Bendita Cynthia Malakia: Why I Chose to Be a Diversity and Inclusion Champion

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5 Sep 2019

By Bendita Cynthia Malakia, Founder of the Malakia Movement LLC.

THROUGHOUT my legal career, I have had the privilege of graduating from, and working for, internationally recognized institutions. I am a graduate of Barnard College, the undergraduate women’s college of Columbia University, and Harvard Law School. I spent seven years as an associate at an Am Law 100 law firm and I have in-house counsel experience at the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, as well as in the Private Wealth Management group at Goldman Sachs. These prestigious institutions recruit and attract the best and the brightest diverse legal professionals in the world, but such professionals rarely achieve designated leadership roles. While diversity and inclusion training and programming are more prevalent and tend to be better executed in corporate environments, each institution had challenges in figuring out how to create environments where diverse legal professionals can make meaningful contributions, integrating their diversity while being their authentic selves. I call this the challenge of unlocking the potential of diversity. I left my legal career to launch the Malakia Movement, a professional coaching and diversity consultancy for diverse legal professionals and legal organizations, to use my understanding of diversity and inclusion efforts in the legal industry and my professional coaching competencies to help diverse lawyers live law fully.

Recent incidents of murder in the United States, including hate crimes against LGBT+ persons and Black males and police officers during police encounters, have captured the attention of the nation and the international community. The events in Orlando, FloridaLouisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, Texas are all equally tragic and follow on a long history of hate crimes that have been perpetrated in this country. As a Black, cisgender, bisexual woman who is married to a woman, living in Dallas, each of these events has highlighted the vulnerability of historically marginalized persons, including myself, at the hands of those with bias who feel entitled to use that bias to achieve their own objectives.

These events also highlight the core truth that implicit bias exists in each of us and impacts the organizations for which we work in various ways, particularly with respect to culture, policies, hiring, and retention.

  • Bias negatively impacts culture by impeding the ability of diverse personnel to bring their authentic selves to work, which is necessary for them to fully invest in the organization and feel supported. For instance, staff at organizations that donate to political candidates with policies that negatively impact diverse people are likely to work for themselves, rather than the organization.
  • Bias causes organizations to not implement policies that recognize the existence and humanity of their diverse personnel. It is imperative that legal organizations construct and implement policies to support current transgender workers, encourage all Trans workers, whether out or not, to be their authentic selves at work, and have a system in place to deal with transgender workers before hiring. Letting bias lead and failing to be prepared can lead to lawsuits and complaints to state and federal diversity commissions.
  • Hiring diverse legal talent is typically the primary tool of most legal organizations to combat bias. However, law firm partners and human resources officers often lament that the diversity pipeline has dried up. These sentiments are often the result of being unaware or unwilling to find diverse candidates at law schools outside of the top 20 and not understanding the raw ingredients of potential unclothed in pedigree. This leads to all legal organizations sourcing from the same law schools and expecting cookie cutter legal experience.
  • When I speak with law firm partners and human resources personnel, retention of diverse personnel is typically one of the biggest issues that they raise. One of the core principles of implicit bias theory is that, while negative biases undoubtedly exist and impact marginalized groups, in-group preference is the real culprit. We prefer those who are like us, which means that those outside the group do not receive the same work assignments, invitations to meetings, opportunities to interact with clients, and sponsorship from senior attorneys. My experience with diverse lawyers is that they all want the same thing: an equal opportunity to use their education, skills, insights and unique gifts to serve their clients to their best potential. Denying them these substantive work and business development opportunities is denying the legal organization the opportunity to retain these diverse lawyers.

The best ways to combat historical inequities and implicit bias are to implement policies, practices and programs that diminish the impact of such inequities and bias. Generally, from the diversity perspective, this may include using technology platforms or algorithms in hiring (e.g., UnitiveGapJumpers), conducting substantive work audits to ensure diverse legal professionals have the same access to work and business development opportunities, sponsoring cultural events and dialogue, and ensuring supplier diversity.

