A year of change and cautious hope for corporate diversity, equity and inclusion

Erica Thompson
Columbus CEO
Columbus-area corporate diversity, equity and inclusion professionals from top left: Priscilla Hammonds, Adrian Sullivan, Qiana Williams, Angela Bretz, Erik Farley, Steve Francis, Rhonda Talford Knight, Shayne Downton and Ralph Smithers Jr.

Adrian Sullivan remembers the nightmares. He remembers the tears. He remembers the fatigue.

It was shortly after George Floyd, a Black man, died in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. White police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes and was charged in Floyd’s death.

It certainly wasn’t the first time Sullivan had seen the death of a Black man on television or social media. But in the midst of a global pandemic, it was as if everyone was at home paying attention, grappling with the systemic inequalities in law enforcement.

“No one could go out and assume their daily lives in a normal fashion and look away from what happened,” says Sullivan, a diversity, equity and inclusion manager with Cardinal Health and vice president of the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium, an organization that brings together the area's DEI professionals. “The world watched it. And it was somebody who looks like me.”

Adrian Sullivan, Cardinal Health

What followed was a summer of racial justice protests and widespread examination of systemic racism across myriad industries — especially as it became apparent that Black people were disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Racism was declared a public health crisis by the state of Ohio, Franklin County and the city of Columbus.

Companies and organizations in central Ohio and across the country posted Black Lives Matter statements online to show solidarity. Some even took to the streets. For example, in June, Nationwide hosted a rally for employees in the Arena District to acknowledge the many Black people across the country who had been killed by police.

Sullivan was watching with cautious optimism.

“It was great to see, but there’s always this hesitancy of, ‘Do you really mean it?’ ” he says. “We really want to see what you stand for. Prior to George Floyd being killed, (diversity, equity and inclusion) jobs were on the chopping block (amid the pandemic).”

But 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. They have hosted ongoing internal conversations about racism and created special committees. For example, Ohio State University formed a task force on racism, which has called for adding Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to the faculty. Central Ohio DEI leaders say this increased attention has empowered them to take bolder steps to make an impact and shift the industry. But some are wondering just how long the momentum will last.

“This is literally like a coach calling your number, saying, ‘You're going into the game right now,’ ” Sullivan says. “You’ve got five-star athletes running around on the field, literally giving everything they've got, because we don't know when we'll get another shot to make this kind of impact again.”

More:A year of change and cautious hope for corporate diversity, equity and inclusion

Once centered around affirmative action efforts, diversity, equity and inclusion terminology and practice are constantly evolving. For many DEI professionals, diversity denotes characteristics such as race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, perspective and much more. Inclusion is fostering a workplace where people are valued. Equity, a recent addition, ensures that individuals have the same access to opportunity — including promotions, mentorship and other development — while recognizing that some employees have been systemically disadvantaged.

Unfortunately, corporate America is still a long way from being a diverse environment. According to a 2019 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, only 3.2% of all executive or senior leadership roles at for-profit companies are held by Black professionals. And they hold less than 1% of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies.

In the nonprofit sector, Black professionals account for only 6% of executive director roles, according to a 2017 study by Battalia Winston. And the 2017 BoardSource Leading with Intent Survey found that Black professionals comprise just 8% of boards.

To address this issue, a slew of DEI leadership positions was created following the summer of 2020. Locally, the YMCA of Central Ohio named Erik Farley as its first-ever senior vice president of equity and inclusion in January. A month later, Columbus State Community College named Almar Walter as its first-ever vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, while the Central Ohio Transit Authority named Monica Jones its first-ever chief equity officer.

Erik Farley, YMCA

As a consultant with 20 years of DEI experience, Rhonda Talford Knight has been coaching clients through DEI assessments and strategy implementation.

 “What we've heard is, ‘We thought we were OK. We thought, because we were revenue-generating and folks weren't complaining, we were OK,' " says Talford Knight, who has a consulting company. "They're looking at the actual landscape of their own organization and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I am surrounded by a bunch of white guys.’ ”

Considering the DEI hiring wave, Talford Knight had a concerning thought: Some workplaces still don’t get it.

