The State of DEI: Why Many Efforts Fail–and How Companies Can Overcome the Barriers

BY Emily Nonko | May 16, 2023

“DEI” is an umbrella term, but not all marginalized groups have benefited equally from this movement. In 1985, women made up 22% of management positions in corporate America, while African-American employees made up three percent. Fast forward to 2020: Women make up 38%—a 60% growth in representation—while African Americans still only represent 3.2%.

“It’s statistically insignificant. In 35 years, corporate America was unable to move the needle,” said Robert Perkins, chief global diversity and inclusion officer for Mondelēz International, Inc. He believes that this statistic represents the challenges involved in making progress with diversity, equity and inclusion work, and why corporate America has an extremely long way to go to achieve equity in the workplace.

Perkins joined John Simons, executive editor at TIME, for a fireside chat at From Day One’s February virtual conference on the state of DEI. As diversity chief for a global snack maker, making everything from Cadbury to Oreos, Perkins revealed that, since 2020, his company has doubled the number of women in leadership roles and experienced 72% growth in the number of Black managers.

Perkins shared a “three-pillar strategy” that’s been adopted by Mondelēz: “First of all, we look at our colleagues; workforce representation, at the end of the day, is in my eyes most important,” he said. “You need to look at your pipeline and how you’re building it.”

Robert Perkins was interviewed by John Simons of TIME during the fireside chat (photo by From Day One)

He continued, “Our second pillar is culture. We’re very focused on engagement and how engagement drives higher productivity and business results,” Perkins said, stressing research that says leaders give 60 to 65% of capacity on any given day, but more when they feel most connected to organization. “That’s when companies are getting better productivity and results,” he noted.

The third pillar is community. “Externally, what are we doing in the communities where we work and live?” Perkins asked. “One of our biggest initiatives is around economic inclusion and supplier diversity.” The company’s goal is to spend $1 billion with women and minority-owned businesses by 2024; they’ve spent over $500 million already.

“I’d say this is the most overlooked by all of corporate America,” Perkins said of supplier diversity. “This impacts the economic wealth-building of women and minorities, and it has the larger societal impact of creating gender and racial equity.” 

Perkins also emphasized the importance of internal education and training to bring employees on board with DEI goals. “My subjective statement is that the majority of leaders across corporate America are not comfortable, confident, or capable of having DEI conversations,” he said. His suggestion is for companies to take these conversations “head on” and to invest in education on matters having to do with equity, equality, and representation. 

Perkins also called for bold, large-scale change to reach the level of equity to which many companies aspire. “We need creativity and to have difficult conversations,” he said. “Otherwise it won’t happen in our lifetime,” he said. 

Even though the position of chief diversity officers remains one of the fastest-growing jobs since its peak in 2020, Perkins cited a 60% turnover in chief diversity officers since that year. “That’s largely because of their disappointment with the commitment and accountability to DEI goals, and because they don’t feel like they can accomplish what they were hired to accomplish,” he said. 

Investments must be made across the company, from leadership down the employee ranks. Short-term goals should be replaced by long-term commitments. “It starts with leadership’s commitment to an articulated and defined strategy and goals,” Perkins said. “And leadership’s accountability to the systems in place for measuring progress against goals.”

Emily Nonko is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. In addition to writing for From Day One, her work has been published in Next City, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and other publications.


