Hattie Hill: ‘We have to be willing to start at neutral’ to create a more inclusive world

As part of its celebration of Black History Month, the Dallas Regional Chamber caught up with Hattie Hill, President and CEO of the T.D. Jakes Foundation, to get her perspective on developing Black leaders and diversity, equity, and inclusion in business.

Hill, who also serves on the DRC Board of Directors, has spent more than three decades developing successful global diversity, inclusion, and gender equity strategies that drive culture change and create inclusive environments for corporations, nonprofit organizations, and foundations across 70 countries, including IBM, Southwest Airlines, and McDonald’s. The T.D. Jakes Foundation is a workforce development and community-building foundation that is committed to building bridges to opportunity in the United States and around the world.

Are there any African American figures that have had a major influence on your life? Who are they and why do you look up to them?

Maya Angelou has been a major influence on my life. She was from a small town in Arkansas, just like I am. I first heard about her from my English teacher in 1973. From then on, I followed her in admiration of her courage in breaking barriers as a Black woman and becoming such a profound and important voice in American literature and culture. Her 1978 poem, “Still I Rise,” has been an emblem for so much of my own experience and that of so many women of color: we overcome enormous obstacles and “Still I (we) Rise.” I had the privilege of attending the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton, another leader from Arkansas, where Maya Angelou was the first African American woman to read a poem at a President’s Inauguration. “On The Pulse of Morning” left me mesmerized. Later, in March 2014, when I was CEO of the Women’s Foodservice Forum, Ms. Angelou was the keynote speaker, via video, for our 25th Anniversary celebration. It was her last speech; she passed away on May 28 of that year. From high school to today, I remain inspired by Maya Angelou – her voice, her influence, and her example of a life well lived.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the current generation of African American leaders?

Our greatest challenge as African American leaders is to recognize that we cannot just focus on some of us – the ones who have “made it” to levels of power and position. We have to focus on all of us. We have a responsibility to support and speak for the un-championed communities – and to demonstrate how sharing power, privilege, and resources makes us all better off, not only African Americans, but all Americans. We are truly better together.

As a business leader, how do you have effective conversations on race?

For me, being in the diversity, equity, and inclusion business for 35 years through my own company, and now representing one of the most high-profile Black leaders in the world, I have one clear truth to offer: We have to be willing to start at neutral. Everyone is so busy taking sides, and there is some truth to be found on every side. So, we have to leave our sides behind and come to the table starting at neutral. We have to listen and not let our filters – our backgrounds, our different experiences – get in the way. If we want to make a different world, an inclusive world of shared opportunity, we have to come to the table, start at neutral, listen, and work together toward solutions.

What would you want future generations of African Americans to know, especially when it comes to building a successful career?

One of the primary reasons I joined Chairman T.D. Jakes to stand up the T.D. Jakes Foundation was the underlying commitment to break down systemic barriers that perpetuate disparities and to build bridges to life-changing opportunities for African Americans and every underrepresented group in our society. The areas of greatest opportunity for success are careers in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) fields, and these industries – particularly technology and high-tech industries – are among the least diverse in the U.S. and globally. We are working to change that by exposing young people of color to the many dimensions of careers in STEAM and supporting them in their pursuit of opportunities in the 21st-century workforce.

The DRC has compiled resources and local events to help you commemorate, learn about, and engage with Black History Month.