It is clear that lawyers, and the legal organizations that they serve, are not strangers to these biases. For those of us who have spent years working in the diversity and inclusion space, the challenges feel daunting. Florynce Kennedy, a Black, feminist, American lawyer oft proclaimed, “Don’t agonize, organize.” The biggest impact a person can have is within her personal or professional sphere of influence. For me, that includes using my experience as a high performing lawyer, my knowledge of crafting and executing diversity and inclusion strategy, and my training as a professional coach to work with high potential and high performing lawyers, legal departments and law firms. Founding the Malakia Movement was my way of getting organized.

Through the Malakia Movement, I provide professional coaching services to diverse attorneys to help them increase their productivity, improve specific skills, manage work-life balance, live and work authentically, tap into their values and the values of their legal organizations, and find synergies between those sets of values to achieve their goals. My coaching process utilizes Core Energy Coaching techniques and developmental techniques that raise awareness and consciousness, allowing diverse lawyers to progress beyond their limiting beliefs to better understand how legal organizations work. I also conduct training where I offer my experiences as a former law firm associate and in-house counsel to provide diverse lawyers insights on how to serve their clients and succeed within a law firm.

As lawyers, each of us has the responsibility to zealously help our clients in the best way that we can. At the most basic level, the only way to stop the violence is for diverse and non-diverse people to have more exposure to each other and to engage with each other on a daily basis. Facilitating the equitable achievements of diverse people demonstrates to diverse and non-diverse people that all people can achieve, are worthy of consideration and possess the same humanity as non-diverse people. The Malakia Movement ensures, through professional coaching, that diverse legal professionals are empowered to fully take control of their legal careers and that law firms implement the structural changes to allow diverse legal professionals to succeed. I call it a ‘movement’ because I truly believe that through this successful undertaking, diverse and non-diverse legal professionals will be able to understand each other better and work together more authentically. I encourage each of you to extend those efforts to the cause of diversity and inclusion in the spheres of influence you call your own.

Bendita Cynthia Malakia is the founder of the Malakia Movement, a professional and personal empowerment consultancy that helps diverse legal professionals live authentic and successful lives through executive and professional coaching, diversity consulting and training.

Prior to the launch of the Malakia Movement in 2016, Bendita, a Barnard woman and Harvard-trained lawyer, spent seven years at Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP (formerly Fulbright & Jaworski LLP) in Washington, DC representing international financial institutions making financial investments in infrastructure, energy and other life changing projects in emerging markets, with a particular focus on Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. During her time at Norton Rose Fulbright, Bendita undertook a one-year secondment to International Finance Corporation, the private sector financing arm of the World Bank, in Nairobi, Kenya and Washington, DC. At Norton Rose Fulbright, Bendita was involved in numerous diversity initiatives, including founding the US LGBT Working Group, launching the US LGBT Affinity Network, and serving as firm liaison to the DC Chapter of the Women’s Energy Network.

In 2015, Bendita joined Goldman Sachs as Vice President and Assistant General Counsel in its Private Wealth Management global lending business in Irving, Texas, where she spent one year advising the business on sophisticated lending transactions to ultra high net worth clients. At Goldman, Bendita was on the Steering Committee and in charge of the Career Development Pillar for the Dallas Black Network, was an active member of LGBT Network and led a personal and professional development discussion group for Black women in Goldman Sachs’ Irving office.

Bendita has been recognized for her work as a finance lending lawyer, including being named (1) a 2015 Rising Star by Super Lawyers, (2) to Who’s Who Legal – Project Finance in Washington, DC for 2015, and (3) to Who’s Who in Black Dallas in 2016. She currently sits on the Board of Directors of the National LGBT Bar, where she co-chaired the Corporate Counsel Institute in 2015, and was previously a member of the Board of Directors of the Harvard Real Estate Academic Initiative from 2008-2016 and a founder of the Harvard Real Estate Alumni Organization. Bendita lives in Dallas, Texas with Chauntel, her wonderful wife and an Aetna pharmacist.