Kicking off our I-Suite® series in 2021 is Marissa Davis, Founder & Principal of social impact consultancy Tallawah Consulting. Marissa is a seasoned social impact professional, inclusion strategist, and problem solver with over 10 years of experience in spearheading innovative initiatives with a focus on underrepresented communities. We caught up with Marissa for a timely conversation on equitable design, adapting an organization to new social norms, and creating a more inclusive work culture.

How do you measure success in your work at Tallawah Consulting?

It varies. The metrics of success for one engagement might not be the same for another. The way I look at that is really based on the project itself. For example, if we are looking at the impact of a company that offers diversity and inclusion training to leaders in the for-profit space, ways of measuring success for the effectiveness of that program might be the extent to which these companies come again for another workshop or the extent to which companies take the information and share it with somebody else.

That might be a different set of metrics than if I’m working with a company that is trying to offer a product that is more inclusive or that is speaking to a broader population of customers. Maybe the metrics of success for that client are approached from a customer satisfaction standpoint. You’ll want to see how the target consumers feel about the product. Does it really resonate with them? Is it meeting their specific needs? 

The metrics of success look different, but it’s the measuring that is really important. That starts with really understanding what the intended outcomes for each of my clients are, and then reverse engineering to ensure that we’re doing the right things that can achieve those outcomes.


Hiring practices are often guided by the thought that employees should mesh well with the employee culture. What problems does this line of thought present? And how can this practice be worked around? 

Even when I entered the working world, a little while ago, the language that I often heard was culture fit. So when you go through an interview process, beyond the skills that you have to offer, the employer is trying to get a sense of whether or not you’re a cultural fit for that group.

First, I want to make sure it’s clear that diversity, equity, and inclusion are three different things. People tend to lump them into one. Diversity is a way of celebrating difference. But if there is no way to leverage that difference in a way that presents fair and equal access to all of those who are different, then that isn’t equity, and certainly that isn’t inclusion. And if several people who see themselves, their experience, and their perspectives as different from the dominant culture and find that none of those things are actually shaping how that company thinks and operates, then that’s not particularly inclusive. 

Many studies have validated the fact that diversity breeds innovation. For a lot of companies and organizations that are trying to be more innovative, that doesn’t happen by accident. By and large, the conditions for sparking innovation have to be created or nurtured for that to happen. And one of the ways that happens is by having very different perspectives in a space where people approach a problem from different angles, different lived experiences, and different skill sets. 

When you focus on just culture fit, you will have a lot of the same kind of people with the same kind of thinking. And you might not move as far as you want to in the innovation bucket. Certainly, you might have creative ideas, and it isn’t to say that there aren’t some good ideas that could come out of it. But the potential for even greater innovation arises when you have a much more diverse subset of individuals, perspectives, and lived experiences mixing in the same pot. So instead of thinking about ‘culture fit,’ it is important we revise hiring practices to something closer to ‘culture add.’


Some businesses were built with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind. But others were not built with these principles in mind, and they have to adapt. What difficulties arise when organizations have to try to adapt to new standards, rather than being built that way from the ground up?

Within equity and inclusion work, the ideal circumstance is to weave that into the ethos of the company from the very beginning. Because the likelihood of that sustaining and being a core part of the culture is much greater. Obviously, there are a number of companies and organizations that aren’t necessarily in that position, and they’re now realizing how much of a priority that needs to be and are now trying to figure out how to adapt to that reality.

When I think about this work, I think about it like getting a new pair of shoes. Your foot has grown, and you’ve outgrown the size seven or eight, and you need to get into a size nine. But you’re still inside your smaller shoes; it’s uncomfortable, right? There are parts that don’t feel quite right. But once you can find the right pair of shoes that better fit the size of your now evolved and growing foot, it feels much better. And there’s much more room to be able to walk around in the way that you want to comfortably. The process of adapting an organization to DE&I principles is akin to that feeling of finding new shoes. At first, it’s is new territory. For some people, they don’t have the language or self-awareness to talk about these issues. They don’t know what that actually looks or feels like. For others, the changes that need to be made are more than they are willing to make.

Having a product person think about how to design a product around Black and Brown communities, for example, might not be their usual way of thinking about impact and how that intersects with inclusion. But you start by having those conversations and having the right people in the room who can help you have those conversations and then think about what are measurable ways or actionable next steps that you can take to move in that direction to be able to grow into that new pair of shoes. And that process, of course, doesn’t look the same for every organization and every company.

There are lots of people who have been asking for diversity trainings and workshops over the past few months, especially since George Floyd’s murder and the racial reckoning that this country has been undergoing. But a one time workshop is not sufficient if you’re really trying to address the systemic issues within your organization, such as if you’re trying to move beyond just having a more diverse employee base and into questions about how you weave this commitment within the core services that you offer and the core philanthropic endeavors that you engage in. That takes a little more thought, a little more time, and a little more intentionality.


Throughout this conversation, you’ve mentioned the importance of trackable metrics. How critical are KPI (Key Performance Indicator) metrics for companies? When do you recommend it, and what happens when they neglect to measure KPIs?

It’s funny, because I have evolved in my own thinking around this. When I was a very idealistic young person who had just come out of college and was ready to save the world, I thought that if people just saw the good work that you were doing, then that was sufficient. Once I learned that not everyone speaks the same language as the social justice work I was doing, I realized that I needed to figure out different ways of communicating with folks in different areas and sectors. I needed to be able to speak different languages in those spaces. 

