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How Diversity Leaders at Gap and LVMH are ‘Operationalizing Inclusion’

When Bahja Johnson, Gap Inc.’s head of customer belonging, reflects on the success stories she’s really proud of, she thinks of Banana Republic’s True Hues line.

“Rooted in redefining the word ‘nude,’” Johnson said, the collection offers camisoles, pumps and other basics in 11 skin tone-matching shades. Its debut in April 2019 marked the first time the Color Proud Council—a product inclusion initiative Johnson co-founded—worked hand-in-hand with one of Gap’s brands from the first sketch to the online and in-store launch, she said.

“We did not get it right the first time,” Johnson added. “We had some great learning opportunities… and to look at where we started to now where we are, I think just speaks to the fact that you can grow, you can iterate…. You cannot be afraid to start, you have to get after this work, it is the business imperative, and you’re going to learn along the way.”

Johnson and diversity leaders from P&G Beauty and LVMH came together Wednesday at Fairchild Media Group’s virtual Diversity Forum to discuss how their companies have approached inclusivity.

Corey Smith, LVMH’s vice president, diversity and inclusion, North America, divided the Louis Vuitton parent’s outlook into three parts. The first element, the people, encompasses how it recruits and retains its workers, from minor considerations like job descriptions to ensuring employees want to remain part of the organization. The second component, the business, relates to “operationalizing inclusion,” Smith said, such that every voice is valued and heard and everyone feels like a part of the decision-making process. The final part, the brand, covers external components like marketing and ad campaigns.

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“What we really want to do is empower people with the education and the awareness to be more inclusive in their thought process as they are going through the design aspects,” Smith said.

Lela Coffey, vice president of brands, North America, hair care and multicultural hair brands at P&G Beauty, also raised the importance of education and, in particular, giving employees a “safe space” to ask questions and learn. P&G, she said as an example, offers its sales people—many times white men—a “textured hair academy” so that they can better understand their customers and how they feel about their hair.

“We can sometimes be creating an environment that freezes people,” Coffey said. “They’re so afraid of making a mistake, that they don’t act. You don’t want people to be in that space…. People need to feel like they can experiment, that they can take that first step, so that we can get along the journey where we need to be.”

As the head of customer belonging, Johnson sees her work as more than just saying whether something looks good for Black History Month or Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Instead, she too came back to the idea of education, of working with teams “to say ‘What questions do we need to ask to get a different result here?’”

“People always ask me, ‘What’s the goal for you in this work and in this role?’” Johnson said. “My goal actually would be to not even have a customer belong group because… the standard for the retail leader is that you design with inclusion in mind, point blank, period.”