Voices for change
Louisa Daley speaks to Lauralee Whyte, founder of Spectrum Speakers & Entertainers and Shonali Devereaux, co-founder of Diverse Speaker Bureau, about the importance of having diverse speakers at events and how they support agencies on their DEI journey.
Now more than ever, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is at the top of the industry’s agenda as we all make strides to create an industry that truly reflects the diverse and talented eventprofs community we are made of. As we return to in-person events, how are agencies ensuring the speaker line up does exactly that? To gain some insight, Louisa Daley spoke to Lauralee Whyte, founder of Spectrum Speakers & Entertainers and Shonali Devereaux, co-founder of Diverse Speaker Bureau.
The bigger picture
A key reason to attend an event is to hear from its keynote speakers. Regardless of the topic, attendees want to leave inspired and more knowledgeable. Therefore, when working with clients, it’s vital for agencies to get the speaker line up exactly right, not only for the attendee experience, but also because of the bigger picture.
For both Whyte and Devereaux, having diverse speakers at events isn’t only important due to the message it sends about representation, it’s also about the impact it has on the event itself.
“You could have people talking about the same thing, but their individual and lived experience will change that perspective on that discussion. That’s why it’s absolutely imperative to have a diverse panel of speakers – you want to have an event that’s thought provoking,” says Whyte.
Similarly, Devereaux says having diverse speakers enriches debate. “If you don’t have people from different cultural backgrounds talking about a topic, you will never innovate.
“Everybody has something to contribute and give. When they do, the outcome of your debate is very different. Having a diverse panel makes it much richer than you had expected it to be,” she adds.
Providing a platform
To help achieve this, Spectrum Speakers & Entertainers and Diverse Speaker Bureau work with agencies to find the best and most suitable speakers for their event, who are also diverse.
I asked both Whyte and Devereaux what their specific missions are. “Our mission is twofold,” says Whyte. “Firstly, we want to amplify underrepresented voices to show anyone who is aspiring to be a speaker that it’s achievable for them, as there are already role models out there who look like them, who are speaking at events successfully.”
Whyte also tells me Spectrum Speakers & Entertainers want to simplify inclusion for events. “Secondly, we want to empower event planners to diversify their events by being somewhere they can come to and find speakers, across any industry, who are from diverse backgrounds, but who don’t exclusively talk about diversity.”
But how does Spectrum Speakers & Entertainers define diversity? The answers in evident in its chosen name. “Diversity is about more than race, it’s about more than gender, it’s about more than disability. There is so much intersectionality within these areas. There is a real spectrum to diversity, and what that means for everybody,” says Whyte.
Similarly to Spectrum Speakers & Entertainers, Diverse Speaker Bureau, co-founded by Priya Narain, Gabrielle Austen-Browne and Felicia Asiedu, alongside Devereaux, nurtures and elevates underrepresented voices. “Our previous strapline was representing and presenting, but it has recently changed to disrupting tokenism,” reveals Devereaux.
“When people come to you and say, ‘I want somebody diverse on my speaker panel’, it’s brilliant because it’s a step forward. But it’s also a bit of a wince. We are trying to disrupt this tokenism approach and prove that diversity has to be embedded throughout what you do, not just in the speakers you choose. We work with agencies to help them understand the bigger picture,” she says.
Diverse Speaker Bureau also offers speaker training alongside its speaker sourcing. “We understand that those from diverse backgrounds don’t always have the confidence to tell their story, and don’t believe that their story is worth telling – but it is. We help with confidence training, help them shape their stories and provide them with a platform,” explains Devereaux.
So, how exactly does speaker sourcing work? Whyte tells me Spectrum Speakers & Entertainers manages speakers independently via its speaker management service, it also works as a bureau to source speakers for event planners.
“I was previously a speaker agent, so I like to work in a consultative way. I like to get under the skin of what the key event aims and themes are and what delegates will take away from the event. That way, I can see how the skillset of the speaker will complement all those aspects.
“There’s only so much you can get from looking at a speaker biography. The job of a speaker agent or speaker bureau is to really understand the speakers in depth,” she says.
Similarly, Diverse Speaker Bureau works in two ways. “At the moment, because our company is still young, we work in a semi bespoke mode,” reveals Devereaux.
Diverse Speaker Bureau either proactively sources speakers or finds speakers in its database. “This year, we are trying to build our speaker community to have a larger sense of speakers, but also to ensure the speakers can learn and grow from each other as well,” she says.
Devereaux tells me the bureau also works alongside a speaker code of conduct, meaning that its speakers must be diverse in their approach and language. “For example, they must be diverse in the pronouns they use and how they behave on stage. We want to implement this approach throughout our supply chain.” says Devereaux.
A balancing act
When working with agencies, both Whyte and Devereaux note they are putting in the work and making some form of progress with DEI.
“There isn’t a progression curve, DEI is happening at different levels. Some have just started their DEI initiatives, some are a year or two down the road, and some have been doing it for years,” says Devereaux.
However, Devereaux points out that at the same time, some agencies aren’t talking about what they are doing, because they think they aren’t doing enough. “It’s a real shame, because talking is exactly what we are trying to get people to do. I’d love to see more agencies sharing what they are doing with DEI, because it can encourage other organisations too,” she adds.
While DEI is being implemented, Whyte says it’s not quite yet ingrained in event strategies or values – because people don’t know how. “If you are always coming from a place of equity, then your events will get DEI right. The best way to ingrain DEI into your event strategy is to work with suppliers who not only focus on DEI, but who focus on the values that are important to you and your event,” she says.
“On the whole, agencies are definitely trying more. But at the same time, some are trying to be seen to be trying. It’s almost one extreme or another,” Whyte adds. Another element Whyte and Devereaux have both noticed is the fear of getting DEI wrong. “This is one of the biggest challenges and that fear can sometimes result in total inaction,” says Whyte.
“I think we should call out things that are being done incorrectly, or things that are done in a thoughtless manner. But, to point fingers at someone who’s clearly trying – that actually puts us back. A person in my network said we should be calling in. This means pulling someone aside privately and saying ‘I can see you are trying to do this, but have you considered doing it this way?’,” she says.
Devereaux agrees and says: “It’s beautiful because they are so concerned, that they want to absolutely get it right. But the only way to get it right is to ask the people in your organisation who exhibit diversity, or who identify as diverse, how they can get it right and have open conversations.”
She reminds us: “DEI is going to look different in every agency, every agency has a culture. So, getting it right is really about what’s authentic for you, and trying to expand on that.”