Exclusive: Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Host of Finding Your Roots, Examines Ancestry and the Workplace with AT&T

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., host, Finding Your Roots

According to a CNET story, this year’s Cyber Monday top-selling product globally for the holidays was the genetic testing ethnicity kit.

Since the debut of “Finding Your Roots,” a popular PBS series hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., people are curious about their ancestry and want to learn more about their heritage. This year, AT&T took a look at how corporations integrate the conversation about finding your roots to deepen understanding and inclusion among peers and co-workers in the workplace.

 “In September 2016, our Chairman & CEO Randall Stephenson challenged AT&T employees to demonstrate the power and potential of diverse people working together toward common goals in an organization that values all points of view,” Corey Anthony, Senior Vice President of Human Resources & Chief Diversity Officer at AT&T, told TNJ.com in a recent interview. “Since then, tens of thousands of AT&T employees have embraced the need to truly understand one another, versus merely tolerating different perspectives.”

He continued, “That’s why it was fitting that AT&T joined 130 other companies across the U.S. for Days of Dialogue. It was a chance for hundreds of thousands at workplaces nationwide top come together and build deeper, more meaningful relationships. We were fully engaged!”

As a sponsor for Season 4 of the series, AT&T sought the help of Dr. Gates, a noted scholar and professor at Harvard University. As host, he sets out to “get into the DNA of American culture” by featuring various personalities as they view ancestral histories, sometimes learn of connections to famous/infamous people, discover secrets, and share the emotional experience with viewers. By analyzing genetic code, the DNA diagnosticians trace bloodlines and occasionally debunk long-held beliefs.

In an exclusive interview, I asked Dr. Gates about this conversation on finding one’s roots and why it matters to corporations.

Below, in his own words, is the response:

“Finding Your Roots” celebrates all the things that unite us and the bonds we all share in common. Corporations need to reach a multicultural market; they need consumers of every complexion – literally and figuratively. So engaging executives to share their roots and encouraging employees to do the same is a way to continue the inclusion conversation. And with AT&T, this is what Randall Stevenson has encouraged AT&T employees to have.

Revealing our connectedness and realizing there’s no such thing as racial purity and that we’re all mixed up helps us move from tolerance to understanding. In terms of the workplace, I run the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. We have 16 employees; I am an executive myself there plus we have 15 to 20 people who come to the Center as fellows for one or two semesters during the academic year. Helping people to get along, put aside their differences and mediate conflicts within the Center or within a company like AT&T is absolutely essential. It helps individuals and groups gain a deeper understanding about how we are all connected.

I have three maxims that I try to practice: The first is to step back and look at the picture from someone else’s point of view. Why is the person doing what they’re doing? Why is the person saying what they’re saying? What’s up with that? Instead of getting mad, step back and reflect. It’s way more powerful to ask the person, ‘Why did you do that? Why do you feel that way?’

The second is a worldview bubble. Earlier when you mentioned that you live in one town and hang out in a nearby town, it’s important to go to that town and back to your town. There are different ethnic kinds of distribution in those two places. How does a Muslim or Hindu person approach the world? I tell my students at Harvard to go to a Jewish temple or a mosque with someone. Invite them to your home or take them out to eat. What are their beliefs? Regardless of whether you believe or not, just have that experience. As simplistic as these things might sound, it helps us to avoid falling into what we call a worldview bubble. That is really important because we are all citizens of the world.

AT&T is multinational cosmopolitan company as is Ancestry as is our parent sponsor Johnson & Johnson. They all have to think in terms of being corporations related to a world constituency.

And finally, the third maxim. This is something that is important to me as a professor, as a host, as an executive producer of a TV show, and as the co-founder of a website – the Root.com. I have a journalistic background and this is something that I know AT&T believes in because it’s a communications company. And that is that you have to support the free and open exchange of ideas. You have to let people speak their minds. There have to be limits; you can’t tolerate hate speech in the workplace, but short of that, you have to protect the exchange of ideas. It’s a fundamental value to all corporations. AT&T lives that and I do too through “Finding Your Roots.”

On Friday, Dec. 14, Dr. Gates analyzed the genetic code of three AT&T executives during an employee-only webcast from AT&T headquarters and raised questions that revolve around our desire to learn more about ourselves.

The executives who participated are Thaddeus Arroyo, CEO, AT&T Business and International, Marachel Knight, Senior Vice President of Wireless Network Architecture and Design, and Anthony himself.

Notes Anthony, “We ended our week-long Days of Dialogue event on Friday when Dr. Gates revealed the results of our genealogy tests. It was an incredible experience. I learned so much about my family history. I learned, for example, that much of what my parents and grandparents have told me over the years is true, but there’s so much more to the story!”

Having been named to Fortune’s list of Best Companies for Diversity three years in a row, AT&T is becoming known for its prudent practices when it comes to Diversity & Inclusion. According to Anthony, the company’s approach to D&I encompasses four pillars: employees, customers, communities, and suppliers. “While we’re always raising the bar in each category,” he shares, “a couple of recent initiatives demonstrate our continuous innovation.”

Below are the initiatives that Anthony describes:

  • Believe Chicago is an AT&T employee initiative to improve lives and lift 19 Chicago neighborhoods most affected by gun violence and high unemployment. By focusing our company’s people, hiring, services and contributions, we will lift these neighborhoods and help people who live in them find opportunity they deserve to succeed in education, careers, and life.
  • AT&T pledged to improve the portrayal of women in ads by 20 percent by the end of this year. This accelerates the Association of National Advertisers industry initiative #SeeHer by two years. We are currently rolling out inclusion play books across the company to touch as much of our creative content as possible.

As for how other companies can employ similar tactics that have helped AT&T’s workplace, Anthony remarks, “In terms of equality, diversity and inclusion, we’ve learned that it starts at the top with leadership commitment, because with that comes accountability.”

‘He shares the example that in September, ‘WarnerMedia formalized its long-running commitment to diversity and inclusion as moral and business imperatives by announcing the industry’s first diversity and inclusion policy, pledging to use its best efforts to ensure that diverse actors and crew members are considered for film, television and other projects, and to work with directors and producers who also seek to promote greater diversity and inclusion in our industry.’

With this weekend as the last chance to get those last minute Christmas gifts, could an ancestry DNA kit be just the thing your loved ones or workplace peers might want? “With all the confusion in the world, many of the previous certainties have disappeared,” Dr. Gates notes. “I think people are frightened about the future, they have a great deal of anxiety about economics, and politics are very volatile. In times of turmoil, people look for anchors and foundations. What is more foundational than knowledge about yourself?”