Providing Learning & Growth Opportunities for Employees, Even in Austere Times

Finding low-cost learning opportunities can be the difference between keeping an employee and losing them. According to an international poll by McKinsey, 41% of workers who quit their jobs in recent years did so because of a lack of career development opportunities, the most commonly cited reason for voluntary departure.“It’s important that we’re retaining our employees because we need that knowledge internally,” said Nicole Underwood, VP of HR business partners at visual media company Getty Images. The company’s workers are highly specialized, and it can be tough to find replacements. If they’re not able to backfill a vacated position, Getty offers others the chance to volunteer for the responsibilities on the table, opening up reach projects and promotable work. Underwood sees it as an investment “not only in the individual who gets the opportunity, but in the others who are surrounding them and see this as an opportunity to look for their own.” Watching colleagues grow can spark the motivation to do the same.During From Day One’s May virtual conference, Underwood and four other leaders in people operations and learning and development participated in a panel discussion, which I moderated, on how to provide career development opportunities for employees even in austere times.Fellow panelist Madhukar Govindaraju, the CEO at coaching and networking software company Numly, said that in the past he’s been in the unfortunate position of choosing who gets access to opportunities like coaches and mentoring. It’s a choice he’s not willing to accept anymore.“Even in a public company, I could afford executive coaching for only the top 4% of my organization. What do you do with the bottom 96%? Do you tell them to wait until they get promoted? You have to do something about it,” he said.“We do find ways to be scrappy,” said Jennifer Muszik, the head of worldwide field learning at biotech company Biogen. For instance, if you’re forced to roll back a third-party coaching app, replace it with an internal program. “Not everybody can get a coach, but who can get a mentor?” Biogen pays for some of its leaders to train as certified coaches with the expectation that they pass that knowledge along. “They’re going out into the organization and coaching others, then others get the benefit of that skill, and then can apply that within their own teams,” she said.“Internal talent is an amazing resource, and I’m always surprised at how interested people are to hear from one another,” said Greg Hill, the chief people officer at corporate wellness and fitness center operator Exos. He calls it “relatable learning.”The panelists from top left, moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, Madhukar Govindaraju of Numly, Nicole Underwood of Getty Images, Jennifer Muszik of Biogen, Gina Larson of Teneo, and Greg Hill of Exos (photo by From Day One)Internal programs have their limits, and not everyone who wants a shot will get one, so panelists recommended selecting workers who already have specific goals in mind. “A lot of people say ‘I want to grow,’ and then when we talk to them about how they want to grow, they’re not really sure,” Hill noted.Gina Larsen, the senior director of talent development at PR advisory and executive consulting firm Teneo, said she likes to identify an employee with leadership potential, someone on the succession plan, but with some obstacle in their way, like a missing or underdeveloped skill.If you’re in a position where you do have to roll back a development program or be more selective with participants, speak frankly, but don’t spook the staff, said Hill. “Personal professional development and career growth is a non-starter, if you don’t offer it in this day and age,” he said. So rather than telling employees, “we’re not doing it right now,” tell them, “we’re going to do it differently for a while.” Some employers are designing elaborate development programs inside their organizations. At Getty Images, cohorts of about 25 employees go through a nine-month intensive where they learn how the business works and receive mentorship from senior leaders. At the end, they’re expected to document and pitch a new business idea.Not all proposals are chosen, but some are. Underwood said that one of the first cohorts came up with a mentoring program for members of underrepresented demographics. “It’s been wildly successful, and all of our senior leadership team has been tapped,” said Underwood. “We’ve seen over 75% of these employees have been promoted into the next role.”If you don’t have the HR budget for learning and development, check the sofa cushions, panelists said. Sales teams have learning and development budgets, and so do employee resource groups, said Govindaraju. “We have had very good success working with companies that have ERGs that are already chartered to drive engagement because now we’re bringing learning and engagement into one bucket.”If budget isn’t the problem, then it’s time, Govindaraju added. The HR department is overloaded, as are people managers, and there’s often little time left for running skill development programs. “Managers [are] already burdened with various things. Now you’re adding an element of learning how to code, and now suddenly you are responsible for the development of your team members,” he said. Teneo’s Larsen argued that austerity doesn’t require sacrificing ambition. When time is a luxury, she chooses fewer but bigger projects. Teneo recently flew in 25 senior leaders from around the world with the remit to collaborate and grow the business plan. It was a huge financial investment–but she was confident in the returns. If they put in $150,000 and just one of those leaders produces a $500,000 increase in revenue, the investment would be worth it.“It goes back to rigor and discipline,” said Larsen. “I think a really important part is not overburdening the learning team, because this takes a lot of time. So if we do an ambitious program that makes a big impact, you say goodbye to another program or two that’s less impactful so that you have the bandwidth and opportunity to make something that [requires more money], but is super impactful.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women's experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz at Work, Fast Company, Digiday’s Worklife, and Food Technology, among others. 

