Duran Group founder on the road from East Oakland to Park Avenue, and the challenges of business diversity
By Carol Amoruso, Editor, HAV
Business consultant Anna Duran has had a prolific and varied career. She’s been a psychotherapist, educator, and entrepreneur. She spent nearly 20 years teaching at Colombia University, at Teacher’s College and later at the School of Business, where her interests in business management and workplace diversity converged. Today, she continues to consult with major firms on diversity, as well as on career development, strategic planning, and management training. Some of her clients have been Citibank, Avon Products, Morgan Stanley and E.I. DuPont.
Springing from her personal background and upbringing in East Oakland, this convergence of diversity and management strategy is key to the approach she brings to her clients (numbering, in addition, IBM, Ford Motor Company, Merrill Lynch, and the Government Accounting Office). From the time she was plucked from the ‘hood in East Oakland and dropped into an elite high school in a tonier part of town, Duran has viewed and experienced the world through the prism of race, gender and class. These three key players in the American ethos form the basis for much of the research she has done. Through her firm, the Duran Group, she routinely treads the tightrope of assisting corporations in maximizing efficiency while ensuring that her clients comply with the imperative for inclusion—of folks like her.
Duran co-authored a landmark study on executives of color, Diversity in the Executive Suite: Creating Successful Career Paths and Strategies, co-sponsored by Korn/Ferry International (www.kornferry.com/) and Columbia University Business School. The research turned up “tons of names of people” highly qualified and experienced who’d been bypassed for advancement, and provided a smoking gun in evidence of glass ceiling barriers.
While she often finds some willingness among employers to confront such problems, Duran distrusts that firms will do the right thing for women and minorities on good faith alone. Rather, she was convinced the remedy had to be affirmative action — strictly enforced and transparent. (Duran completed another highly-regarded study, also under the aegis of Korn/Ferry, What Women Want in Business: A Survey of Executives and Entrepreneurs. It made surprising revelations about women’s career goals, especially in the tech industries.)
Yet, she also observes that breaking through from discrimination to opportunity, adversity to productivity is a two-way street.
In researching workplace problems, Duran’s approach is at once theoretical and hands-on, investigative and geared to on-the-spot results. Problems, for Duran, beg individualized solutions. She explains, for example, that when that all-too prevalent glass ceiling won’t lift, picking up one’s marbles and moving on is the obvious and automatic response, but it’s not always advisable; in the long run, flight might prove counterproductive.
“If you’re experiencing discrimination or racism in the workplace,” she observes, “[it’s important] to understand that it’s not always meant personally, but a disease…So, rather than to personalize it right away, see what you can learn from these folks and put that to use.”
She cautions that owning one’s own business or making a big move to a new firm may lead to opportunity for advancement, cachet and increased prosperity, but are not suited to everyone. A major career change may be impractical or too disruptive for some. In such cases, making a resounding splash with a special project masterfully completed within the obdurate firm might be just what’s needed to shatter that ceiling.
“[See] if there’s anything [in their bias] that works for you,” she says. Turning adversity into advantage is trademark Duran.
From East Oakland to Park Avenue
Given the circles she moves in, Duran admits that she often finds herself in a cultural no-man’s-land, between her background and where she’s traveled in her career. She tells of being taken aback after a meeting at Harvard on corporate governance at which she’d been outspoken, when a Latino male approached her, chiding her with, “You’re not like the rest of us.”
It’s been a long haul from growing up in East Oakland, California, but one that gives her pleasure to recall; her childhood is a frequent point of reference and retains an enduring vividness, perhaps due to her early training in human psychology. In any event, East Oakland meant growing up Mexican American and close to tradition; “Mande usted” was the ethos at home where the old ways, deference and respect for one’s elders were formative, and where her abuelita (grandmother) had much to say about succeeding generations maintaining those traditions.
There were a number of siblings, too, with whom to both compete and face the system as a unified force hell-bent on high achievement. Beyond, the streets provided early and lasting assertiveness training; living amongst a bunch of feisty African Americans, “speaking up was something you had to do,” she says.
East Oakland is in her still, and an identification with working class people, even while her success has also been influenced by forays into the white elite – whether by consulting with the upper echelons of Wall Street or, on a more personal level, living for a number of years in a silk-stocking Park Avenue coop.
The experience of living on Park Avenue and joining the coop board seems to have been particularly illuminating for Duran. With a kind of pride mixed with wonderment, she describes those years as having opened windows onto ruling-class America that even her corporate experiences hadn’t unshuttered.
“I learned a lot from the white affluent group of folks,” she confesses. “They seemed to be more interested in exchanging knowledge about things as opposed to my Latino friends….We’d talk about politics and about world views and about cultural differences and about how different communities might interpret things. And there was a real eagerness, even though we had disagreements.”
She gained a deeper understanding of class barriers, and as a board member was able to advocate successfully for the building’s maintenance staff, the majority of whom were Latinos. She is clearly proud of that accomplishment, an instance when finding herself in the cultural middle proved to the advantage of all.
The experience of living on Park Avenue also provided insight into the privilege upper-class Americans enjoy. Duran had stepped into a whole new world where one need not always be turning around in fear of a knife or gun wielder coming up from behind. But 9/11 exposed the vulnerability in us all, more critically perhaps in the ivory tower elites who’d had, until then, no reason not to live blithely. By revisiting her roots, Duran says she was able to help her neighbors better understand, share and cope with their vulnerability.
The question of whether cashing in on Wall Street’s mega salaries and high profiles signifies arrival, finding the American Dream, entails revisiting the richness of life in her poor and traditional yet values-predicated family.
“Yeah,” muses Anna Duran as she thinks the question through. “I think corporate America can help…women and minorities to attain well, to get titled and positioned. But that shouldn’t be the only part of our dream. Our dream should be to fulfill our passions, our real talents and abilities.”
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