TMI redefines diversity in RVA, across the world

One local company is changing how we think and talk about diversity.

The word diversity can make business leaders shudder.

“They’re terrified because diversity gets nothing but bad press,” said Tiffany Jana, CEO of Richmond-based TMI, a diversity and inclusion strategy consulting firm. “When you see ‘diversity’ and ‘business’ together in a headline, something bad just happened.”

But TMI is in the business of transforming how we think of diversity. “Diversity should not be a dirty word,” Jana said. The company helps businesses and nonprofits see the word as less scary, and embrace diversity to boost innovation, productivity, and overall job satisfaction.

When people think of diversity, what typically follows are thoughts of race, gender, sexual orientation, some of the hottest of hot-button issues. And when Jana and other TMI facilitators lead groups of people in diversity discussions, nearly all in attendance qualify diversity based on what others aren’t. “Everyone focuses on the differences,” Jana said.

“One part of our core mission is to expand and explode the definition of diversity because it’s so much deeper than the stuff that gets all the press,” Jana said. To her and TMI, diversity is more than race, gender, etc. “If you limit diversity to just those few little things, you really do ourselves, our communities, and our companies a disservice.”

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Few words better encapsulate Jana’s life than diversity. “I’ve been through five universities, and probably 11 majors,” she said, laughing, while chatting at TMI’s office at 213 E. Grace Street.

At age 15, Jana was accepted into Harvard, which she turned down because the school was too far away and too intimidating as a teenager living in New York (she grew up in El Paso, Texas).

She later attended VUU to study political science and journalism. Before long she was at VCU taking classes in entirely different subjects. Ultimately, she earned a degree through the University of Phoenix in business management marketing, then completed an MBA in global management. She’s currently a doctoral candidate studying management and organizational leadership.

About twelve years ago, Jana started a consulting business, Catalyst Communications, as a single mother and full-time worker who was also working on an online degree. Over a year later, her business grew enough that she quit her full-time job.

Catalyst Communications provided marketing, public relations, career and confidence coaching, and other services to people and companies. Her first client was Soul of Virginia Magazine, followed soon after by The Science Museum of Virginia, University of Richmond, and the Acts of Faith Festival.

During the market downturn, Jana relocated her business to northern Virginia, where she began working with other freelancers. One of them was Matthew Freeman.

“We worked really, really well together,” Jana said, about the pair’s work with clients through facilitating group discussions. “It was kind of magical the responses that we had when people were in our sessions.” There was also magic between Jana and Freeman: the two later married.

In 2010, Jana and Freeman created TMI, a benefit corporation, to help businesses and other organizations see diversity as both an asset and a way to boost their bottom line.

“Diverse groups consistently outperform homogenous groups” Jana said, summarizing research on the subject. “So if you want the most innovative, dynamic, creative results, you need diversity–as much as you can get.”

But research also shows that as diversity increases, trust decreases both within and between ethnic groups. TMI negotiates those seemingly contradictory bits of research to strengthen organizations. “We help people move from just having diversity, to really leveraging it for innovation, productivity, creativity–really getting that engagement,” Jana said.

Jana said that TMI has never solicited work from clients; clients typically approach the local company through word-of-mouth. Some of TMI’s recent clients were members of Congress, as TMI has led discussions with members of the Congressional Leadership Institute on Race and Democracy.

TMI’s work is also international, with past clients in Germany, South Africa, and others. Jana said diversity challenges exist in every country, despite what citizens of those countries may say. “‘We don’t have those issues like the United States because we didn’t do that slavery thing'” is a refrain Jana often hears outside the US. But while other countries may not have operated within the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, they’re far from having squeaky-clean histories. “Every single place you go around the world has a huge diversity challenge, the flavor is just a little bit different.”

To address those issues, TMI avoids dealing in “blame and shame.” Facilitators certainly don’t single out minorities, but also don’t single out those who might ridicule those minorities. Jana says it can be vital to absolve people of whatever preconceptions and attitudes they might have.

“We’ve all inherited whatever it is we’re sitting in, in this country, in this nation, whatever country we happen to be,” Jana said. “Even though we didn’t create this mess, we do have a collective responsibility to make a decision and do something about it.”

It’s not lost on Jana that a company like TMI locates itself in a city linked to slavery and war. “I think the work that we do is very much needed here,” Jana said. “It is of critical importance to us that we have a significant impact in this region because we are all living in a shared wounded history.”

She thinks that Richmond’s wounded history can become an asset for the city. “Richmond could be a Mecca for dialogue, for reconciliation when people are trying to come together around difference and really create a change,” she said.

“I feel like Richmond has a really amazing opportunity to position itself in a very different light than it has been by taking the very ugliest part of its history and turning that into the most beautiful part of its future.”

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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