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | May 30, 2023

Equipping Workers With the Skills to Thrive in Times of Constant Change

Alicia Lopez is a true embodiment of Cisco's core belief in “One Company, Many Careers” and the principle that “An Individual Owns Their Career.” Lopez holds the position of head of learning and careers at Cisco, but her journey within the company began in 1996 as an operations manager. Over the years, she has taken on various roles, including chief of staff, manager of business operation and director of operations leadership and intelligence.The software development company has a four pronged approach in its learning and development efforts, all focused on how people’s personal brands, networks, expertise, and experience apply to a career mindset. “Your career shouldn’t just be something when you’re looking for a new job, but it should be something intentional and nurturing,” Lopez told journalist Kelly Bourdet during the closing fireside chat at From Day One’s April Virtual conference.Personal brand is the first line of action. When one thinks about personal brands, it’s easy to associate it with something outwardly facing, such as LinkedIn and Twitter. But it’s more than that.“It’s important that you’re known in your team, but it’s also your legacy: what do you want to create, what do you want people to know you did?” said Lopez.Journalist Kelly Bourdet, left, interviewed Alicia Lopez, right, during the virtual fireside chat (photo by From Day One)Learning and development also places a lot of emphasis on career exploration. The exploratory phase is one of the five mindsets that Lopez discussed during the fireside chat. “We always want to make sure you’re running towards something, not running away,” she said. To that, internal mobility is highly promoted: for the first 60 to 90 days, open positions are solely advertised internally. After exploration comes the establishing phase. “For the best role, you shouldn’t go to the role where you have 100% the skill,” Lopez said. “You always have to move and learn something different.”Once someone establishes themselves, the next mindset is achievement mode. This one is focused on upskilling opportunities. The following step focuses on giving back, and after that, there is reinvention, especially in light of recent technological developments like Chat GPT. “Reinventing is an important space. How do you want to show up and create a different soundtrack?” said Lopez. “How do you want to ensure [that your skills] stay relevant?”This approach also actively helps people interview and optimize their resume “We give a lot of support, which is sometimes met with resistance—part of the pushback was ‘you’re gonna train them to leave us,’” said Lopez. But, “it’s our job to nurture them.” Lopez said.“What we need to acknowledge is that there’s a war on talent, especially in skillsets that haven’t been created,” said Lopez. “One of the things we’re testing is how we can do some reskilling. A lot of places can do upskilling, but how can we help you reinvent yourself when we know what leaders are going to say you need”For now, they utilize something that Lopez calls self-driven reskilling. “We’re offering a variety of learning opportunities, similar to a master’s program,” she explains. “From a cost perspective it’s a break even, but we get loyalty and following, and that’s priceless.”At Cisco, learning is at the forefront and reskilling is rapid. Recently, Cisco started Cisco Illuminate, a quarterly event for all employees. The company takes employees offline for these events. Past speakers include Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Robin Arzon. The last Illuminate event attracted 45% of the workforce. “What we found is that employees are canceling meetings and saying we’re going. Leaders are moving meetings,” said Lopez. The next Illuminate event will focus on teams in a hybrid workforce. “What we’re finding is that we still need connection when it’s relevant. We’re starting to see studies where career is impacted,” said Lopez. “We’re just paying attention, we don’t want to pull people together to have coffee together, we want it to be purposeful.”Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Boston and Milan.

