People from underrepresented groups want to be the lead in their own stories. Not the silly sidekick. Not the wise-cracking neighbor. Not the dutiful best friend.

That’s why the animated Disney film Encanto was such an important project for Julie Ann Crommett when she worked as vice president of Multicultural Audience Engagement at Walt Disney Studios, spearheading efforts to diversify talent in front of and behind the camera.

The film tells the story of a Colombian family living in an enchanted house that gifts each member with a special power. The protagonist is the curly-haired, bespectacled, brown-skinned Mirabel, who stands by her family even though she is the only child without a gift.

“Her journey as a hero is not going out from her family. Her journey is going into her family. That is culturally a very specific story choice. That’s not a traditional American framework of how you tell a story,” Crommett said, referring to the typical American protagonist who leaves home in search of independence.

The range of skin tones, hair textures, and body types created for the characters was also a deliberate cultural choice — an acknowledgement and celebration of the widely varying physical traits of Hispanic/Latino/Latina/Latinx/Latine people. (Crommett prefers the term “Latine” when referring to people from these ethnic groups, which we use hereafter in this article).

“I’m Latin, and I can tell you for sure that most of our families look like the family in Encanto. So for me, that’s all very real,” said Crommett, who is Puerto Rican and Cuban.

Her comments made Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary think back to the first Black Barbie doll she received for Christmas. It looked exactly like the original white Barbie, except with jet black hair and oddly tinted skin.

“I’m Latin, and I can tell you for sure that most of our families look like the family in Encanto. So for me, that’s all very real.” — Julie Ann Crommett

“This warms my heart for children everywhere, that we’re being more thoughtful not only about who they get to see up on the screen, but also the toys that they get to play with, and that the toys look like their family members and look like them,” she said.

Crommett spoke about Encanto during a recent episode of Creary’s podcast series, Leading Diversity at Work, which focused on inclusive storytelling. Along with a predominantly Latine cast, the movie was co-written and co-directed by Charise Castro Smith, and the music was composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. “When you think about inclusive storytelling, it’s all those process pieces in an organization to ensure that you’re getting that consistency of experience, that you’re really connecting with the consumer and with the audience in a way that does actually feel like true representation as opposed to just window dressing,” said Crommett, who moved on from Disney to found Collective Moxie, a consultancy that specializes in inclusive storytelling.

Can a Brand Tell Inclusive Stories?

Crommett was joined on the podcast by her friend and fellow storyteller, Melissa Thomas-Hunt, who is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She’s also former head of Global Diversity and Belonging at Airbnb and continues to work with the company as a senior adviser.

Thomas-Hunt said the goal of inclusive storytelling is always the same, but the process may be different depending on the setting. In academia, where she has spent much of her career, inclusivity is about making sure students from different backgrounds feel valued and accepted, and that a diversity of thought is represented in the curricula. In business, it’s about making sure the company embraces and promotes DEI both internally and externally. At Airbnb, for example, she advised on recruiting more diverse hosts to help the company grow.

“The challenge is that hosts, if they have never hosted, if they don’t know anyone who’s hosted, they don’t necessarily think it’s for them,” she said. “So how do you paint a picture through advertising, through the platform, through [interaction] on your phone? How do you see people who reflect you, such that you believe you, too, can be a host? It’s fundamental to the business proposition.”

Thomas-Hunt recalled an effort last year by the company’s Black Employee Resource Group to celebrate Black History Month with a video depicting a celebration of Black travel.

“People have to feel like it’s worthwhile for them to speak up and to say something and to fight for something.”— Melissa Thomas-Hunt

“They wanted to underscore the historical context of Black people around the world hosting and delivering hospitality. And with the employees of the company, it resonated. There was a deep pride,” Thomas-Hunt said. “But I think it went beyond the company walls so that people around the world, potential hosts, potential guests could see, ‘Oh, there’s actually a place. They see me. They understand my experience.’ So, it’s really powerful.”

Tips for Inclusive Storytelling

Thomas-Hunt and Crommett shared their three key requirements for successful inclusive storytelling: First, decision-making should be consistent and guided by a framework or DEI principles agreed upon by the group. Second, people with diverse perspectives must be brought in at the start of a project — including in key creative decision-making roles (writer, director, producer) — not near the end when changes are more difficult and expensive to make. And third, underrepresented people must be able to participate without fear of retribution or marginalization.

“There has to be this psychological safety, this respect,” Thomas-Hunt said. “People have to feel like it’s worthwhile for them to speak up and to say something and to fight for something.”

Inclusive storytelling is hard, Creary cautioned, and it takes quite a while to understand and get the process right. But the results are worth it.

“In any of the research that I do or the advice that I give to people in organizations, it’s that you can’t just think about what’s the quickest route to the end,” she said. “Because if you think [that], you’re going to engage likely in something that’s more like exclusive storytelling.”