“If your diversity work is not tied to the way you make money, then you’re not actually doing it,” says Malia Lazu, founder of The Urban Labs and a lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Business. “A lot of people see diversity as a cost center, when it is a revenue stream.”
Lazu, sometimes described as a “culture creator,” worked to increase diversity and broaden corporate culture as regional president at Berkshire Bank and was a founder of the Accelerate Boston incubator for minority-owned start-ups. Now the head of Urban Labs, “a multicultural social impact agency that brings a philosophy, platform, and process to help businesses find the best way to help change the world,” Lazu will be the keynote speaker at Saturday’s fourth annual IDEA Conference (IDEA CON 2021), hosted virtually by Innovate@BU for college students and recent graduates to explore innovation and entrepreneurship.
This year the pandemic has forced the free event to move online, but that means more participants from around the world are able to attend. (Register here.)
IDEA CON 2021 is designed to help attendees ignite their careers and make an impact in the world, whether through technology, social justice work, or arts and culture. Sponsored by Lou Volpe (Questrom’78), Kodiak Venture Partners managing partner, the day includes talks from young innovators, entrepreneurs, and other changemakers, as well as workshops offering tips and tools ranging from thinking big about goals to the nitty-gritty of fundraising and marketing.
BU Today spoke with Lazu about her work, the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on diversity and entrepreneurship, and the message she hopes to impart in her keynote address.
With Malia Lazu
BU Today: You are one of those people whose work description seems to morph depending on who’s describing it. At the heart of it, what exactly do you do?
Malia Lazu: I am an old-school organizer. Like an architect can bring those skills to any place—science is everywhere—well, organizing is applicable everywhere. It’s about power, it’s about community, and it’s about equity. And wherever I am, you will see those three themes, no matter where I’m working.
I started organizing when I was 19, at Emerson College studying political communications, and I didn’t even know what it was. I wanted to have a hip-hop concert on Boston Common to register voters. I went to the city to get a permit, and the guy working at the permitting office was like, immediately, ‘No, you’re not getting a permit.’ ‘Why?’ ‘We don’t do hip-hop concerts on Boston Common.’ Being from Hawaii, I didn’t know how insidious racism was in Boston. I was mad, so I went to this organization called the Commonwealth Coalition, and all these great organizers, these hippie-dippies, took me under their wing and started to train me up. I got trained by unions, I got trained by civil rights leaders. It’s really those skills that I bring to all of my work. The first 11, 12 years of my career, I was in the streets, here in Boston and in DC. It’s work for the young.
BU Today: What you do now is at the intersection of diversity and entrepreneurship?
Malia Lazu: Yeah, I like that. The way I describe my work now is that I’m a sherpa, and I’m guiding folks from their intentions to get actual impact. A lot of times companies set these intentions, but they don’t have the knowledge and understanding to get actual impact. Just like wanting to climb Mount Everest, you need help, you need someone who’s done it before, someone who knows where the pitfalls are. While it’s not a life-or-death situation like Everest, the reputation risk is huge. If you get diversity and inclusion work wrong, everyone will know. So it’s really important to understand the path to get there authentically.
BU Today: How has the pandemic and societal crisis changed the situation on these issues: new roadblocks? new opportunities?
Malia Lazu: First let me say, as an organizer, when systems fail, that’s when we get to work, because that’s when we can change the system. This moment isn’t just everything failing so it’s horrible—well, it is that—but it’s also a time to rebuild, and that’s what’s needed. The systems that are failing were always going to fail Black and brown people, they were always going to fail poor people. They were set up to create an underclass. So it’s painful, but it’s also a time of redefinition and new systems.
This has been horrific—2020 and 2021, though it’s getting a little better, have laid bare every vulnerability we had. And hundreds of thousands of people have died. COVID killed a lot, but it didn’t kill racism, right? So we also have the racial reckoning to deal with, as inadequate as those words are. If we can ensure that our losses, whatever they end up being, that those people do not die in vain—let’s fix the system.
COVID killed a lot—but it didn’t kill racism, right?
I often say, you know when you’ve hit rock bottom because it’s a mirror. I hope this is rock bottom. We are seeing how inadequate our compassion, empathy, and love are in society.
BU Today: Where do you find optimism?
A few things are making me optimistic. The generations after mine—I’m Gen X—millennials, Gen Z, these young people that are coming up, they’re not messing around. They believe things we’ve been telling them. They believe they have agency, they believe in fairness, in equity, they don’t believe in shame. That gives me so much hope. God bless the Baby Boomers, thanks for the Civil Rights Movement, but millennials and the next generation are going out and getting it.
For work, I’m working with two disability advocates, around thinking about how to help companies meet Americans with Disabilities Act regulations and beyond. I am really excited to be working with the disability community, to elevate people with disabilities. I think 50 percent of the Black people who are killed by police have some mental health disability or issue, and so these are definitely intersections.
BU Today: For the first time, the IDEA conference is going to be virtual, likely bringing in students and young innovators from all over the world. What are you going to tell them that will resonate across their very different cultures and situations?
I’m going to really just center on our commonality. No matter what country you’re from, there are “others,” right? There’s othering going on, oppression going on. What I’m going to be doing is sharing some inspirational thoughts about how everyone, no matter where you are, can make a difference, and talk about some of the ways to do that. I hope to fire up these entrepreneurs to know that they’re building our new economy, and that it will be great to do it right.
IDEA Conference (IDEA CON 2021)
A chance for college students and recent graduates to explore innovation and entrepreneurship.