It may sound obvious, but diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs are much more successful when they’re truly inclusive. And this touches on an important shortcoming of many DEI efforts, namely that they are too laser-focused on women and people of color.
Of course, these groups are foundational to the objectives and success of any DEI program. But such programs also benefit from allyship and require broad organizational support to make meaningful change.
For this installment of our series on corporate DEI leaders, Angela Harrell, our subject, is Chief Diversity and Corporate Impact Officer at Voya Financial. One of the things that stood out most to us in our conversation with her is her message that DEI efforts are for everyone—and benefit everyone.
It’s this inclusive approach to DEI, among other factors, that has helped Harrell and Voya become so successful in their corporate DEI efforts.
Leaning into DEI Responsibilities
Like many of the DEI leaders we profile, Harrell hasn’t had a long career in DEI, but she feels some of her passions have helped steer her in that direction.
Harrell has worked in more than half a dozen countries and has traveled the world. “I think, just as part of my own DNA, that I have this appreciation and love for culture, and people, and differences and the connections that we all have and the shared values among different cultures and people,” she says.
More than anything else, Harrell says, she recognizes the importance of having a sense of belonging and “being accepted for who you are.” It’s important, she says, “to really be able to just live your life and walk through it with the comfort of knowing that whoever you are, whatever identities you may have, that you’re perfect, and you’re enough.”
That, she says, is something she tries to emphasize every day in her interactions with people at Voya.
But that mission wasn’t a part of Harrell’s official responsibilities when she joined Voya. “When I first joined Voya eight years ago, I had corporate responsibility and philanthropy as part of my remit,” she says. “And in 2017, I asked for because I thought that it was just something so powerful in terms of our culture that I wanted to nurture and grow it—and I really wanted to operationalize it so that DEI became a part of everyone’s job.”
Success, Harrell says, requires more than a small team effort—a lesson she learned through her community, philanthropy, and environmental stewardship work with Voya.
Diversity is for All of ‘Us,’ Not for Just for ‘Them’
Harrell says she wanted to use her successful approach to corporate responsibility and philanthropy in tackling Voya’s DEI efforts. She says that, in following this road map, DEI’s being a shared responsibility has been essential “because only then does it really come to life and integrate itself into the culture in such a way that it’s who we are.”
Convincing people, particularly those who don’t come from a traditionally underrepresented background, that DEI is for everyone isn’t always an easy job. It’s easy for those who are traditionally represented to see DEI as something that just isn’t about them, Harrell says. She knew that being successful in the new role she had asked for required careful messaging. Fortunately, that’s something she had ample experience with. “I have a public affairs and communications background,” she explains. “I was at Coca-Cola for 12 years in different roles in that area doing sustainability reporting and executive speeches and communications and sustainability reports and annual reports.”
Harrell says she saw a great need for creating a message around what diversity means and demystifying the subject. “It was literally a campaign of communications and starting a love affair with DEI where everyone felt like, ‘this is about me, and about us,’ as opposed to, ‘this is about them.’”
Harrell places great importance on allyship. However, taking an inclusive attitude toward DEI is about much more than allyship. DEI is for everyone because all of us are diverse, Harrell says. She acknowledges the mindset among many that diversity is just about race and gender and sought to counter it straight away in her work with Voya.
“One of the things we did right out of the gate was define what diversity meant for us, and we defined that as the characteristics and identities that you’re born with and those you’ve acquired throughout your lifetime,” Harrell says.
“So all of us are diverse.”
Voya’s Diversity Journey
Voya has had a remarkable DEI journey in a very short period of time. The company went public less than 10 years ago in 2013. At that time, there were no women or people of color on Voya’s board of directors. Today, half are women, and a quarter are people of color.
Voya has also seen tremendous growth in the popularity of its employee resource groups (ERGs). “When we first started this journey, four percent of our employees were members of those ERGs,” Harrell says.
Harrell placed a great emphasis on allyship and inclusiveness in the context of these ERGs. “So, while an ERG may be an African American ERG, it’s actually a focus on that group, but with the inclusion of people from any community. And executive sponsors also reflect that.”
Harrell explains that, while initially, the executive sponsor for an ERG tended to resemble that group, today, each of these groups, which Voya now calls “Employee-Led Councils,” is led by someone who resembles that group, as well as someone who doesn’t.
The results of this inclusive approach have been impressive. That 4% participation rate in Voya ERGs has grown to 26% participation in the revamped Employee-Led Councils. Harrell hopes to see that number grow to 30% in the near future.
One of the reasons DEI has been slow in making it into mainstream corporate discourse may be because it’s seen as somewhat foreign and mysterious to people who don’t think of themselves as coming from a “diverse” background. Harrell’s message at Voya has been that we are all diverse in our own ways—DEI is truly for everyone and for the benefit of everyone. It’s that inclusive message that has helped contribute to Voya’s impressive DEI success story.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.