Taking the DEI Journey
Ella F. Washington, professor of the practice at Georgetown McDonough and an organizational psychologist, has pondered and researched topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout her career.
Her studies have taken her back to the early days of the field, when diversity and equity often came up only in the wake of lawsuits, up to our modern era, when approaches to DEI are at times more proactive and strategic.
Regardless of the era, something has always felt missing to her: a framework. This framework would not only need to serve researchers like herself seeking to understand the benefits of and roadblocks to DEI for businesses, but also those businesses themselves.
Washington developed her idea for that framework while speaking with leaders at companies from healthcare to tech to professional services. She interviewed them for her forthcoming book and the outcome of her latest research, The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion.
“The first question I got was always, ‘Where are we on the journey?,’” Washington says. “Then the second question was, ‘How do we compare to other people on the journey?’ Once I continued to get those questions for about four months back to back, I realized that there wasn’t enough information out there helping people understand what the DEI journey is, what it looks like. And having that information is key to helping people understand.”
The concept of a “journey” reflects the practical examples of DEI that have emerged over the past three-plus decades. But even more important, it helps fit a topic that can feel daunting to leaders into a common business model.
“My work codifies the DEI journey as a maturity model,” Washington says. That model’s phases look like this:
Companies in this phase have just begun thinking about DEI and what it means for their policies and practices.
These businesses have had DEI efforts in place, sometimes for years, driven by compliance with affirmative action, equal employment, or other legal or regulatory policies. Sometimes this is driven by lawsuits. “That’s how a lot of executives grew up thinking about diversity and inclusion, and that’s where they remained for many years,” Washington says.
Tactical organizations have been more ahead of the curve, even if their internal numbers don’t always show it. Different groups, divisions, or individuals have made grassroots DEI efforts. Yet while the tactics may be strong, seeing progress at the organizational level requires a certain level of intention. Many organizations at this phase get stuck on individual DEI tactics and do not have big-picture goals.
At this point, a business is factoring DEI into its entire “sphere of influence.” DEI applies to hiring and retention, but also public communication and products and services. “Employees feel like they belong,” Washington says, “The communities they serve feel like they belong. Customers feel like they belong.” DEI is considered a business imperative at this stage, not a nice-to-have element.
Organizations in this phase have been in the integrated stage for quite some time and have figured out how to make these efforts sustainable and evolve over time, even with changes in business strategy, leadership or other natural ebbs and flows of an organization.
The value of using the journey as a framework is two-fold, Washington notes. It helps businesses know where they’re starting, of course. But then it also provides destinations to aspire to, because, as she says, “There really is no final phase. The DEI journey is ongoing.”
Steps Along the Way
Rafael Fantauzzi (EML’08) might be living proof that the DEI journey is ongoing. He has certainly seen its evolution during his career.
His own foray into the field began in the 1990s, when he was a systems analyst in human resources for American Airlines. The airline faced controversies and backlash on a number of fronts. It had purchased another airline, whose flight manuals featured stereotypical information about Latin American people. And flight staff had both said and done disparaging things to LGBTQ travelers.
“The CEO at the time decided we needed to get our act together,” Fantauzzi says. He was approached to be part of a company-wide initiative offering both public outreach and ideas for new internal support.
The latter would prove especially influential. “I was involved in the initial stages of building something that was not very common in corporate America, which was employee resource groups (ERG). We embraced a program that Lucent [Technologies] had around safe spaces in order to support our LBGT employees. We began to build a really robust diversity and inclusion initiative.”
Fantauzzi also felt the effect himself. Serving as president of the Latin American ERG led him to realize not only his leadership skills, but also his keen interest in a growing movement toward DEI. “It resonated for me as someone who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, which, to this day, if you are still on the island or at least have experience living on the island, you are often considered a second-class citizen in the United States,” Fantauzzi says.
Fantauzzi recognized the power of having a support system in place, not to mention the business value of inclusion — not just for avoiding PR backlash but also for boosting business. His work with American moved beyond responding to advocacy to efforts at increasing sales to new, more diverse markets. What started in compliance became tactical, and he had his eyes further down the journey.
His work would take him to Coors, then several years as president and CEO of the National Puerto Rico Coalition, where he had the opportunity to see DEI through a nonprofit lens. More recently, he served as an equality, diversity, and inclusion officer for the Swedish company Ikea. Now he serves as vice president and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for AccentCare, a leading provider of home-based care.
“There are a lot of differences in how inequality manifests in different industries and even different countries,” he says. “But at the core is people. Whether you’re looking at your employees or how your business fits into your community, it’s about people.”
Numbers and the People Behind Them
Data undeniably plays a role in DEI. For instance, if an organization has as a goal to better represent the community or customers it serves, data is going to help provide benchmarks and accountability. The same goes for the desire to be more inclusive in reaching new markets or retaining new employees. But data must be part of a broader strategy, says Fantauzzi.
“What I always look for is organizations that want to do diversity, equity, and inclusion as an organic part of their business operations,” he adds, and his description fits businesses in Washington’s integrated phase and beyond. “It can’t just be reactive. It can’t just be superficial improvements or optics. Through the years, a lot of companies have just focused on hiring the right numbers. Well, I can hire any organization into the right numbers, depending on whatever goals or benchmarks you want to use, but that doesn’t mean that those individuals are going to stay or feel like they fit in a community.”
That’s a notion echoed by fellow McDonough graduate Esmé-Thea Sanders (MBA’19), a consultant in Advisory Services for the nonprofit Management Leadership for Tomorrow, which focuses on diversifying the talent pipeline.
Sanders has long been rooted in data, and she knows its value. “They talk about poets and quants,” she says. “Well, I’m a quant.”