So perhaps, in my social justice circles, I might use some words or phrases that are more relevant to that group. Within the business space, it’s a little different. And I realized that one of the ways to become more fluent across these different languages is to be able to tell a story with actual evidence to back it up. It isn’t sufficient to just say ‘I worked with this community in Philadelphia, and I saw smiles on their faces, and that was it.’ It has to go to the next point of actually knowing the group of people that you’re working with and getting data from their experience interacting with your product or service. You have to see the amount of people who used your product or service and quality of their use. Then, from all of that data, you must be able to then tell a story to make a case for whether or not it makes sense for funders to put their resources behind it. 

You have to have the data to back that up. For me, metrics absolutely need to be a priority. We are continuing to move into a data driven world, and having a way to structure and validate the work that you’re doing is critical. You need to be able to measure in some way the influence, the impact, and the reach that your work is having on the end users or customers. Metrics are critical to be able to make it to the next level. If you want to scale your business and go from a single community to other regions, or even global, then metrics really matter.


What are some small steps that companies can engage in to create a more inclusive culture that people from all backgrounds will want to be part of?

This is a question that a lot of people ask. What are things that we could do to take care of this situation? I recognize the impulse to want to grasp on to something tangible to try to figure out what are some initial steps, but I think my response might not be so satisfying. The answer is: it really depends, and it varies based on the environment that you’re in. 

First and foremost, there is an aspect of listening, understanding, and educating yourself around what it takes to foster community. Whether that is reading certain resources or consulting with people whose work revolves around fostering more inclusive communities. Tap into their wisdom to find out how to do that. If you don’t know exactly how to go about it, try and figure out who can help you get those answers. Try to find the right partners, experts, collaborators, that can help you understand the situation better. They can help you achieve some kind of baseline for understanding the climate, which is necessary if you want to change it. 

So doing a bit of a diagnostic, a temperature checking, for folks to understand where there are blind spots and gaps. Because, back to my earlier conversation around being able to design and measure the right outcome, you have to know your baseline first, so that you can know what you’re designing for or against.

Then, another consideration is literally just asking people. What do they need to thrive within this working environment? Ask your customers what is it that they need for this product or service to be something that they would actually purchase. What do you need for this product to be helpful to you? I think genuinely asking the folks that you’re directly trying to impact helps, because then you can design around them. Because if you’re thinking about creating a product or nurturing an environment that has different folks within the same space, it really matters to hear from all of those perspectives. Think about ways in which you can bring to the forefront.   

Finally, think about what is necessary to make someone feel seen, even if it is just at happy hour – so many people are doing virtual happy hours nowadays. You can ask people to bring something that has a lot of meaning to them, or to bring their favorite dish and have people talk about why it’s their favorite or who taught them how to do it. Food in general has such a cultural resonance and significance that you’ll get to hear more of people’s stories. That disarms them a bit. Just the process of storytelling and having people share creates an environment where everybody’s experiences can be presented and heard. 

And then you think about how you can leverage that to make space for future conversations. Because people feel a bit more comfortable with relating to you as a person. Whether it is working alongside employees, or if it’s customers within your target market, all of these people are just people. These aren’t just transactions; there are human beings at the end of this. You have to think about what it takes for me to put myself in the shoes of that other human. Once you think about that, then you can bring to the forefront an environment that allows that person to feel fully human.


About Marissa Davis

Marissa Davis is a seasoned social impact, inclusion strategist and problem solver with over 10 years of experience in spearheading innovative social impact initiatives with a focus on underrepresented communities. As Founder and Principal of Tallawah Consulting, she leverages her experiences working at the intersection of various sectors, including law, public policy, tech, social entrepreneurship and business. She has previously held numerous impact-driven roles across the social and private sectors, Senior Manager of Impact at WeWork, where she launched a community impact study to inform the company’s social impact and inclusion initiatives in neighborhoods where their co-working spaces were located, and Director of Leadership and Civic Engagement at RISE Urban Institute of San Diego, where she helped to diversify the face of leadership in the city, and at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. 

She is also a professor in the field of social entrepreneurship and innovation, serving as an Adjunct Lecturer at City College’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership for students pursuing their Master’s in Public Administration. 

She graduated from Swarthmore College with honors in History and received her Master in Public Policy(MPP) from Harvard Kennedy School, with a concentration in social and urban policy, and is the recipient of various awards, including Harvard’s Public Service Fellowship, the Cultural Bridge Fellowship from Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, and an inaugural Frank Five Fellow through Swarthmore’s Aydelotte Foundation.

About Tallawah Consulting

Tallawah Consulting is committed to creating innovative impact solutions that enable the development of more equitable, resilient and inclusive communities. We do this by helping mission-driven brands maximize their social impact by using purpose, innovation, and inclusion to drive their core strategy forward.

We were born out of an earnest commitment to engage in work that is solutions-driven and impact-centric. Tallawah recognizes two primary needs of companies and organizations.  The first need is for companies and organizations to be more socially responsible in a way that is more effectively aligned with their values, company priorities, and responsive to the emergent social needs of their customers or the communities in which they do business. Whether it is redesigning a corporate social responsibility strategy or designing a more innovative social impact program that leverages what the company does best for a greater social benefit, we combine our experiences in social policy, social innovation and program design to craft a more effective impact solution customized to your organization’s particular needs. 

The second need is for companies and organizations to operate in ways that embed equity and inclusion in the work they do, both internally and externally. Whether it is determining strategies and programs with executive leadership on nurturing a more inclusive environment for employees, advising companies on how to diversify their customer base, or deepen their commitment to championing social issues that can manifest a more fair and just world, we are prepared to meet these needs in a thoughtful and evidence-based way.