Article: The Journey to Equity: Tech hosts virtual diversity, inclusion seminar

Feb 18, 2021 | Business, Engagement

Note: This article appeared in the Ruston Daily Leader on Feb. 10, 2021. 
Written by Caleb Daniel

Efforts toward greater diversity, equity and inclusion in professional settings have already been taking place in corporations across the country for years, but the nationwide outcry last year in the wake of events like the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor caused those conversations to become even more prevalent and important. That’s what thought leaders representing several Fortune 500 companies said during a virtual Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace hosted by Louisiana Tech University’s College of Business on Feb. 2.

Alexis Kerr, head of multicultural marketing at Cadillac, said events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement sparked an even greater emphasis at her company on what is often referred to as DEI initiatives: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “At the onset of civil unrest and Black Lives Matter, the president of Cadillac called me and said, ‘Hey can we talk? What are we doing that’s working, what are we missing, what else should we be doing?’” Kerr said.

Kerr served as one of four panelists who took part in an hour-long virtual discussion on these topics, rounding out the all-day event of video conference presentations that were open to students, alumni and friends of both Tech and Grambling State University’s Colleges of Business.

The speakers represented Cadillac, J.B. Hunt, Thermo Fischer Scientific, Walmart, Lowe’s, Deloitte and Dow Chemical and gave presentations on topics like “Unconscious Bias in the Workplace,” and “Inclusion and Employee Engagement.”

This is the third year Tech and GSU have partnered to put on a diversity and inclusion-themed event for their business students, but it was the first one to include officers from such major companies, thanks to being fully online.

“It is critical that our students understand how to study, work, and lead in this type of environment because it reflects the global, diverse and inclusive workplace that most will enter upon graduation,” Tech College of Business Dean Chris Martin said.

So after that phone call with Kerr, what did Cadillac do to increase awareness on these issues within its workforce?
They started a series telling the stories of employees of color and giving them a platform to share how they had been marginalized. Then they gave every African American employee the choice to be paired with an executive mentor to build more relationships across different areas of the company.

“So this way it’s not just ‘those people,’ George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, ‘that person,’” Kerr said. “We are the ‘they.’ We all have our stories.”

Panelists said that while many corporations and business environments are still in the stage of establishing equality, the goal is to eventually move to equity.

What’s the difference? Todd Jenkins, the diversity, inclusion, and innovation senior leader for J.B. Hunt, gave an illustration using shoes.

“Equality is like, everybody gets shoes,” Jenkins said. “Equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits them. What we’re looking at are the structural barriers to opportunity. That’s equity.”

What does that look like in the higher education world?

“Some students need a higher level of support and resources to participate equally in educational success,” Martin said. “If there is equity, we are ensuring that each student receives what they need to be successful through the intentional design of their college experience.”

Steven Johnson recently moved to Lowe’s but was previously senior global lead at American Airlines. He gave an example of how barriers to equity might be built into a company’s policies or culture.

He said 25 or 30 years ago, flight attendants were almost fully assessed from a beauty perspective, with requirements and expectations that often put Black people at a disadvantage.

“Just imagine being a woman of color coming in, and there’s a whole room of clothes and makeup, and you have 4C hair, and your skin complexion is not on this palette of white to very white,” Johnson said. “That was historically what it looked like.”
So American began revamping its policies and asking what the true motivations behind them were.

“We asked, ‘Is it necessary to be have your hair pulled back in this way, and if that is the case, why can’t that be done with dreadlocks?’” he said. “Why can’t that be done in a natural hairstyle? What does ‘unprofessional’ really mean? Where does that come from?”

In addition to the virtual panel and presentations, students were also able to meet with talent acquisition teams from each of these companies.

Mollie Bagwell, a student in Tech’s MBA program, said discussions on topics like these have never been more needed.

“Now more than ever it is imperative to learn, discuss and understand the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion not only in our personal endeavors, but also within the workplace,” Bagwell said. “Gaining insights and knowledge from industry leading experts is the best opportunity to become the most inclusive and understanding coworker, friend and mentor that I can be.”