The Work of Chief Diversity Officers as They Champion DEI

by Diana Drake

What do high school students think about the diversity, equity and inclusion movement in business and society? Responses to a Wharton Global Youth podcast on racial justice are a telling snapshot of student perspectives. Commenter Caroline G., a high school senior from California, says, “While racism and discrimination are not things that will disappear once we acknowledge them, it is also important to realize that we have the resources to combat and alleviate these problems.”

In the business world, that work is often taken up by Chief Diversity Officers, executives who are championing and advancing DEI in the workplace and among all stakeholders. That purpose has taken on greater meaning as companies grow ever-more sensitive to Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) factors that reflect societal values and influence every aspect of business. According to LinkedIn’s 2022 Jobs on the Rise report, Diversity and Inclusion Manager is among the fastest-growing job titles in the U.S., as more professionals lead teams of people who are supporting company initiatives related to increasing diversity, equity and belonging.

Everybody Onboard

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s commitment to effective DEI practices, led by Erika James, Wharton’s first woman and African American dean, took a leap forward in October 2022, when the school welcomed Renita Miller as its inaugural Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer. The mission: to solidify a culture of dignity, respect and transparency through the appreciation of differences.

Dr. Miller is taking an approach that she describes as part strategy and part relationship-building. “When you’re doing this work, everybody has to be involved,” says Miller, who previously served as associate dean for access, diversity & inclusion at the Graduate School of Princeton University. “I need to be able to partner and collaborate with people who are invested in the work, but also to support the organization and help us move forward. I have a lot of meetings with people who are in different areas of the Wharton ecosystem: faculty, staff, students, alumni. I spend time understanding the challenges and the opportunities for Wharton in the space of DEI.”

One of Dr. Miller’s first big projects is a collaboration between her office, Penn Medicine and Wharton’s Coalition for Equity and Opportunity (CEO) to organize a Juneteenth Wellness Summit. “I am learning that there is an opportunity for Wharton to lead as it relates to engaging with the surrounding West Philadelphia community,” notes Miller. “That’s super meaningful for me because I really believe in the impact that service has, not just on the individual, but for the communities we’re serving. It’s not just about strategizing; it’s about the “doing” part of advancing equity.”

Natalie Edwards (WG’18) couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of putting ideas into motion. As the global chief diversity officer of National Grid, one of the world’s largest utility companies serving the U.S. and the U.K., she believes that corporations need to act on their stated commitment to diversity. While many executive chief diversity officer positions were created after George Floyd’s death in 2020, some of those positions are now reportedly being eliminated, or CDOs are choosing to leave.

Edwards suggests that this “unfortunate trend” could be a sign companies aren’t serious about implementing DEI strategies, or that CDOs are feeling unsupported in their roles. Whatever the case, the work, she says, requires perseverance and pervasive buy-in.

“It’s deeply rewarding work, but it can be challenging to build and maintain a corporate culture that encourages employees to listen, learn, and drive DEI — all while real barriers and biases continue to exist in our society,” says Edwards, who partners with colleagues across National Grid — from the CEO to interns — to keep DEI and global diversity at the center of the business.

“I’m very grateful that I’m completely supported in the work I do at National Grid,” she adds. “I lead a team dedicated to sustaining a diverse, equitable, and inclusive corporate culture. We set standards that ensure our workforce reflects the communities we serve at all levels, enable diverse colleagues to advance in their careers and secure leadership roles, and empower our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which provide supportive spaces for networking, peer mentoring, and engagement with senior leadership.” National Grid has 16 ERGs, including networks for women, people with disabilities, veterans and LGBTQ+ colleagues.

“Building relationships is key to this work. You can’t do it alone. You have to be able to bring people along with you.” –Renita Miller, Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer, the Wharton School

While there may be some re-aligning among CDO positions, the trend toward enriched DEI in the workplace is powerful, notes Dr. Miller. She points out that companies are embracing the research, which shows, among other things, that companies with boardroom diversity — including women and underrepresented minorities — are more profitable. “DEI is changing in positive ways because organizations and businesses are understanding the value of having different voices in the room,” she says. “It is becoming part of the value system. Younger people going into business want to be in organizations that are diverse. They want to be able to learn and grow from others who are from different backgrounds.” Wharton’s Leading Diversity at Work podcast series offers an exploration into all aspects of DEI in business.

Starting in fall 2023, undergraduate and MBA students at Wharton will be able for the first time to pursue concentrations and majors in DEI. Corinne Low, assistant professor of business economics and public policy in Wharton’s management department, which will administer the DEI-focused degrees, has said, “We can’t wait for the first students to graduate with the official DEI major in 2025, and continue to lead in helping companies become more diverse, equal, inclusive, and, thus ultimately, competitive on the global stage.”

‘Driven to Lead Social Change’

Dr. Miller suggests that high school students aspiring to get into DEI-related work must be deeply curious and equally collaborative. “Building relationships is key to this work. You can’t do it alone. You have to be able to bring people along with you,” she stresses. Experiencing how corporate culture operates is also essential. She credits Inroads, a nonprofit that creates career pathways for diverse high school and college students – often through internships — for changing the trajectory of her life.

Edwards recommends refining your communication and analytical skills and understanding the nuances of human resources. “If you’re interested in the DEI field, you’re probably a problem solver who’s driven to lead social change and find better solutions to long-standing challenges,” she says, adding that she focused her Wharton studies on business analytics, or the use of data analysis to inform decision-making.

Numbers tell the story of progress or lack thereof in an organization, which underscores the need to be data-informed. For example, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) recently launched a more robust DEI dashboard for its company leaders to hold themselves accountable for progress. This type of interface provides a visual representation of company diversity, equity and inclusion practices and outcomes by representing the data through graphs and charts that can be read at a glance.