Angelica Frey | May 25, 2023

Making the Employer-Value Proposition More Inclusive to the Diversity of Working Families

Jessica Kim has cared for her mother during her battle with cancer, has three kids, and is now caring for her 84-year-old father. “I am living for the need of caregiving support for all ages, all stages,” she told journalist Megan Ulu-lani Boyanton during a panel at a From Day One virtual conference. Kim’s personal story led her to establish ianacare, a platform that helps navigate care in the home for caregivers. ‘iana’ stands for “I am not alone,” and, while unique in its unfolding, her life experience is mirrored in the situations more and more workers are facing as they are navigating employment, caring for their offspring, and caring for their aging and/or ailing parents.“I had my grandmother living with me until she passed at 92, my mother-in-law lives with me, and my son has ADHD and came out as part of the LGBTQ+ population,” replied Singleton Beato, global EVP and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the global advertising communication company McCann Worldgroup. “I am living in the middle of ages, stages, and life experiences.”Inequities affect the caregiving population, but organizations are striving to create benefit packages that meet and address their needs. Caregiving populations are part of workplace demographics that, while not faced with outward hostility, have suffered from neglect. “Many issues are cultural,” said Kim. “When we think about how we respond to neglect, we have to see how we approach it: not just data or checkboxes.” Mental Health as a Springboard“In the last few years, the common element was wellbeing and mental health,” said Livia Konkel, global diversity, equity, inclusion and corporate citizenship leader at the pharmaceutical company Charles River Laboratories. “Everything we do is centered on belonging and mental wellbeing. We have 5 pillars we work around: career, financial, physical, social, emotional. In all of that, we try to focus on benefits that will serve the whole person: one of the things we excel at is the emotional space.” On a related note, Charles River Laboratories eliminated the four-year degree requirements and added a tuition reimbursement for up to $20,000 “to make workplace easier to access,” said Konkel, herself a first-generation college graduate.The full panel of speakers, from top left, moderator Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton, Singleton Beato, Shalin Kothari, Kristen Carlisle, Jessica Kim, and Livia Konkel (photo by From Day One)“Financial health is mental health is physical health,” said Kristen Carlisle, VP and general manager of the financial wellness benefits platform Betterment. “You’re not gonna be able to address every single thing, but you need to take time to step back: what’s working, what’s not working. 70% of people say their finances stress them. And when you are the employer, you say you do benchmarking, but in my own experience, I was making okay money but was also a caregiver and I was barely getting by.”Taking a Holistic Approach“What comes to mind when it comes to neglected demographics,” said Kim, “[is that] you don’t solve for what you don’t see: they don’t raise their hands and go to HR.”It’s not an easy issue to address. “There is a lot of work to do: assessing the places in the world where the organization has facilities to understand what the underserved communities are, then building policies from there,” said Beato. “You need to make sure you understand what your folks need.” One example is making sure that one’s workplace and office building are, indeed, accessible to everyone on the spectrum of ability and disability. It’s also important to add policies and consideration for people going through menopause and to create gender-neutral facilities. “You need both the written policies and the physical conditions, [including] space to pray, and spaces where people like my son, who has ADHD, can collect themselves.”The most obvious hurdle, in this instance, is funding. “Since the pandemic, people are more careful in how they spend their money. One of the things we need to improve is to make a business case showing how these implementations decrease healthcare costs, increase retention, and drive down attrition,” explained Shalin Kothari, vice president of people and DEI strategy at the digital automation company Schneider Electric. “We understate the cost of a new hire. There are a lot of hidden costs we don’t take into consideration.”The Leading Role of Middle ManagersIn order for these implementations to be successful and lasting, involvement has to go beyond executive leadership. “You have to ensure that your leaders are invested and also that they communicate and cascade their expectations down the chain to people’s managers, so that when these initiatives are pushed forward, the managers are going to help make the conditions and employees can take advantage of them,” said Beato. “A lot of executives are proponents of an inclusive culture,” said Kothari, backing up Beato. “Middle managers are often overwhelmed. Many of them today have a more diverse, multigenerational workforce, and the expectation is not just to manage their team, but to deliver as well.”Given the way managing people has drastically changed in the last fifteen years, and will most likely continue to do so (compare managing six months into the pandemic to managing three years into it), “We decided to retain career coaching,” said Carlisle. This solution has been a way to help her own company’s middle managers. “We’re a benefits provider, and we provide our own: a whole lot of feedback!”Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Boston and Milan.

Angelica Frey | May 22, 2023