“You’re not seeing job descriptions call for experience,” she says. “And then they say, ‘Well, we're not sure what budget we're going to be able to put with it. And we're not sure if we're going to have a team or the resources.’ ”

Knight stressed the need for diversity roles to be created in the C-Suite — chief diversity officer positions — reporting directly to the CEO. And when clients say they don’t have money for DEI, Talford Knight advises them to “go find it,” or coaches them on how to ask leadership for the funding.

“We find the money for the things that we want to do,” she says. “Organizations [that don't fund funds to drive DEI efforts] are going to be set up for failure right out the gate. We ask the question, why hasn’t anything changed? If you keep hitting your head up against the wall, you’re going to see the same results.”

Rhonda Talford Knight, Knight Consulting Group

The YMCA of Central Ohio positioned itself for success by establishing an anti-racism council to advise its president and CEO. And Erik Farley stepped into the role of senior vice president of equity and inclusion, bringing DEI experience from positions at Denison University and other colleges.

In his opinion, the declaration of racism as a public health crisis was a “clarion call” for the DEI industry.

“It's always been important to me personally, and a lot of people that I interact with in my own circles, but it is a public statement that this is something we all should have a vested interest in,” he says. “And so that, in many ways, brings credibility to the work.”

The YMCA, one of the region's largest nonprofits, has added BIPOC staff members to its executive and senior leadership teams. The organization also has taken steps to mitigate bias in recruitment by examining language used in job postings and during the interview process. Farley says the goal is to make the hiring process consistent for everyone—just one of many steps the organization is taking to become an anti-racist institution.

“It’s actually a recognition that there are systems at play and ways of thinking that are racist,” he says. “Being honest and upfront about that is critically important. Are there opportunities to be intentional about transforming our workforce to be representative of the world around us?”

Representation includes multiple demographics, but the industry is currently focused on race—and for good reason, says Talford Knight.

“A true DEI expert will allow the organization to ensure that there’s gains across the board while focusing on the unconscious bias and the issues around race, because, at the end of the day, BIPOC is missing from leadership positions across the nation in C-suite and in boards.”

Since the summer of 2020, multiple studies have exposed the lack of racial diversity on corporate boards, which hire CEOs, determine pay structure, guide company strategy and ultimately hold leadership accountable on DEI efforts.

Underrepresented ethnic and racial groups make up just 12.5% of board directors, according to a 2020 data analysis by the ESG division of the Institutional Shareholder Services firm, which provides investment solutions.

A 2021 data analysis by BoardProspects found that 60% of the country’s 3,000 largest publicly traded companies lacked a Black director. The board recruitment platform also reported that, among the nearly 27,000 board members, just 5.4% are Black.

In central Ohio, DEI professional Steve Francis helps organizations identify the many highly capable candidates for boards through his consulting firm, Franchise D&I Solutions, LLC. 

"You see the same or usual suspects getting appointed to corporate boards from minority communities," he says. "My experience is that they are looking for folks with either accounting, legal or corporate governance (experience) and former CEOs. However, there's plenty of chief diversity officers out there that I believe corporate boards should be open and willing and more intentional about bringing on their boards, specifically for the purpose of helping that organization navigate DEI issues. It’s a mindset shift. They still don’t consider diversity to be a frontline operational imperative for their organization, so they don’t view that as a necessary component of their board structure, either." 

Steve Francis, Franchise D&I Solutions

Incremental progress is being made following the George Floyd protests. The BoardProspects study also found that 62% of Black director appointees made between 2019 and 2020 occurred in the seven months after Floyd’s death.

The nonprofit sector is also re-examining its boards. Locally, the United Way of Central Ohio tackled this issue by conducting a 2019 study on nonprofit board diversity and inclusion in central Ohio. Although 65% of central Ohio residents are white, 80% of board members surveyed were white. In response, the United Way of Central Ohio created a board diversity policy that requires all of its funded partners to have a diverse board — mirroring Franklin County demographics — by 2025.

However, the sudden attention to board diversity is also bringing up tough conversations, says Shayne Downtown, the chief diversity and inclusion officer for the United Way of Central Ohio.

“We're having to navigate through a question of, ‘Do they really want me there? Do they really want my ideas, or do they just want my face?’ We're trying to figure out that dynamic.”

