O C F I T B L O G Business Opportunity DEI needs to get back on track—these leaders have solutions

DEI needs to get back on track—these leaders have solutions

DEI needs to get back on track—these leaders have solutions post thumbnail image

The Fast Company Grill hit SXSW this year. Couldn’t make it to Austin? Here are some Fast Bites: Your handy recap of panel discussions.


Last month, Zoom laid off 150 employees in a move to invest in what the company described as “critical areas for the future.” Apparently, one of those areas isn’t diversity, equity, and inclusion. Of the employees who were laid off were those working on DEI at the company.But Zoom is hardly alone here.

In the years since corporate America rushed to implement DEI initiatives following the summer of 2020, many companies have dramatically slashed those efforts. The executives tapped to lead the charge have been quitting en masse. And the mere mention of DEI is enough to elicit a political debate with Republican lawmakers introducing a wave of anti-DEI bills throughout higher education on the heels of the Supreme Court overturning affirmative action last year.

“If you think about the pipeline of where most of us get our new hires from, it’s colleges and universities, trade schools, in some cases junior colleges,” said Calvin Crosslin, chief diversity officer at Lenovo. “So it has a huge impact if people don’t have equal access to education. And if there are not programs to help people get equal access, then how do people get ahead so that they get to be hired by premier corporations?”

How did something as critical as DEI get so far off track?

At the Fast Company Grill at SXSW, a panel of executives aimed to answer this question and offered solutions for DEI to find more permanent footing in the workplace.

Starting from a genuine place

For Erin Thomas, head of diversity, inclusion, belonging, and access at Upwork, the DEI initiatives that sprung up after the murder of George Floyd have been crumbling because it came from a place of companies feeling forced and not genuinely invested in increasing diversity and inclusion practices.

“That external pressure and one societal event or a couple of news headlines was never a sustainable motivation,” Thomas said. “And so I think that’s why we see a lot of this revolving door, not only for leaders in DEI within organizations, but just commitments of the organizations themselves. If the motivation is not intrinsic, if it’s not deeply embedded into the company’s values or the mission or to leaders’ values or mission statements for themselves, then of course it’s going to be a fly by night pendulum swing like we’ve seen.”

DEI is not a charity

Keely Cat-Wells, founder and CEO of Making Space, echoed Thomas and added that many people treat DEI like charity.

“I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job to tie impact to business strategy. And for so long we have looked at these issues and underrepresented communities through a charity lens and only a charity lens,” Cat-Wells said. “And that becomes problematic because then it’s like, oh, we’ll just either throw money at the problem or position underrepresented communities through this charity perspective and feel sorry for people. And that doesn’t get any systemic change to happen.”

Cat-Wells brought up Kim Kardashian’s company Skims introducing a collection of shape wear for customers with limited mobility as a way to make a business case for inclusion. But she was also clear that a company’s commitment in these spaces shouldn’t stop there.

“She did an amazing job and made a lot of money through this adaptive line. And I would love to think that she created this line because she fundamentally, genuinely cares about the disabled community, but she probably doesn’t. And that’s okay,” Cat-Wells said. “But I do think we need to not just rely on the economic power that a disabled community holds, and our legitimacy within these spaces should not be based on that. I think economic power can get us in these rooms and get us in these conversations, but it can’t make us stay there.”

DEI leaders need a break too

It’s understandable and expected that the leaders charged with creating DEI initiatives can face immense fatigue from the work itself but also the lack of support in actually executive their objectives.

“I see a therapist. Real talk,” Crosslin said. “You have to protect your mental health, your spiritual emotional health, your physical health, all of that. I rely on my team heavily. We’re in the trenches every day. We’re probably the only ones that understand just how depleting this can be emotionally because of all the topics you’re talking about around humans can be a very emotionally draining. It’s a matter of sticking together, talking through things, and honestly as hard as the work is, being proud of the progress that you do make.”

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