AAPI Heritage Month: Genesco’s New Digital Chief Parag Desai on Intersectionality and How Identity Is ‘Like a Venn Diagram’

For AAPI Heritage Month, FN is spotlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander executives, entrepreneurs and designers as part of its ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business.

This a pivotal month for Parag Desai.

Early this week, the executive stepped into the newly created role of SVP and chief strategy and digital officer at Genesco, where he has worked for the past seven years.

At the same time, he’s contending with the heightened crises currently impacting his people: One, by the Indian diaspora, which is in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe, and another, by members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, who have recently faced a rash of verbal and physical attacks — both amplified in different ways by the COVID-19 health crisis.

“We’ve seen some serious ups and downs over the many months of the pandemic — and the inequality and challenges that we still have to face as a country,” he explained. “The American experiment is one that’s never done, as they say, and for all the great things that we have to celebrate in the United States, we have a lot of work to do.”

One step to achieving equity is by understanding intersectionality — a term coined three decades ago by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw that describes the various ways race, class, gender and other characteristics overlap with one another. The idea was that, if one was a woman as well as a person of color, she would be subjected to discrimination on the basis of both gender and race.

The concept, which was widely circulated during the Women’s March back in 2017, still holds a lot of value today as America continues to undergo unrest stemming from decades of systemic racism and discrimination.

“As we’ve gone through what’s been a remarkable and unusual period, it’s really reminded me that we have all kinds of identities and heritages we bring to the table. Many of us sit at the intersection of multiple identities. It’s almost like a Venn diagram: I’m an Asian American. I’m the son of immigrants. I’m an openly gay man. I’m a transplant,” said Desai, whose education and career has taken him from Washington, D.C., to New Hampshire and Tennessee, among many other states, as well as across North and South America, Europe, Australia and parts of Asia.

In telling his story, Desai also touched on the plight of the Black community. After all, his parents immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, around the time mass protests against racial segregation and discrimination were taking place across the country.

“My parents would not have been able to open the doors and lay the groundwork for me to have the personal life and career I’ve had here in the U.S. if it wasn’t for the civil rights movement,” he shared. “A lot of what I’ve been able to achieve is a result of what the Black community achieved through hard-fought and won battles.”

He added, “If there’s anything we learned from the Black Lives Matter movement of last year, it’s that every minority relies on benefits from other minority groups. You never know whose fights you’ll benefit from in the future.”

And while Desai is a self-described “chronic optimist,” he has faced his fair share of challenges. The executive recounted his first experience with micro-aggressions, which occurred a year or so after he graduated from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. It happened during a meeting with a couple of colleagues, including a man who was from the Middle East and whose first language was not English.

“When we left the meeting, this other colleague turned to me and said, ‘You know, your English is so much better than their English.’ Ironically, it was coming from someone who was originally from Boston and had a very strong New England accent, but of course, they don’t hear their own accent,” he said. “I realized, unfortunately, that I had an advantage over that other individual just by the virtue of the fact that English was my first language — that I was a native-born American as opposed to an immigrant or naturalized American.”

He continued, “As someone who has the privilege of fitting in, I recognize that I have an obligation and an opportunity to help those who don’t easily fit in or aren’t ‘passing’ to be welcome and be included.”

In his new role and as part of Genesco’s managing committee, Desai acknowledged that he is in a position to prompt change. He reinforced a saying learned from now-retired Journeys mastermind Jim Estepa: “[He] always talked about how we were in the ‘people business’ — we just happen to sell footwear.”

Desai added, “[Especially after] what we’ve had to do over the last year, we’ve got to take care of each other, take care of our people, take care of our customers, take care of our community. I honestly believe if we do that, we can meet the challenges that the social unrest of the past year has highlighted. Let’s come together and make a difference.”

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