday, they closed the door and said, " Rob, can we speak to you?" I said, " Of course." They said, "We would like to tell you what racism looks like in this company."

Vern Tremble: Wow.

Rob Smith: They told me about microaggressions before I even knew what the word" microaggressions" was, about microaggressions around race. We knew statistically that black men were the highest turnover in the company and identities, and black women were second. And so, I was able to take that information, go to HR, talk about microaggressions, and start to teach people. Before, this was like 20 years ago. And then start to see the change happen, start to see that culturally somebody who looked like me was running up and being like, " Hey, look what I did. Look what I did," and getting promoted. Other folks in cultures and communities were just doing work and waiting for somebody to see the good work they did, and find them, and promote them. That wasn't happening. So, how do you then start to create system and processes to recognize talent and promote good people as opposed to the loudest voice in the room?

Vern Tremble: Right, because moving up those people... Oftentimes, one, kudos to those women that were brave enough to communicate with you. Kudos to you for creating a space that was comfortable enough for them to share that, because that's a very touchy, difficult space to have that type of conversation, because there's fear of retaliation and all those things. Not to say that it was the thought process, but that is just the nature inclination. I think it also says a lot about understanding and recognizing that there are people in organizations that may feel disenfranchised or not seen, that if businesses understood that by seeing them and acknowledging, and helping them to find their voices, that they could do more benefit for the business as opposed to allowing them to leave and go be successful somewhere else.

Rob Smith: Correct.

Vern Tremble: It's like " We want you to stay because," and again, how do we measure that? Your business will be better.

Rob Smith: Your business will be better. You will have people in your room helping you make good decisions because of their many identities, their many talents. If we create and foster a very exclusive environment with only certain voices coming to the table with certain ideas, the company will not grow. We know that lots of voices, good opinions, fostering a culture where people can come in and share their insights as opposed to being shut down and silenced, these are companies that are successful, where leaderships creates that. So yes, the answer is how do you do it? It doesn't happen overnight. I have a huge fear that all these folks who are hired to run DEI for companies after George Floyd's murder and are now starting to be like, " Okay, so what's going on? You've been at the job for two years. What's the change?" It doesn't happen that quickly.

Vern Tremble: It doesn't.

Rob Smith: It takes time. It also takes leadership to stick with it and to invest in it. I would just say, yeah if you've got DEI in your organization, stick with it. Commit to it. Don't cut the budget if we're going to a recession. I'm afraid that's the first place that's going to get cut, the budget, is that space. So, continue to invest in education and creating a culture of inclusion, and an affirming culture. Sometimes we recognize people and we put boxes, and we're like, " Look at all the boxes." You know, we got all the boxes filled, and these boxes are growing, and this box is, but we're not affirming people. You have to really just work to affirm them.

Vern Tremble: Yeah, I love it, because at the end of the day it's about people.

Rob Smith: It's about people. It's always about people, yes.

Vern Tremble: I love it. I think this is the perfect place to end. Rob, thank you so much for joining us. Again, like I said, I could talk to you all day.

Rob Smith: Same here.

Vern Tremble: This is a great conversation.

Rob Smith: People are like, " All right, cut it off y'all, because we got to get back to work right now."

Vern Tremble: Hopefully, they're still... I think that I would be listening if I were listening to us. That's a little egotistical, but I mean, I would be listening to us. I think this is a great conversation.

Rob Smith: Listen, people know where to find me. I'm very accessible. LinkedIn, just search Rob Smith Phluid. Rob Smith is spelled exactly like you think it would be. What else? How do you want to close it?

Vern Tremble: That's it. Let's just say you can tell the folks thank you for watching another episode of Individuality Unleashed.

Rob Smith: Thank you, folks, for watching another episode of Individuality Unleashed. Vern, you do an amazing job.

Vern Tremble: Thank you, Rob.

Rob Smith: I just appreciate you so much.

Vern Tremble: Absolutely. We'll see you again.

Rob Smith: Yeah, see you again.

Vern Tremble: Boom.

Rob Smith: Boom.


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