Still, in her first data-centric role at Capital One after graduation, she started to see the importance of connecting with people behind the numbers and putting numbers into context — and helping others do the same.
“I quickly realized, yes, my data skills are really important in this space, but also my job is to help a leader to figure out how they approach a hard topic with their team. How do they plan their authentic conversations? I know that sounds wrong — planning for authenticity — but making a shift to be inclusive and authentic takes work and planning in a lot of cases.”
An open person by nature, Sanders found herself doing a lot of coaching and facilitation, and she quickly became involved in creating ERGs at Capital One for groups that previously had not been represented. The latter felt appropriate, since her first exposure to the world of DEI came from leading an ERG at an insurance firm before earning her MBA at McDonough.
Like Fantauzzi, Sanders’ personal experience proved the value integrated employee support systems provide. Put simply, if a person feels like they belong and is able to use their skills and perspectives, they’re more likely to stay. Data can’t always measure that.
“If you’re a manager, I can give you raw attrition numbers,” she says. “But are those numbers alone going to help you? Or do you also need to look at what happened in the company over the course of the year, or in the community where that company does business, or in the larger economy, or with particular employees? Data rules, but the story behind that data really matters.”
“If you have five people on your team, you don’t need me to give you data about them,” she adds. “What you should be focusing on is learning as much as possible about those five people that are sitting in front of you on a daily basis.”
Beyond the idea that when people feel included, they stay, Sanders offers another: When people feel included, they excel. Bringing more voices to the table, then letting them speak freely, means getting new perspectives and potentially reaching new markets. It’s the kind of benefit companies find when they move beyond tactical to integrated and sustainable phases.
For instance, Sanders points to L’Oréal’s successful campaign extending their foundation colors to include darker hues, a decision that greatly grew their market share. And to MasterCard’s TrueName campaign, which allows trans people to use their chosen name on their card. Both offer social good. Both also reach previously untapped markets.
“Diversity and inclusion should be as strategic as a marketing plan, and as strategic as a go-to-market strategy for new business or a new product. You get that when you have someone who’s on your boards, who’s in your conversations, in those strategy sessions, talking about, ‘Who are we not reaching?’ And let’s not just think about who’s in this room. Let’s think about those who are out there and what the diversity of the marketplace truly looks like.”
The Power of the Personal
When Laura Allen (B’10) was in high school, few were thinking of her small corner of the marketplace or the needs and opportunities that came with it.
Because of a rare visual condition, by eighth grade, she had lost most central vision in both of her eyes. Her peripheral vision still works, but the middle of her vision is flashing lights that pulse and move. All that remains is one tiny field of vision where she can see and read two to three letters at a time.
Allen has what’s considered an invisible disability. She is legally blind, but uses no cane or service animal. One would never know about her experiences just by looking at her.
Her school hadn’t dealt with anything like her condition before, and at the time, the materials she needed weren’t available in accessible formats. So she and her family went the DIY route. They stripped the bindings off books, ran them through a high-speed scanner, and used software to convert images to text to be read aloud using text-to-speech software, all to give Allen a shot at keeping up with assignments.
A DIY attitude has served her well, as she has risen to become head of strategy for accessibility and disability inclusion at Google. She first connected with the company when a Google employee with a disability spoke at an event in Washington, D.C. — showing again how much representation matters.
Her first job at the company was in sales, far removed from her future work. But she started to become involved at a grassroots, tactical level. Put simply, she spoke up.
“I started to just reach out to different teams,” she says. “I’d find somebody who worked on the Google Docs team or the Gmail team and reach out with, ‘Hey, you know, I have low vision, and I have some feedback for how to make your product a little bit more accessible and inclusive. Would you be willing to grab coffee?” The response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I quickly fell in love with this area because I felt like all of a sudden, I had a perspective that was actually really invaluable,” she says. “It wasn’t just that I was trying to compensate for my vision in my current job and be straining every single day. I was bringing something really interesting to the table that would benefit others, too.”
Using Google’s 20% time — a policy that allows employees to spend one-fifth of their time on side projects they think will be valuable — she gradually took on more work consulting on accessibility and inclusivity in the company’s products and services. Eventually, she transitioned fully to such work.
She has led a team that ensures key features such as screen readers, magnification, dictation, and other key assistive technology are baked into Google’s Chrome browser, Chromebooks, and other products, as well as making sure it works with other assistive technology. Now, she leads one that focuses on strategy for accessibility and disability across the organization and beyond. Even in a competitive corporate environment, she and colleagues at other companies such as Facebook, Apple, and Yahoo! share best practices regularly.
“My whole goal at Google has been around leveraging the company’s scale. We’ve got products that are being used by billions of people in some cases. And if we can get those right, and really make them accessible and inclusive, it can really go a long way toward leveling the playing field for people with disabilities through technology.”
Chromebooks are prevalent in K–12 classrooms. A high school student with Allen’s same visual condition today can benefit directly from her own experience and the work she has put in at Google. So the moral case for inclusivity for Allen is easy.
But like many others with personal experience in the world of DEI, the business case is clear, too: “Over 1 billion people in the world have a disability — and then you factor in their family members. You know, there is potential upside in sales just from building for a population that’s so large.”
On a more personal and internal level, she also serves as head of operations for a disabilities employee resource group, the Google Disability Alliance. Better than most, she knows the value of being able to authentically share one’s whole self.
“It’s an awful feeling to feel like you have to hide,” she says. “And I mention that because I’ve come such a long way with it, where I feel like at Google, I’ve been able to build my confidence and be able to just talk so freely about disability, about my experiences. That’s been one of the biggest things that has helped in the realm of invisible disabilities. If we can create a culture where we can have an open dialogue and people feel like they can openly disclose and share, that makes a world of difference.”
This story was originally featured in the Georgetown Business Spring 2022 Magazine.