Interview with Erik Gensler: Recognizing Our Blind Spots to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Photo Credit: Austin Rieders

This week, I’m happy to  share an interview I conducted with Erik Gensler, founder of Capacity Interactive (CI) , a digital marketing consulting firm for arts and culture. I first met Erik more than 10 years ago while working on the production of Margaret Garner for the New York City Opera. In addition to being a sought-after speaker on digital marketing for the arts, Erik also been a guest lecturer at Yale, Columbia and New York Universities. I think you will find Erik’s perspective both insightful and empowering.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts?

Erik Gensler: From a young age, I loved going to the theater and to museums. I was the type of kid who would bring a Playbill home and read every page—from looking at the accountants to donors, trying to understand all the different roles in the theater.

In high school I performed in or worked on every play, and in college I ran a student theater company. I moved to New York and looked for a “serious” job, landing in management consulting. In my twenties, I jumped around and worked in the corporate world, but it didn’t feel right I learned useful skills; I received great training and learned data analysis and PowerPoint which later served me quite well. However, I often I left the office feeling empty and was not quite fulfilling my purpose with those corporate jobs.

In my late twenties, I did a lot of soul-searching about what I really cared about. I wanted to find a role in the arts. I landed a position at TMG-The Marketing Group overseeing corporate sponsorships. In that role, I built close relationships with the directors of various departments with my primary client, Roundabout Theatre Company, and got a real sense of what it’s like to run a non-profit theater. I loved working in the arts.

Then I had an opportunity to work at New York City Opera. It was an exciting time for the company with plans for a new General Director. Digital marketing was becoming important for any business. Through books and conferences, I taught myself Google Adwords, Google Analytics and email marketing. We rebuilt City Opera’s website and worked on the brand. I was so energized working there. Once City Opera fell on hard financial times (that’s another story), I was given an opportunity to consult with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which received a major grant to improve their digital marketing. We rebuilt their website, improved their email program and began investing heavily in social and data-driven display. Early in the days of digital, I had had two opportunities to rethink digital for two major arts organizations and learned a ton in the process.

Donna: What led to the birth of your company, Capacity Interactive?

Erik: I loved going to arts conferences to share what I had learned at New York City Opera and Ailey. After my sessions, people would come up to chat and ask me for help. I then realized I loved helping people with this and eventually, I had so many opportunities, I needed to hire freelancers to help me. It became too much, and I realized I needed an office and a staff. It was scary to hire my first employee. But once I did it, Capacity Interactive took off.  We are now celebrating our 10th year in business.

Donna: Where did you see you could have an impact in the field of non-profit arts organizations?

Erik: The 20th Century was about mass media—broadcast television, newspaper, and radio. Media was designed to sell ads, and it worked well. The content funded the ads. This model of interruption—advertising ads interrupting content—built the American consumer economy of the 20th century and it was a model that arts organizations adapted and used for a long time.

Early in the 21st Century, we saw the rise of the PC and the smartphone, and consumers quickly adopted these technologies. Marketers had to figure out how to move from print and broadcast to phones and screens. It required a different way of communicating and new skills. It also required having a website, email strategy, search strategy, social media strategy and a way to measure all of this.

Consumer behavior changed which left arts organizations needing to understand how to use these tools to connect to audiences. My company had the skills, industry knowledge, and empathy to help.

Donna: Why nonprofit and not commercial theater?

Erik: The sense of mission. I like and understand their challenges. I have empathy for those working at non-profit arts organizations, having worked in several. I like the idea of an institution’s desire to build and maintain and grow an audience through building community, which is different from commercial theater which is mostly about getting people to attend once. I like working with professional marketers in non-profits. I understand their business, and we have figured out an approach using digital marketing that helps build and sustain audiences.

Donna: How did you approach thinking about your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) work? What were the influences?

Erik: We grew to a team of more than 60 employees in a short period of time. Growing a company is exhausting. There is a Japanese business rule called the “Rule of three and tens” that says every time your business grows by three times. I.e., you go from 3-10, it’s a different company, and you must rethink all of your processes. Going from 1 to 3 people, you need to rethink your entire business. Same with 3-10, 10-30, 30-90 etc.

When we were growing so fast, we were not thinking about DE&I My politics are very liberal, and I believe in equality for all, but I didn’t take the time to realize that for an organization to express that, it requires a process. When we were 20 staff, our staff was not representative of the population of NYC. We were growing so quickly we were mostly bringing in people from our professional and personal networks. There was no understanding of DE&I because we were growing so fast and trying to keep up with demand. We chose employees from the same schools and hired people we knew.

There was a moment when some of my team members and I were out to dinner in Washington, DC, the night before meeting with our clients at the Kennedy Center. The conversation with my team turned to diversity and why CI was so white. In my mind, I took a defensive position. I naively thought I understood diversity because “I’m Jewish and gay.” There was new language coming out; younger people were using the word “privilege.” (I had never heard this before).

