In May, Kimberly Ayers Shariff joined PRH as EVP, Director of Strategy for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. In this newly created role, which reports directly to Madeline McIntosh, CEO of PRH US, with a seat on the U.S. board, Kimberly will lead PRH’s implementation of its company-wide DE&I Strategic Plan and help develop a broad-based vision for the company’s future, ensuring the creation of books for everyone, by everyone, out of a culture where all feel welcome and empowered to fully participate in the process. We sat down with Kimberly to ask about her vision for the company’s DE&I work, her goals for our collective journey, and what she sees as the biggest opportunities and challenges ahead.
This is your first role in the publishing industry. Why publishing at this point in your career?
I have always been a lover of the written word. My grandmother and my mother were voracious readers. With loving and watchful eyes, they made certain that books guided and nurtured me in the same way they had experienced. The opportunity to join forces with a world class team of publishers, editors, creatives, and other publishing professionals is a dream fulfilled—my mother and grandmother are most certainly beaming down with pride and joy.
With this as a foundation, the chance to “grow up” in this industry would have been a gift. The rub was that I did not have any knowledge of this career path, nor did I know how to find out about it. That makes this opportunity all the more thrilling for me. I believe that I am stepping into this role and this world at the perfect time in my life and on my career trajectory to apply my passion, experience, and perspective to helping Penguin Random House make this industry and this art form more equitably accessible and radically welcoming to all.
What do you see as opportunities to learn and adopt from the experience you have had outside this industry?
Most recently, I came from the world of classical ballet, having served for over four years as chief administrative officer at American Ballet Theatre (ABT). There, I strived to make an extremely homogeneous, largely inaccessible world open and welcoming to a broader, more diverse range of people while maintaining the rigor and excellence upon which the art form was built and is sustained. I bring this approach with me to Penguin Random House in full force. The lessons I learned as I navigated between tradition and innovation within a creative endeavor will translate directly to the work ahead. When working to influence any endeavor with a longstanding history and imposing stature, like publishing, it’s about respect and the long game. You must evolve by infusing the valuable aspects of the past into a more expansive and innovative future. Evolution requires a consistent desire to obtain knowledge, a willingness to pay attention to detail, and a huge dose of patience.
Prior to ABT, I was at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. I started just as the $1 billion redevelopment project began, working to help assure we weren’t just tearing down travertine and replacing it with glass but also inviting new audiences in alongside the light. My aim was to help create a radical welcome to more diverse audience members, so people who had never been to or felt welcome at Lincoln Center would come in droves. We provided more in-depth information and education about the programming to make it more comfortable to consume. So I come to this position with the belief that educating aspiring authors and other professionals about how to enter and navigate the publishing world is of paramount importance.
I began my exploration of equity and inclusion at Black Entertainment Television in the legal and business affairs department. Helping to create a platform for BIPOC artists was an honor. I believe that providing separate avenues for exposure and opportunity is a vital part of advancing diversity. However, I also believe that we must evolve to make space for everyone everywhere, not just in spaces specifically aimed at or designated for a particular type of art or artist.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities in our DE&I work? Where do you foresee challenges and barriers?
Penguin Random House has the ability, poise, and innovative spirit to influence the industry to open up and support authors, illustrators, other contributors, and employees to live into their rich diversity and advance narratives that span the entire spectrum of the human experience. As such, harnessing the collective impact of all the wonderful work that is going on in the DE&I realm across our corporate and publishing divisions is a huge opportunity. The aggregation of these efforts will amplify their impact.
Our organization also has the ability—and the obligation—to introduce a whole generation of individuals to the magic and power of the written word. With that comes the responsibility to provide content that everyone can connect with or see themselves in. The predominant challenge lies in continuing to expand our corporate mindset to place value on narratives and perspectives that have not traditionally been seen as valid, important, or viable in our industry, our society, or our world. If we can achieve this within our corporate culture, and challenge our author and agent communities to do so as well, we can effect significant and sustainable change in this industry. Expanding horizons and increasing the desire to step outside a comfort zone are very difficult, but not insurmountable, endeavors.
Within our company, you’re known for saying “Inclusion first.” Can you talk more about what that means?
It’s certainly clear that we need to diversify our ranks in order to find, acquire, and optimally support ever more diverse narratives, and I believe that we should do so with laser focus and urgency. However, in order to welcome this richly diverse talent with open arms, we must first assure that certain conditions are in place: Each and every member of our community must have access to the tools, resources, and support they need to thrive and a safe, equitable environment where they matter and belong. I use a dinner party analogy to drive this point home:
You have a guest list that includes interesting, talented, and influential people from around the globe. They are clamoring to attend and you are excited to have them come—to enjoy their company, learn from them, and have “fabulous party” bragging rights. However, you make plans for their arrival without taking into account your guests’ needs. It’s a global crowd but you don’t ask anyone where they are coming from or what they might need to bring. You don’t account for any dietary restrictions or physical limitations that may need accommodation. While you have the party catered, you don’t take the time to clean your house before everyone arrives. When this impressive crowd shows up, some people can’t climb the stairs to your third floor walk-up so they leave. Those who make it inside the apartment are quite uncomfortable because the place is a mess. Once you sit down to dinner, you realize that people’s plates are sparse because each person has had to turn down different parts of the meal for various reasons. Conversation is stilted. Your guests are focused on the dust, the fact that they had to leave their suitcase in your lobby unattended, and their inability to eat the carnivore-focused meal because they are vegetarian. They are uncomfortable and they feel not only like they don’t belong at the party, but that their needs don’t matter to you. As a result, you don’t get to hear any of their fascinating stories or collect any of their valuable advice, and they certainly don’t feel like they’re at their best. Why invite these extraordinary individuals to your home but miss out on what they have to offer because you’re not prepared?
This illustrates what I mean by “Inclusion first.” Although we can and should work on a parallel track to increase diversity, I argue that we should place paramount importance on getting our house in order, allowing us to welcome our guests warmly. This means continuing to focus on creating conditions within which all employees are comfortable expressing every part of their multifaceted identities at work; know that their unique needs and perspectives will be recognized and respected; are provided with the tools, resources, and support they need to thrive; and are given equitable opportunities to grow, contribute, and realize their full potential in their roles.
With these aspects in place within our culture and consistently applied to the employee experience, we will be poised to interface with authors, agents, illustrators, and all other stakeholders in our industry at an optimal level. From this vantage point, we will be able to acquire, support, develop, market, and sell content that is wholly representative, accessible, and appealing to a continuously expanding audience of readers. We will consistently be able to make good on our mission to “ignite a universal passion for reading by creating books for everyone.”