It’s not personal. It’s business. This is something I’ve heard since before I entered the world of work, and I bought into it in its fullness. But now I say, “Really?”

I’ve never thought of myself as a pioneer – someone who has led her life breaking new ground or taking big risks. And yet, as I’ve examined my purpose and my path, I’ve always been different and found myself in positions where I’ve been the “first _____.” The first born of six children, the first and only student of mixed race in my school for 12 years, the first in my family to graduate from high school and go to college, the first human resources executive in my tech company. The list goes on. My parents would remind me of the responsibility I had in being first at every opportunity. So in my own way, I WAS braving a new world.

Being the daughter of an African-American father and a Japanese mother, along with the many challenges brought on by their cultural differences, I learned how to listen for things that weren’t being said. This was a skill I gained out of necessity. It was a means of survival – a way to make things better. I’m convinced it was the honing of this skill, along with the cultivation of others, that led me to a career as an executive in Human Resources and ultimately to Dignity Health, one of the largest health systems in the nation, where I recently served as the Chair of the Board of Directors.

In my capacity as a member of the Board at Dignity Health I am required to keep at the forefront of my decisions those people who oftentimes have little voice – a lot of whom are women and children, and a significant portion of them people of color, many are African American. This focus makes my role, and my skill set, that much more meaningful. I am listening closely for things that aren’t being said, for voices that aren’t being heard. It’s business, but it’s also personal.

Are there challenges associated with being a Japanese-African American woman on the Board of a $17 billion organization? Yes, but they don’t prevent me from being successful. Perhaps it is the benefit of my age, my years of experience, or my own confidence in my ability to impact the outcome; but I truly feel that my color, my race is not MY problem.

Still, I am who I am and there is no hiding it. I do bring diversity to the Board, and I do express a perspective that is needed in a board room that helps us come to the decisions that best support the health and wellbeing of our patients, employees, and communities.

Why Diversity Matters in Business

Dignity Health’s CEO, Lloyd H. Dean, is a visionary leader who has surrounded himself with an incredibly talented and diverse group of executives in the C-suite. We have a very effective, knowledgeable, enlightened Board that is diverse in thought, experience, gender, and ethnicity. Together, we focus on the strategic direction of the organization, but it is our mission to serve the underserved that provides the ultimate guidance for our decision-making, dialog, and action.

When diversity is part of the strategy it doesn’t necessarily make everything easier, but it does change the conversation in a way that leads to better outcomes. That is what’s different when you truly have a diverse board. We seek to inform those outcomes for the organization, and we expect authentic dialog in our interactions with one another. That’s the only way to learn, to stay relevant, to make a difference.

When Lloyd and I are together, there have been times when someone reacts at learning that both the CEO and Chairman are African American – mostly positive; sometimes I’m not sure, but always surprised. The paradigm is changing and it’s good that people are taking notice.

Likewise, because of the way I’m packaged, it’s difficult to know if it’s the color of my skin – and is it the Black part or the Asian part – or the fact that I’m a woman that engenders an initial reaction from people (they can’t “place” me, and don’t know how to interact with me until they have). I’m glad the world is starting to talk about race and the issues surrounding it more openly. And I feel that I have a responsibility to impact those perspectives for the next generation and beyond – not to just talk about it but to do something about it. Isn’t that why I’m here? And isn’t it after all the right thing to do?

A case in point: The tragedies brought on by the mortgage crisis a few years back are still happening today. Some people are still suffering as a result of that time. I recall sitting with some colleagues over dinner and realizing for the first time that their perspective on the subject was quite myopic and ill informed. And as we talked further, one of them remarked that it seemed I was taking the situation personally. I allowed myself to agree, something I would not have done earlier in my career. A great number of the victims of the financial crisis who lost their homes were people of color, and while my children were not impacted, they could have been. Yes, I was taking it personally. Given who I am, I don’t have the luxury of an alternate view. It may have been just business to my colleagues, but to the families who were affected, I guarantee it was personal.

So I understand why we spend so much time and energy building a business case that sells the need for diversity in our organizations and board rooms. All of the business reasons for doing so are valid. But I would challenge us all to become more aware of the fact that business is personal no matter what we may have learned in business school. There is always a person – and often a person of color – on the other side of our decisions, our interactions, our choices.

And if we can all recognize that, and have the courage to let that guide us, I believe that we as a society will be successful beyond measure.

Because it’s business AND it’s personal.


About Caretha Coleman

Caretha Coleman is the owner and principal of Coleman Consulting, which focuses on start-ups and early stage ventures in the areas of strategy development, executive coaching, and organizational effectiveness. Caretha’s experience spans 35 years in the technology industry in companies such as Interval Research, Software Publishing Corporation, Hewlett Packard, and Spectra Physics. Caretha was a founding member of The Angels’ Forum, a unique angel investment organization in Palo Alto where she served on the Advisory Committee and worked closely with entrepreneurs vetting their ideas and providing guidance and coaching.  An advocate for women and minorities in business, Caretha demonstrates her commitment to mentoring young professionals and entrepreneurs across the country.

About Dignity Health

Dignity Health, one of the nation’s largest health care systems, is a 20-state network of nearly 9,000 physicians, 55,000 employees, and more than 380 care centers, including hospitals, urgent and occupational care, imaging centers, home health, and primary care clinics. Headquartered in San Francisco, Dignity Health is dedicated to providing compassionate, high-quality and affordable patient-centered care with special attention to the poor and underserved.  In 2014, Dignity Health provided nearly $2 billion in charitable care and services