At dinner, I remember at one point I exclaimed, “Of course I understand diversity. I am gay and Jewish.” The waiter who was clearing my plate, laughed at me. Out loud. He was African American. At that moment, my privilege became so clear to me. The privilege of being white.

I was soaking in privilege. I graduated mostly debt-free free from a private college. I had a car when I was 16. I never worried about my next meal. Police are/were not stopping people who look like me. Being gay in the arts and in New York City was not a burden but in many ways a gift. It became so clear in an instant.

Privilege from being white in the U.S. is massive, and you need to study the historical context. One of the most impactful things I ever did was visit the amazing National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. That museum begins on a slave boat, and you learn America’s sordid history of slavery. And not just limited to the South. America’s economy was built on slavery. You have to educate yourself on the historical situation and where we are now, how the American government and States created discriminatory policies towards Native Americans, African Americans, etc. Only then can you understand the privilege of being white through the bigger picture.

I aspire to help make Capacity Interactive a place where we want the world to be, which includes people from different backgrounds; levels of socio-economic privilege; sexual orientations, a diversity of abilities, etc. So, to create that, it was not acceptable to just recruit from our networks or Playbill, or graduate programs of Columbia and NYU. We had to work harder. A couple of years ago, we made a concerted effort to change and we still have lots of work to do.

First, we had to recognize our blind spots. I was defensive and had blind spots. If you recognize this, you are more open to educate yourself to learn and change.

I give massive credit to my colleagues who helped drive much of this. I could not do this without them. These are OUR ideas, not mine. We challenged ourselves to do things differently and once we did we moved quickly and still have lots of work to do like having more diverse speakers represented at our annual conference, Digital Marketing Boot Camp for the Arts. I don’t think this work ever ends.

One example I am proud of—we recruit our interns in classes and within this program, we decided to be intentional about diversity. One of the leaders here at CI, who is in charge of hiring interns, took it upon himself to ensure the majority of summer 2018 interns were from diverse backgrounds. We had 17 interns last summer and it was quite a diverse group. This is a pool from which we hire, so a number of our summer interns have already become full-time employees. Of course, this goes beyond interns. We need to embrace diversity at all levels, and hire diverse people at all levels, and we are working on that and succeeding. Our most recent class of new full-time hires was mostly non-white, and they are awesome!

Gender equality is also super important to us always but especially in this political moment. We are a company comprised of more women than men, and it is important to me that we continue to hire amazing women and give women the leadership opportunities they deserve. The majority of our consulting teams are led by women, and our run-down team (our equivalent of “senior staff”) is half women. There was a short time where we had a senior leadership team that was three men and we promoted a very talented woman to join us because she is a great leader and deserved it. But we also recognized that representation in leadership is important.

One thing I am overcoming is fear of saying the wrong thing. This topic is very sensitive, and it gets hard so people don’t want to say the wrong thing, so nothing happens.

I feel very accountable to my leadership team and the full CI team about this. I want to give credit to the people who brought awareness of this topic to me and hold me accountable every day.

Donna: What is the result in terms of how you serve your clients—is there a broader sensitivity in how you advise them? Why does it matter?  What is the impact?

Erik: Studies like this one published in Forbes Magazine, show that groups with the same backgrounds come to a conclusion quicker with less conflict. More diverse groups have more conflict but have better outcomes. By bringing diverse groups and backgrounds, many studies report a positive impact.

Also, it is the right thing to do. The reason it does not happen without intentionality is that these structures of racism and misogyny, etc., are baked into our culture. I feel a moral obligation to actively help undo them.

Donna: What are the trends you see in diversity and inclusion?

Erik: We are living in an interesting time. Most arts organizations are structured like 20th Century Corporations, with 20th Century models, and many are quite risk-averse. The 21st Century is bringing about a disruption of traditional business. Arts organizations are under-resourced, super-stretched and it’s very challenging. Doing what we used to do will not work. It is challenging work and expensive to find new audiences. If you look at population trends, in the future, there will be more non-white people in the US than white people. If you go to an orchestra concert and everyone on stage is white, it is not welcoming to new audiences. It will force our institutions to evolve to meet our communities where they are.

My closing words are—if you are a leader, you have to lean into the discomfort and won’t necessarily feel safe. I know if I hire the same people, I hire from the same schools, I will have the same results. Take a leap and hire from different backgrounds. You may have to work harder and it may look different, but make peace with that and know that it’s the right decision. You will not always feel safe, but it will work out and work out well. That’s the leap you have to take.

Donna: Thank you, Erik, for taking that leap, and sharing your experience with me. Through its own example, I believe Capacity Interactive will be able to assist many other arts organization to grow in this area, which will benefit both the arts and cultural organizations and the communities they are seeking to serve.