Editor’s note: PCMA Groundbreakers is an initiative honoring industry trailblazers who represent diverse sectors of the business events community, recognizing those who have made a significant contribution to their organizations and programs that advance inclusion and equity.
To trace what brought Sophia Hyder Hock to the newly created role of Destinations International’s chief diversity officer, you need to go back to her early childhood, she said. She’s the youngest of six children — the first U.S.-born generation in her family. Her father worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which meant that the family moved around a lot, and while most of her childhood was spent in California and Washington, D.C., from the ages of 10 to 12, Hock lived in Sri Lanka.
It was her first experience living in “a very different place,” she said, “and it was then where I, at first hand, really could understand disparities in living, and in life, and in lifestyle.”
When she returned to the U.S., Hock said she struggled to reintegrate and reconcile her experiences. “It’s something that changed me forever,” she said, and led her on the path to where she is today.
Here are highlights from our interview in late February.
On getting her start in international development work
Hock was inspired from early childhood by her father’s example. “I used to go to work with him, because there was a civil war that was taking place in Sri Lanka, so I couldn’t go to school sometimes,” she said. “And I would just watch him in these meetings, treating people as equals. One of the things he always said was, ‘Always be a humble listener.’”
Over the course of her 15-year career in international development, Hock worked on “social inclusion projects, gender empowerment, and economic development projects,” living in South Africa for a short time and working in Bangladesh, “which is where I am culturally from — India and Bangladesh,” she said. “I worked all over the world and in conflict areas.”
Making the transition to the travel industry
“I segued into the travel industry in 2015, because I felt like I wasn’t creating enough impact with the work that I was doing — sustainability, sustainable goals are really important for me, especially when it comes to social inclusion,” Hock said. But it was an experience in her personal life that led to a career change. While planning to travel to a friend’s wedding in Argentina, she looked for an app that could help her pack in a way that was “culturally appropriate” along with providing “cultural etiquette advice and shopping tips,” she said. Finding none, her wheels started turning. She ended up pitching the idea for an app that would help business and leisure travelers experience destinations with an understanding of the local culture at a women’s startup weekend — and came close to winning the competition.
Despite positive feedback to the idea, Hock had what she calls a “pause and reflect moment” in her career and realized that she really didn’t want to pitch to investors and create an app, but rather to draw on what she’s passionate about — policy development, economic development, and organization development. She also wanted to make the most of her love of working with people and travel. “I thought, it’s so interesting that the travel industry is in hospitality yet, at the same time, we’re not hospitable to everyone,” she said. “I wanted to create sustainable and meaningful change. That is when I decided to really focus my efforts on designing and facilitating diversity, equity, inclusion strategies, training, workshops, and coaching specifically for the travel industry.”
Seven years ago, Hock founded Papilia, a consultancy that partnered with destinations and travel organizations to develop tailored DEI strategies to attract new audiences while respecting cultural heritage. She said she wasn’t planning on changing course, but executive search firm SearchWide Global approached her about the Destinations International role. And the more she learned about it, she said, the more aligned it seemed with the work she has been doing, and the more excited she became about the opportunity to apply her background and entrepreneurial mindset to a new role. “I really appreciate the trust that has been placed in me,” she said. “I take the responsibilities of this role very seriously.”
On starting an inaugural role in an industry rocked by the pandemic for the past two years
COVID-19 has given the industry a “reset” opportunity to create “a greater connection with community” and focus on attracting a diversity of visitors, Hock said, equating to economic prosperity. “I’d like to be able to help destinations with resources on how to do that. It’s not easy,” she said. “It’s going to be complex, but there is ample opportunity for growth. First, it’s important to understand the amount of diversity within your community and voices that should be represented. Trust needs to be cultivated within the community in order to welcome visitors from all backgrounds and abilities.”
On where she sees opportunities to move the needle in terms of diversity and equity for events
While Hock’s work in the past has focused more on tourism than business events, she said she is looking forward to learning more about the meetings industry. But she already sounds well versed, checking off a variety of areas the business events community can focus on from a DEI perspective — accessibility, audiovisual, closed captioning, translation services, and dietary restrictions. And, using her cultural intelligence lens, she noted that inclusivity starts with an event’s welcoming messages. “How are we attracting diverse audiences, what audiences are we currently attracting, and what are we missing?” she said. “Who do we want to attract and why are we not attracting them?” It’s important to “look at the data that we currently have and ask questions,” she said, to ascertain gaps and opportunities.
Other opportunities that came to mind are diversifying the speaker lineup and supporting small and minority-owned vendors. “We really need to take the time to assess the events supply chain, to examine the entire process in order to see how EDI can be integrated,” Hock said. “I could talk to you about this for a long time.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.