DE&I: From Woe Is Me to Wow Is Me

Adrianne C. Smith, Photo Courtesy of CC:DC

When working toward diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), it’s easy to become overwhelmed and paralyzed into inaction in the face of all the harm that needs repair – systemic and institutional racism, lack of representation, unequal opportunity, police violence and much more.

Yet joy, self-expression and community building are powerful tools for resistance and resilience – moving us from “woe is me” to “wow is me.” #Blackjoy


“Wow” is what Adrianne C. Smith leaned into when she and her team celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Cannes Can:Diversity Collective (CC:DC). Founded by Smith in 2018, CC:DC seeks to provide young people of color and underrepresented communities with access and opportunity to attend and participate in major events such as the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Smith and her team brought over 25 ambassadors and scholars to the 2023 festival, including four students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Adrianne C. Smith
Adrianne C. Smith, Photo Courtesy of CCDC

“We’ve empowered them to think larger than where they are,” explains Smith. “We’ve connected them with people from large media companies, and they are not missing one opportunity to connect and build.” – Adrianne C. Smith


The seeds of CC:DC were sown in 2017 when Smith attended her first Cannes Lions event.

“When I first came” here, explains Smith, “there were barely any people that looked like me. It was jarring and unacceptable given people of color are critical when it comes to building creatives that move the world. I made it my mission to change this.”

That year, during a Q&A session at the Female Quotient’s Equity Lounge with actor/producer/entrepreneur Halle Berry, Smith stood up to share her disappointment and a plan to make things better.

In a bold move, she said, “We’ve decided to bring ten young people of color back next year. Thanks for the reminder that you don’t just talk about it, you really have to be about it. We don’t have any problems with saying we’re going to make it happen. There are issues, but we will make solutions.”


By 2019, CC:DC launched the first DE&I-focused activation at Cannes Lions called “Inkwell Beach.” The name pays tribute to the historic Inkwell Beach at Martha’s Vineyard, a place of solace for Black people during segregation.

Crowd at 2023 Inwell Beach, Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity
Inkwell Beach Crowd, Photo Courtesy of CC:DC
CC:DC on the beach at Cannes Lions, Photo Courtesy of CC:DC
CC:DC on the beach at Cannes Lions, Photo Courtesy of CC:DC

“At first I thought I was building Inkwell for people that look like me,” says Smith, “but in reality, this place has become a safe haven for everyone, which is so beautiful. What I keep hearing when people come to Inkwell is that they feel they are ‘home.’ That is intentional. Everyone belongs here.”


The 2023 Inkwell Beach theme was “Expect the Unexpected: Moving DE&I from WOE is me to WOW is me.” The stage featured incredible revolutionary speakers from multiple creative industries including Amanda Gorman, Bozoma Saint John, D-Nice, Fe Noel, Phoebe Robinson, Luvvie Ajayi Jones, Issa Rae, Tiffany Haddish and many more.

2023 also marked the second year of the AYA Inclusion Awards, created to celebrate inclusion in creativity at the festival.

Winners included:

  • The Uncover, a campaign created by Weber Shandwick, on behalf of French maternity wear company Frida. The goal was to normalize breastfeeding in public by creating a magazine ad that transformed readers into breastfeeders through an optical illusion.

  • ADLaM: An Alphabet to Preserve a Culture, a campaign created by McCann for Microsoft to highlight their partnership with two brothers from the Fulani community of Mali. Together, they helped to preserve the Fulani language by encoding the alphabet and making it available on 1 billion computers worldwide.


“We want to become the global voice of inclusion and what that looks like,” says Smith, “which means we have to be in a constant state of learning from each other and educating each other. We were able to take five young people from CC:DC to Dubai to introduce [local leaders] to these young Black people from America – to shift the narrative of how they view us and how we view them. It pulls down the wall and demystifies what other cultures and communities can look like and be like. It’s totally shifted how I view DE&I and how it has to be a global conversation.”

Smith’s vision for CC:DC is bold and expansive. Her ambitions extend beyond Cannes, envisioning a global network dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I am so excited for the future of the Can:Diversity Collective, which is the foundation of the organization,” says Smith. “We want to scale. So, we already have the ‘Cannes Can:Diversity Collective,’ but hopefully, we will soon have the ‘Davos Can:Diversity Collective,’ ‘Dubai Can:Diversity Collective, ‘Spike Asia Can:Diversity Collective’ and more.”

Adrianne C. Smith’s decision to “be about” increasing diverse representation by founding CC:DC has had a powerful ripple effect. Through initiatives like Inkwell Beach and the AYA Inclusion Awards, CC:DC has not only transformed the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, but has also contributed to a broader conversation on diversity and inclusion within high-profile spaces. 

“DE&I is a human connection business,” Smith explains. “You have to be connected to humans to do and build more.” – Adrianne C. Smith

Smith with attendees at Inkwell Beach, Photo Courtesy of CC:DC DE&I
Smith with attendees at Inkwell Beach, Photo Courtesy of CC:DC

Smith’s vision for the future is an inspiring reminder that it’s possible to dismantle barriers, increase representation, and create opportunities for diverse generations to come.


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