Shayne Downton, United Way of Central Ohio

For Qiana Williams, facilitating difficult conversations last summer was critical. As OhioHealth’s vice president of culture, engagement and inclusion and chief diversity officer, she says she felt a license to “lean in” more than she ever had before.

“I was telling our white leaders and our white associates, ‘I'm going to do sessions just for you,’” she says. “‘And I'm going to ask you to not ask your Black co-worker to educate you.’”

Williams was encouraged by OhioHealth CEO Stephen Markovich, who made public statements and intentionally characterized George Floyd’s death as a murder.

“He was showing up in the right way, which also further emboldened me to show up in a more full way," she says. Williams says OhioHealth has been working on issues of race for the past few years.

“Health equity is directly aligned to diversity and inclusion,” she says, stressing the importance of patients seeing physicians who look like them and interacting with a culturally competent care team. “If our patient experience scores are not where they need to be, then someone could potentially choose a different healthcare institution.”

OhioHealth is also working to diversify its leadership, she says. 

Qiana Williams, OhioHealth

“If a diverse swath of the community doesn't see us as an employer of choice, then we won't be able to attract the top talent,” she says. “Talent is driving our revenue. So, in order to ensure that we're recruiting the best and the brightest, we know that we have to ensure that those folks see our place as a destination.”

In other words, Williams, like a lot of other DEI professionals, is passionate about demonstrating the business case for diversity.

“I would challenge any company that said that they couldn't tie diversity and inclusion to the bottom line,” she said. “You want people to feel it in their heart, but there's also a dollars-and-cents tie to this as well that people really need to understand.”

To foster accountability, OhioHealth’s manager and executive bonuses are directly tied to data-driven progress. Williams and other DEI professionals recommend that companies and organizations use metrics dashboard software to measure progress, and build out DEI pages on their websites to increase transparency.

Of course, not all measurement is quantitative, especially for companies that aren’t in a position to hire a large number of people. Ralph Smithers Jr., assistant vice president of diversity and community relations at Encova Insurance, said it’s important to prepare the workplace for a changing population.

“How do people feel about their organization?” says Smithers, who also leads implicit bias training at the company. “What do the engagement surveys say? I've had people say, ‘Hey, because of some of the things that I get to be involved with through our associate resource group, this really makes me feel much more a part of our company. It makes me want to stay. It makes me want to go and refer someone.’ ”

Ralph Smithers Jr., Encova Insurance

To ensure that a diverse committee is making decisions on charitable funding, Smithers has appointed leaders from those associate resource groups. And they regularly volunteer in diverse communities.

According to DEI professionals, their work requires exceptional communication skills, empathy and a willingness to advocate for all populations, not just one’s own demographic. While people of color have traditionally held these roles, there is  consensus that anyone can do the job — as long as they have the experience, commitment and ability to avoid centering themselves.

While gaining experience in the HR department is still a common path to a DEI role, pursuing online DEI certification can also be helpful. In the meantime, professionals can be advocates for DEI at their companies no matter their current positions.

“If your organization has values that center around diversity, equity and inclusion, lead with those in your own work,” Downton says. “If they don't have those (values), ask why not. That will get you noticed.”

And asking for informational interviews with DEI professionals is also an effective tactic that Smithers used when he transitioned to his current role.

“I basically went out and got to know every single person that would have lunch or coffee, and I always bought,” he says.

Smithers adds that the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium was an invaluable resource. Co-founded and led by Priscilla Hammonds, who is AVP for diversity and inclusion and community relations at Grange Insurance, the nonprofit encourages collaboration between DEI professionals to advance the field.

Priscilla Hammonds, Grange Insurance

“We’re always supporting each other,” he says. “We see our mission not only being for our respective companies, but we also seek it for the greater community.”

Consortium vice president Adrian Sullivan hopes to reach even more people and make a greater impact while the spotlight is still on the DEI industry — and before society returns to a semblance of normalcy following the pandemic.

“I'm waiting to see what the first six months after we’ve had mass vaccination look like, and if people will forget everything we just went through,” he says. “I hope that we are still kicking and thriving and going strong.”