Nine diversity, equity and inclusion leaders to know in Columbus

Erica Thompson
Columbus CEO

In the aftermath of the racial justice protests of 2020, companies and organizations have stepped up their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Many have added new DEI roles and made commitments to diversify their boards, staff, suppliers and charitable efforts.

Here are nine DEI professionals to know in Columbus. 

You can learn more about their experiences in CEO's April 2021 cover story, "A year of change and cautious hope for corporate diversity, equity and inclusion."

​​​​​​​Rhonda Talford Knight, CEO and founder, Knight Consulting Group

Rhonda Talford Knight, CEO and founder, Knight Consulting Group

“I can have a seat at the table, but is my voice being heard? We are not doing the real work of DEI if we’re not landing in the space of belonging. You can measure engagement and you can measure retention. Research shows that when there's a sense of belonging, people are engaged and they stay. Guess who has the greater sense of belonging? White males. Why? There's white males across the cascade of leadership positions. You have to talk about behavioral change, but you also have to talk about systems, policies and procedures that ensure that belonging.”

Shayne Downton, chief diversity and inclusion officer, United Way of Central Ohio

Shayne Downton, chief diversity and inclusion officer, United Way of Central Ohio

“I don’t know anyone that’s getting equity right. Equity is the piece that levels the playing field. It’s about giving people what they need to be successful, and sometimes that means giving people more of it to catch up. What we’ve learned is that we haven’t come as far as we thought, but there is hope. We’ve created the framework, we’ve built the structures within our organizations, and we have the value statements. Now, we have to figure out how to apply it. We have a lot more work to do.”

Qiana Williams, chief diversity officer and vice president of culture, engagement and inclusion, OhioHealth

Qiana Williams, chief diversity officer and vice president of culture, engagement and inclusion, OhioHealth

“I would challenge any company that said that they couldn't tie diversity and inclusion to the bottom line. For instance, we know that Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. So, as you're making small business loans, what does the percentage of those loans going to Black women look like? Think about retail and the African American community’s buying power. If you're trying to sell products, what does that portion of your product sales look like? Are you targeting those communities? You want people to feel it in their heart, but there's also a dollars-and-cents tie to this as well.”

​​​​​​​Erik Farley, senior vice president of equity and inclusion, YMCA of Central Ohio

Erik Farley, senior vice president of equity and inclusion, YMCA of Central Ohio

“I think there's a need to be more mindful of well-being. This work takes a lot of energy and you're pouring into people constantly. You're providing feedback and coaching and re-direction, and you're being forthright about dignity and human rights. A lot of that takes courage. There is a need to be intentional about your approach to your work, but also making certain that you conserve enough energy to have a life outside of work. That's important.”

Angela Bretz, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, Nationwide Insurance

Angela Bretz, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, Nationwide Insurance

“The first thing I tell folks is to recognize that it is an absolute journey. The efforts and work that you're putting in place today, you won't see those materialize into tangible things tomorrow, and maybe not even next year. Be intentional and purposeful about what it is you want to focus on. There may be a lot of things that you want to change. If you try to take on everything at once, you spin your wheels and you don't really get those tangible wins.”

Ralph Smithers Jr., assistant vice president, diversity and community relations, Encova Insurance

Ralph Smithers Jr., assistant vice president, diversity and community relations, Encova Insurance

“When I was in college in the ‘80s, if you had told me what we would be going through now, I would have been horrified. Things haven’t been perfect, but I can say that, until a few years ago, you could see things getting a little better. Now, they’re getting worse. We have to work through it. We have to keep an eye on the business case (for diversity). It took 400 years to build up some of these systems. It may take more than the time that I have left in my career to fix it. We’re going to do the best we can. We just have to show our value.”

Steve Francis, president and lead strategist, Franchise D&I Solutions

Steve Francis, president and lead strategist, Franchise D&I Solutions

“Each high school and certainly each college and university should have a curriculum on diversity, equity, inclusion and racism, for that matter. Just as we have a steady crop of graduates that go on to be CFOs CMOs and CIOs, you’ll have folks coming out as CDOs (chief diversity officers). There's more to the C-suite than CIO, CMO and CFO. We've got to really work on this mindset that diversity is valuable. It's a critical, frontline operational imperative. And it starts with the education system designing itself to produce diversity professionals who go into corporations as diversity leaders on a routine basis.”

Priscilla Hammonds, AVP, diversity and inclusion and community relations, Grange Insurance and president, Central Ohio Diversity Consortium

Priscilla Hammonds, AVP, diversity and inclusion and community relations, Grange Insurance and president, Central Ohio Diversity Consortium

“The events of last summer illuminated the need for focus toward progress in diversity, equity and inclusion across our nation. Following the protests, we saw a huge surge in companies seeking to create or revise their DEI strategies and/or hire DEI professionals to include social justice components. I’m hopeful we can maintain and increase that momentum, pushing companies to ‘walk the talk’ and support the hard work we have ahead of us in the specific actions that are needed. DEI experts have been guiding this work for years and are increasingly vital to help create strategies that drive deliberate dialogue and systemic change as we engage workplaces in diversity, equity and inclusion as part of a global commitment to social justice.”

Adrian Sullivan, diversity and inclusion manager, Cardinal Health, and vice president, Central Ohio Diversity Consortium

Adrian Sullivan, diversity and inclusion manager, Cardinal Health, and vice president, Central Ohio Diversity Consortium

“(Last year), there were companies letting Black and brown workers go left and right and blaming it on the pandemic. There were restaurants that weren't protecting their wait staff, which was probably primarily low-income individuals, women and minorities. They weren't protecting them in a pandemic, but were quick to throw up a black square and say, ‘We stand in solidarity.’ We really want to see what you stand for. The next generation of the workforce is watching. I think we forget sometimes that the population of consumers is also the population from which you choose your workforce.”