Annette Miller challenges businesses to rethink their priorities.
0920 Execprofile Issue 1
Photograph by Kaia Calhoun Photography

Annette Miller, 51, founder/CEO of EQT By Design, is the daughter of a German mother and military father who moved around a lot until finally settling in Minnesota long enough for her to attend middle and high school. “I’m from everywhere,” she laughs, “I’m from my parents.”

Eventually, Miller would move to Wisconsin, graduate with a degree in English from UW–Madison, and later earn a master’s degree from Edgewood College.

For years, she has built a personal brand, climbing the ranks in both city and state government before taking a private-sector job with Madison Gas and Electric in corporate marketing and communications.

She spent most of her career talking to the business community and nonprofits, trying to move the needle on improving diverse communities.

“I realized that all this time I’d been doing public policy, community, and government work. I’d been talking about equity and inclusion and how we could do better to really include the voices of the community, I’d been talking to the business community and nonprofits, and I was an activist and really heavily engaged with trying to move the needle around improving Black and brown communities.”

In April 2017, Miller opened EQT By Design, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultancy.

Tell us about EQT By Design.

We have two key components — internal and external. Most people know the internal side, designing organizations and businesses to be welcoming and inclusive, meaning everyone should have not only a seat but also a voice at the table. The external component is making sure those same groups are included when it comes to making decisions about their street, their neighborhood, and their city. That’s public engagement.

How are local businesses doing, in terms of DEI?

We know that when you look at Dane County businesses, they’re not that diverse. That’s one answer! We also know that pay gaps exist, so we’re not doing great.

Let’s think about what happened to State Street. Immediately we heard the discourse from both sides.

Two things can be true. It’s true that businesses suffered as a result of protests, but it also can be true that Black people are struggling because racism is real and has been impacting them for 400 years. It’s a societal disease we need to cure. So, both can be true. Both can be suffering at the same time. The concern is that most people want to make it an either/or.

I also know that small businesses are the best at hiring diverse employees, and the more businesses that are of color or women-led, the more diversity you get.

So, how are we doing? My response is, we’ve got work to do.

How do business owners become more diverse if qualified applicants don’t apply?
Quality comes with practice. We design unicorn questions for recruiting talent, when the reality is, it wasn’t a unicorn that came through the door. What came through the door was someone with potential.

We also need to get rid of bars that measure success. There’s a lot of bias in play when looking at performance. The biggest problem I see in terms of employers giving constructive feedback to employees of color is fear.

Rather than taking the opportunity to create and cultivate a very stellar talent, they may not engage with them at all out of fear, which makes them part of the problem. Then they wonder why that person isn’t performing.

Don’t give someone a six-month performance review if you haven’t talked to them for five months! [My company] talks to businesses about performance reviews; we look at the language they use; we demonstrate and call out how language can matter between gender and race. We push people to have a protocol and to be more consistent in terms of how they give feedback.

What people worry about the most is favoritism. If you always give certain people information and don’t give others the same information, that’s favoritism!

How do business owners check their own racist tendencies, especially if they may not realize they exist?

Businesses owners love data. So, let the data — or your team — tell you what you need to know. All those indicators are important, so are you listening? At the end of the day, who’s coming to your business?

Sometimes you may miss things because you assume it’s not your niche market. Then the question to ask is, why not?

Look at the numbers and who you’re hiring because that builds bridges and gateways to other clientele, too, and what’s so bad about that? Does your bias make you think people of color can’t afford something or wouldn’t be interested, and on what facts did you determine that?

What’s your biggest personal challenge?

I’m an African American woman raising an African American household and doing the work of race and equity. It’s always been hard to deal with the collateral damage that comes with an unequitable society.

In your opinion, what’s Dane County’s biggest challenge?
Trying to navigate through the financial pain and the emotional trauma of this pandemic. We need to get through this together, but differently than in the past, recognizing that we all have unique needs and that within those unique needs we can still help each other.

Tell me something about you that would surprise people.

I love the water and there’s nothing I love better than floating in the water on a hot summer day. All I need is a lake.

To whom would you most attribute your success?

I have to give homage to my mother, an immigrant who raised two girls who didn’t look like her but were hers. She raised us to be proud of who we are and not to expect anything less. I’d also have to say the Madison community. It’s been good to me.

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