During the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julian Newman became disillusioned with all the back-and-forth arguing that was taking place in commentaries and on social media.
The founder of Grand Rapids-based Culture Creative, a diversity and inclusion and leadership development consulting firm, wanted to find a way to move beyond simply identifying problems by establishing a framework to create solutions. That idea developed into FutureCast, a virtual event in 2021 that Newman led from Grand Rapids that focused on “looking at the future from a hopeful place together.”
The inaugural event, which attracted representatives from the likes of LinkedIn and the United Nations, earned the Diversity & Inclusion Leader of the Year honors from the Anthem Awards, a spinoff of the Webby Awards focused on purpose and mission-driven work.
Newman said the buzz from the event and the award started opening some unexpected doors, culminating in him being invited to speak during Advertising Week last month in New York City, where his team also held the second FutureCast event.
“One of the unique things about our conference and our experience is that every speaker, every panel, had a challenge and an action step or steps that they were calling us to,” Newman said, noting he and his team are using the information to create a white paper attendees and others can use as a call to action.
“FutureCast wants to not just be something where we just say, ‘Let’s talk about cool stuff,’ but actually, ‘What are our action steps to be able to make the world a better and more beautiful place?’” he said.
For Newman, the success of FutureCast and Culture Creative have occurred despite him “accidentally” getting into diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging consulting.
While he grew up in Sacramento, Calif. and had a diverse educational environment with people from a range of backgrounds, his daughters faced a much different situation when Newman and his family moved to the Midwest about 15 years ago.
“My older daughters were just starting school and they were experiencing racism bias, all the things in ways that I just didn’t know that we were still doing,” he said. “The educational experience my daughters were growing up in, it was very different. I had to ask myself: How am I going to handle this? We’re all faced with problems and challenges and we have to decide: What is my response?”
His response was founding Culture Creative “to stand in the gap, be a bridge, be an advocate for my daughters.” While he was working in the faith-based nonprofit sector, he participated in the Woodrick Institute for Healing Racism at Aquinas College, which personally moved him to volunteer for the organization and later join as a facilitator.
The “side project” eventually morphed into a full-time vocation that led him to work with organizations like Meijer, Gordon Food Service, Michigan State University, advertising firm Leo Burnett and a range of other for-profit and nonprofit clients.
Newman spoke with MiBiz about the West Michigan business community’s approach to diversity and where the region can take action to improve, and offers advice to executives on where to start on the journey to a more inclusive environment.
When did you first realize you were on to something that could help businesses wrap their arms around DEI issues?
One of the strengths was an ability to break down what happened historically. … We’ve inherited this past, we’ve inherited this dysfunction. It’s not something that we created, but this is the reality which we live in. The one thing that I felt wasn’t as emphasized in some of the work that I had been exposed to over the years was: What happens next? How do we build what it can be? It isn’t our fault that we’re here, but it is our responsibility to do something different and we can do something different best when we have a vision of a hopeful future. … The hope gives us the ability to press through the challenges that change requires of all of us.
What I wanted to do is create an organization that worked in this space but didn’t forget hope. Our tagline is ‘Beautiful Together.’ I believe that this is a beautiful conversation. It’s an energizing conversation if done properly because it allows all of us to say: None of us have everything, but all of us have something. When we put all of our somethings together, we have everything and we are beautiful together. When we lead with beauty or we connect beauty to some of the pain that we’ve experienced, then it inspires us to be deeper. It inspires us to grow. It inspires us to be better.
How would you rank the West Michigan business community’s approach to DEI?
One of the things that I would say is a huge positive is there’s a real earnestness. There’s a real desire to say, ‘We want to do better, we want to grow.’ One of the things that we talk about is achieving the highest levels of our human potential. Everybody wants that for their community, wants that for their kids, their families, their neighborhoods, their schools. I think that West Michigan has a deep desire for the beautiful world that Dr. King talked about to be our reality. There’s a real earnestness to try to make a difference.
What are some areas where the West Michigan business community or region falls short?
I think that the earnestness is often disconnected. We know we need to do better, but we don’t know how. When we don’t know, we often can’t articulate a very clear ‘why.’ John Wooden, the famed late basketball coach that coached UCLA to numerous championships years ago, he had a famous line: ‘Activity doesn’t equal achievement.’ When we don’t have a clear ‘how’ and maybe not a very clear ‘why’ that we can articulate about our vision, we do stuff. We have a lot of activity, but because we have not clearly said these are what our goals are, then we don’t really know where to go because there is not a real vision there. I definitely think there’s an earnestness, but there’s not always a clear pathway and plan in order to achieve those goals because we’ve not even articulated what those goals are.
How much does the concept of ‘West Michigan nice’ handicap us in driving any long-term change on diversity or inclusion?
I think that we’ve all been in situations where even if we didn’t like something, sometimes we put on a good face. And so for me to say that that does not play a factor in some cases, that wouldn’t be true. Are there faces and places in our community where the cosmetics of diversity and inclusion are more important than the foundational or concrete change? Absolutely. That is absolutely the case.
What can we do to break that barrier?
It’s important for us to realize that this whole conversation, if we were to boil it down, is really about building relationships with other people. One of the things we talk about is the importance of the four Ls: learning, living, leading, legacy. When I learn differently, I can live differently. When I live differently, I can lead with authenticity. When I lead with authenticity, then I can leave a legacy for the generations behind me. We have to build relationships and live this out.
That’s a key part of the motivation that I have and the hope that I bear. It isn’t that I don’t see the realities of where we came from, where we’re at, and some of the challenges facing us. But I think we can do better. I know we can. And I believe that not only should we, but I really believe that deep down we want to.
For business leaders who are just starting out on this journey, what’s one step they should take today in their business to improve how they’re approaching diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging?
One thing I would tell them is make it a ZIP code conversation. What I mean by a ZIP code conversation is that I can read something or I can watch something, but when I physically move my body into an environment that is different than what I’m accustomed to, I get off the couch of my cultural comfort zone and get in a space with people that have a different experience than me. … Being in proximity and changing the ZIP code, getting off the couch of our cultural comfort zone … changes our lives.
Who is the right person in a company to lead these conversations?
It’s different for every organization. In some organizations we work with, human resources takes the lead. In other places, the C-suite, the executive, the CEO, the vice president, the CFO, takes the lead. It’s really organic to the organization. But no matter where the leadership comes from, leadership is always necessary, and I would say bold leadership, courageous leadership, collaborative leadership, empathetic leadership. The only way I can do this well is if I care about other people and they in turn care about me.