The path to achieving corporate diversity and inclusion is a lengthy journey that requires considerable work and understanding from many parties, according to a panel that included Wake Forest Schools of Business Dean Steve Reinemund.
Reinemund, who joined Wake Forest in 2008 after retiring as the chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, also warned attendees at the 2010 Diversity Leadership Conference in Greensboro that the economic crisis had caused numerous companies to put diversity efforts on hold. He stressed that doing so is a huge mistake.
“I believe that the companies that keep their commitment to diversity are going to have an economic advantage when the economy turns around,” he said. Fortunately, “there’s still time” for corporations to rededicate resources before the economy fully rebounds, Reinemund added.
Still, companies are slowly beginning to understand that a diverse corporate culture means bringing on more than a sporadic employee or two.
Johnny Taylor Jr., the president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said there is a realization that diversity “pipelines” are needed rather than isolated hires. “If you bring in just one person it is highly unlikely that they'll be there in 10 to 15 years to ascend to the C-suite.”
Kristi Clement Williams, the director of diversity and inclusion at Cintas Corp., also emphasized that changing a corporate culture to focus on diversity doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, companies should “focus on small areas to get traction” which in turn should lead to movement, she said.
There were times when the panelists shares personal stories.
Reinemund, for instance, told of a 2001 lecture he gave at Stanford University, detailing a question he received from an unrelenting student. “I was asked whether I would still pursue diversity even if it weren’t good for business,” he said, acknowledging that he response failed to satisfy attendees.
“That encounter really bothered me,” he confessed to the audience Friday. Two weeks later, he realized why. “The students there knew my passion” that diversity is the right thing to do for more than financial reasons. “I just wouldn’t say it.” Since then, he has been a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion, both at Pepsi and at Wake Forest.
Panelists weren’t afraid to critique areas where human resource professional mess up in the area of diversity.
Allison Green, the chief diversity officer at Lincoln Financial Group, said HR executives need to pursue “simplicity” and use less jargon when explaining the topic to employees. Taylor added that HR representatives often fail to understand why inclusivity is important to their organizations, whether it is motivated by ethics, legal reasons or financial purposes.
Still, failings occur much earlier than corporate America.
Reinemund stressed that more must be done in public schools, which often requires one-on-one interaction with students in need. Wake Forest, for instance, has a summer program that brings local students to campus for programs based on subjects such as accounting.
“It not often glamorous,” he said of such efforts. “But we have to figure out education.”