Surprise Lessons at the Intersection of Religion & Business
March 23, 2021
I like to tell people that the two most valuable things I learned from my undergraduate education were how to meditate and how to budget. I keep a whiteboard up in my room that tracks my progress to financial freedom, and in big purple letters across the top it reads, “Love and Money are abundant!” I am now a graduate student of social entrepreneurship, and I sometimes wonder how much of my interest in business for social impact stems from my personal philosophy about “mindful” money. For me, my graduate program is an opportunity to use the gifts that I am called to share with the world to create pathways for money to flow how it is supposed to (this is an idea borrowed from Lynne Twist’s book Soul of Money, which I highly recommend). Social entrepreneurship is a creative spiritual practice that brings to life the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible (The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible is another great book I highly recommend).
A curiosity about how my own spiritual beliefs shape my approach to business led me to google back in October of last year, “training at the intersection of religion and business”. One cold email to Paul Lambert from the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation and a phone call later, and the idea for a Religious and a Racial Equity in the Workplace training series at USC was born.
About 4 months in the making, the 4 part Religious and Racial Equity in the Workplace training series took place every Thursday in February on Zoom for 1 hour, and I have never felt so humbled by the unexpected outcomes of an initiative I helped lead. I could never have dreamed about the unexpected multi-campus and multi-identity participation that took place. So many of my assumptions about the series were challenged, and so many surprise doors opened.
Surprise Lesson #1: Support may come from unexpected places. I originally envisioned the development of this series as a collaboration between my graduate program’s student association and our business school’s office of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Yet, as planning and advertising progressed, to my surprise, we ended up hosting interdisciplinary graduate students and staff from across the university, as well as graduate students, staff, and faculty from the University of Pennsylvania, Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount University, and St. Mary’s College of California. And the participation increased week by week. I had no idea that an email request to help promote our event sent to various business schools with no prior connections would have such an impact.
Surprise Lesson #2: Jesus was right about the asking and receiving, seeking and finding. At times, it felt scary to ask strangers for their time or support, but overcoming the fear of rejection ultimately helped us connect with guest speakers and other opportunities. The series’ first session was a one-hour training about religious and racial accommodation and policies in the workplace. Paul Lambert, who normally leads these training for corporations over half-day or multiple-day workshops, worked with our team to make this training possible over Zoom and within budget. He normally doesn’t lead these trainings at the intersection of race and religion, rather gender and religion, but he also worked with our team to customize the training to meet our learning outcomes. The timing of our training happened to be right before the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation’s Faith@Work ERG Conference, and Paul helped us secure discounted tickets for training participants to attend the conference, too. A week later when some participants reported back about their favorite sessions at the conference, we were grateful that we had the courage to ask for the discount.
Surprise Lesson #3: Religion influences our attitudes and behaviors at work, and interfaith leadership is vital to creating workspaces welcoming of everyone’s full, authentic selves. Guest speakers in follow-up sessions included Farah Siddiqui, Global President of Faithforce at Salesforce, and Dr. Barbara A. McGraw, Director of the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism and Professor of Social Ethics, Law, and Public Life at St. Mary’s College of California. From Farah, we learned how to start employee resource groups (ERGs) for faith and belief at work and that interfaith groups specifically can be the key to creating workplaces inclusive of everyone. For example, accommodating a religious diet or alcohol restriction also accommodates vegans, vegetarians, and folks who abstain from alcohol for other reasons. One of the participants in this session was a human resources employee, and it was the coolest thing to learn that the day after our session, she advocated for an interfaith ERG at her workplace. From Dr. McGraw, we learned that we are workaholics in the United States partly due to our deep roots in Protestant culture. If you believe in hell, you’re likely to work harder than those who don’t, in order to save your soul (but not your body). This has a myriad of implications for how we relate to and care for our own bodies, as well as how we oppress bodies that aren’t “normal” or “productive”. Attitudes about and approaches to work vary by the deep religious roots of different cultures, and this is why religious literacy is important for managers in business and other professions.
After this experience, I may have to start telling people that the most valuable thing I learned in graduate school is that life can be full of surprises when you give yourself permission to explore your deepest curiosities and boldly, but humbly, ask for what you want. What started as a fascination with mindful money grew into a training series about religion in the workplace. A question about the intersection of business, faith, and social change turned into a deeper appreciation for how culture and religion impact business and our sense of belonging as managers, colleagues, and employees. I see now that the topic of religion, which once felt taboo in the workplace, is actually one of the most important “DEI categories” to make room for at the conference table.
I am excited for what the corporate world will look like when interfaith employee resource groups and workplace chaplains for spiritual care are the norms and not the exception. Might we all finally be able to bring our whole selves to work, so that at last our skin color, our sexual orientation, and our religious and non-religious beliefs, are not only accommodated, but in harmony, valued, and appreciated? It’s your turn now – be bold and dare to ask for the more beautiful workplace (and the world) your heart knows is possible.
P.S. Brittany Baker-Brosseau, Joseph Russ, and I have been working together for the past year leading events for leadership development and self-care during Covid-19, and without their amazing support, this series would not have been possible.
Angie Luo is an Office Coordinator at the USC Marshall School of Business Undergraduate International Programs Office. She graduated in 2017 with a B.A. in NGOs and Social Change and Social Sciences with an Emphasis in Psychology. She is currently a Master’s student of Social Entrepreneurship at USC where she is exploring the best ways to mobilize communities and funding resources to create housing security and sustainable neighborhoods. Angie is fascinated by the relationship between government, corporations, and nonprofits and believes that interfaith cooperation is essential for creating lasting social impact.