Tell us a little about your business.
For the last 15 years I have been doing diversity, anti-discrimination and intercultural training and consulting. My clients are global, and I have worked on projects in more than 30 countries. The focus of my work is teaching courses on awareness for cultural and other dimensions of diversity to help leaders manage diverse teams more effectively. I also provide services in talent management - how to create diverse communities and leadership in organizations, finding and retaining talent globally, and lastly, I work with companies who are trying to set up operations abroad.
What led you to this line of work?
When I graduated from Earlham, I was in the art world, but doing a lot of social change work as a volunteer on the side. I wanted to make my social change work my full-time gig somehow, but I didn't know what to focus on. I started to read books on cross-cultural psychology and diversity. After writing one of the authors for advice on how to break into the field, I went on to get my master's degree in intercultural relations, focusing on multicultural counseling. Founders in the intercultural field mentored me, I learned how to design and lead trainings, and I set up my own diversity consulting practice after that.
I know you have worked in a wide range of countries (including Romania, India, China, South Africa, and Argentina). Are there core issues that tend to apply no matter where you are working, or does your approach need to change from country to country?
It's something I call a "both/and" ... Meaning, fundamentally, people everywhere BOTH want to be treated with respect, acknowledged and recognized, loved and dealt with fairly AND how different cultures view politeness, recognition, or love can be very different. So yes, I need to change my approach. My programs are more formal, focused on content, and filled with written documentation in Europe. In South America, my programs are more fun-oriented, more about feelings and discussion and less written communication. In Asia, it's expected I will give more input and there is less discussion or overt challenging of concepts unless I have a chance to speak to participants one-on-one.
What are the points of connection between your current work and your Earlham education?
I grew up on Earlham's campus and both my mother and father (Sally Lamson, who worked in the Fine Arts Department and Professor of Spanish Howard Lamson) worked there. Their colleagues and our community in Richmond were from all over the world. We traveled a lot to Mexico and Spain as a family when I was a child. When I finally went to Earlham, I studied abroad in France. Additionally, it was always important to me to support those groups and individuals who experienced discrimination or exclusion so as a student at Earlham, I was active in the women's group, GLBT, and various cultural groups on campus. My passion for global travel, learning about cultures, and helping people work together effectively are the direct foci of my professional work with organizations today.
As the daughter of faculty, you must have come to the Earlham with a different perspective than students who had little previous knowledge of the place. So what made you choose to attend Earlham, and what surprised you about the College once you enrolled?
Growing up, I loved being a part of Earlham. Most of my friends were "Fac Brats" as we were called. My brother, Max, was in a few plays [with the Theatre Arts Department], and I worked backstage in make-up. We enjoyed seeing international movies and art exhibits at Earlham. We were friends with students and everyone knew everyone. It was a really friendly environment. As teenagers, we hung out in the coffee shop - they made a mean grilled cheese sandwich back then...
But how I decided to attend Earlham is a little bit funny... I didn't want to go to college after high school. I guess I was a rebellious professor's kid or something, but I wanted to be an artist and travel the world instead ... My Dad made a deal with me. He said try Earlham for one year and if I didn't like it, I could do what I wanted.
I fell in love with Earlham within six months of being there and quickly became serious about college. What surprised me the most is the individual attention professors paid to students. And secondly, the level of interest my fellow students had in social change, the environment, and the world in general. Going to Earlham was life-changing and I'm so glad I went, stayed, and graduated. I wouldn't be who I am today without that experience.
In recent years, the Earlham study body has become more diverse than ever, with about 15% of our students coming from outside the U.S. and representing about 70 different countries, while still drawing students from all over the U.S., including more than 20% who are eligible for Pell Grants. Our faculty is also increasingly diverse. Do you have any free advice for your alma mater?
Of course! My pleasure! I think now it's a question of two things: First, existing in an environment that is not only diverse, but truly embraces and fosters diversity. That is, I still feel Earlham needs to create an atmosphere that helps everyone in its community truly feel accepted, recognized, and included. And second, addressing students and faculty is one thing, but I think the leadership and staff at Earlham should participate actively in a diversity awareness process in order to create and implement an explicit strategy for inclusion at Earlham. In either case, Earlham could take even further advantage of and benefit from its diversity.
What's a favorite memory of your student days?
Living in Majala Jay house with seven other women, Sunsplash, all-night study sessions at Waffle House, the France program, the New York Arts program, lunch at the Co-op, my professors, my classes... Goodness, there are so many!
What's something that your classmates might be surprised to learn about you?
I helped the German government define the Anti-Discrimination law Germany uses today.
What's your idea of a great day off?
Hanging around at home with my fianceé, Larry, and my almost 16 year-old stepson, Travis.
Tell about a project you're working on (or have coming up) that you find particularly exciting.
I'm writing a book about all of my projects and experiences over the last 15 years. The idea is to present a new model on how to create authentic community in organizations. I'm very excited about it!
- interview by Jonathan Graham
Earlhamite and Publications Editor
Learn more about Melissa Lamson's company at: lamsonconsulting.com
(Posted February 22, 2010)