Articles‎ > ‎Recent Articles‎ > ‎

Diversity trainer shines light on a dicey subject

Washington Business Journal - by Jennifer Nycz-Conner Staff Reporter

Joanne S. Lawton
Flame Thrower: Mauricio Velasquez, CEO of The Diversity Training Group in Herndon, wastes no time on niceties.

Forget the applause. Mauricio Velasquez thrives on being the most hated guy in the room. "I get jazzed when somebody sends me a death threat," he says.

The president and CEO of The Diversity Training Group in Herndon does not make any apologies when he launches into training mode, whether it's for a group of hundreds or for one very hostile executive.

To combat the eye-roll factor, he also speaks in parables and does not waste time with niceties or gauzy, sanitized words. Instead, Velasquez tells stories of outward, direct and public comments that will make the hair stand up on the back of your arms, with details of incidents that are hard to believe happened in 1968, let alone 2008.

Some are hostile and hateful, such as a black doll with a penny nail through its forehead, dangling from a hangman's noose. Others feature characters saying things that may very well be more ignorant than hateful but that are shocking, such as one executive telling a pregnant African-American employee that she looks more like Aunt Jemima each day. He's not making this up, Velasquez says. It does happen.

What he does not do is blame and shame. To him, the epitome of a bad diversity trainer is a person who polarizes the group. "I don't do any of that kind of work," he says. Trainers who point to all the white people in the room and start explaining why racial discord is their fault only turn people off.

Instead, Velasquez makes it personal by sharing stories of his family. He talks about how his kids are growing up with a foot in two different worlds as the offspring of a white mother and a Hispanic father. Or how he got interested in diversity training. As the eldest son of Colombian immigrants growing up in Arlington, he remembers being in a department store with his mother, who looks white but speaks with a very heavy accent. A smiling clerk would step up to help her, but the moment his mother started speaking would jump back, "almost like a hive of bees was coming out of my mother's mouth."

His schedule is evidence that while discrimination and harassment may wear a subtle disguise these days, they still exist. He has conducted training in 49 states, flies more than 115,000 miles a year and is training 20 out of 22 billable days per month.

Whether it is a large seminar of 500 people or a private office of one, Velasquez knows that he is walking into a supercharged room each time he dives into an assignment. He trains a spotlight on uncomfortable, confrontational subject matter and dances between multiple opposing groups in every room -- the weak, the powerful, those who feel wronged, the ignorant, the bigots and those who just wish the problem would go away.

Some clients are reactive and call for help with a specific incident. Others are proactive and recognize that the work force's composition is changing seemingly overnight. They realize that to succeed they have to change. That means giving managers new tools to learn how to do their jobs better.

"The typical person can barely manage people like themselves, let alone people that are different," Velasquez says.

One of his all-time favorite clients was the Alabama Association of Chiefs and Assistant Chiefs of Police. Before giving a presentation on discrimination to 500 cops in a hotel in Montgomery, Ala., Velasquez made a quick stop in the bathroom. While washing his hands, he saw two officers. He asked what was bothering them. "I gotta go to this [expletive] diversity training class today," one chief grumbles. "I hope it goes all right for you," Velasquez replied. And then quips, "I hope the speaker's not that bad."