“To do DEI work well, you need to be able to articulate goals and strategically analyze processes and procedures. Part of this work is about pitching ideas and getting buy-in,” adds Dr. Miller. “I love for people to feel seen and valued. But I also love when the numbers tell me that what I’m doing is working. You want to know that your efforts matter.”

“Examine your current environment and consider what you can do to make it more diverse and inclusive of all people. Prioritize DEI in your daily life.” –Natalie Edwards, CDO, National Grid

Both Dr. Miller and Edwards highlight that each day of their jobs can look very different, demanding them to stay flexible and hold fast to the tenets of their work: celebrating degrees of difference; amplifying fairness and justice; and nurturing a culture that ensures all stakeholders, from students to alumni, employees to customers, feel seen valued and respected.

“DEI is always changing,” observes Edwards, who was the only student in her MBA class to start a job in DEI immediately after graduation, taking a role at Estée Lauder in New York City. There, she supported creating products for different skin tones, hair types and gender identities. The DEI mindset at National Grid includes bringing clean energy, jobs and economic development to communities that are underrepresented and disproportionately impacted by climate change. “Knowing that there are new areas to influence and improve is really motivating and keeps me on my toes,” she continues. “My best advice is to start where you are, like I did. Examine your current environment and consider what you can do to make it more diverse and inclusive of all people. Prioritize DEI in your daily life.”

DEI, concludes Dr. Miller, is not just the responsibility of the executive CDO. Awareness
alone is empowering – and can lead to action. “Opportunities to make a positive impact are not related to a specific role. DEI work is everywhere and in everything,” she says. “Stay curious, ask questions, and know that you can make a difference wherever you are planted…whether that is at school, a summer job, or in your community. Your voice matters.”

Conversation Starters

Dr. Renita Miller says, “Younger people going into business want to be in organizations that are diverse.” Do you agree with this statement? If so, why is this a core value of your generation?

Have you had an experience working to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in your school, community or elsewhere? Please share your story in the comment section of this article.

What are 5 skills that are important to build if you want to advance DEI in the workplace? Why, in particular, is analytics essential?

6 comments on “The Work of Chief Diversity Officers as They Champion DEI

  1. #justiceforgeorgefloyd. #StopAsianHate. #MeToo.

    These are just a few of the prominent racial- and identity-focused social movements of recent years that have gained popularity with the help of social media. While they were released and popularized at different times, and under different circumstances, the trajectory of each was pretty much the same. After their initial posting, support for the platforms skyrocketed, prompting global backing for their cause bringing hundreds of thousands together in support of a shared purpose – an empowering, albeit rare, sight to see.

    These movements managed to garner a significant amount of public support, snatching headlines on local and national news sites, flooding any and all media platforms, their succinct, ‘woke’ wording soon plastered on shop advertisements and commercial programming. In their limelight, they were successful. Then they weren’t. The world moved on, and these movements soon faded into history as just another social media trend.

    This is the very issue with the work of promoting DEI. As Dr. Miller accurately states regarding her work as Chief DEI officer at Wharton, “It’s not just about strategizing; it’s about the “doing” part of advancing equity.”

    As with these hashtags and their related movements, I’ve observed a lack of effort from some individuals who choose to support the cause. I remember #blackouttuesday, a hashtag representing solidarity with the Black community, portrayed by the posting of a black square on an individual’s instagram story, that was almost immediately forgotten days after it gained popularity. As if an entire movement could be justified by just posting a black square.

    Social movements, and businesses for that matter, can only be truly effective at combatting inequality if they (and their supporters) are involved, resilient, and dedicated to the justice they are aiming for – they have to be willing to put in the work.

    I am a DEI Peer Facilitator and serve on the Diversity Advisory Committee at my high school and I am a member of the DEI athlete committee in my sport. Engagement in the DEI space has allowed me to grow as a person in the few years I’ve been involved, and I feel I am a better person for it. Being involved, however, has also instilled in me an understanding of what doesn’t work in the DEI space, and what makes this work challenging.

    I’ve personally observed the rise and subsequent fall of the CDO role over recent years as Ms. Edwards points out. It’s quite disheartening – to think that companies create an arbitrary, seemingly obligatory position to do the ‘right thing’, and retract on their action once its ‘relevance’ or ‘importance’ wanes. They do it as a response, not as a solution. That’s an issue.

    As I prepare for college and to shortly enter the workforce, I’ve begun to think about a few things that I believe the business world (and being real, society as a whole) needs to know. Take this as a call to action.

    We need to move beyond surface level solutions. Stop hiring candidates just to ‘check a box’. Go all in or don’t at all. Actually invest in the people of your business, not just the product you are selling. In the modern world, these two are often deeply, intrinsically intertwined. Be the change you want to see, and stick with it.

    Given the rapidly changing nature of DEI, as Ms. Edwards articulates, I am curious to see what kind of world I will end up working in and what kind of mission I will eventually contribute to.

    Dr. Miller is a superhero and this was a super engaging article on an extremely important topic! Great job WGYP!

  2. What an enlightening article this is! People often believe that recognizing the need for DEI work solves the problem, but this article illuminates that this is only the first step.

    I have attended the same private school for my entire life, watching my peers grow from young, curious kindergarteners to maturing seniors. While I love my school, one thing stuck out to me; all of my classmates were white, and I, on the other hand, was not. With very few other Asians in my classes and without a single teacher of color, I felt disconnected and completely detached from my Korean identity.

    It wasn’t until my freshman year in high school that I realized there were other students of color in my school community that must have felt the same way I did about their heritage. While the death of George Floyd and the BLM movements of 2020 led my school to recognize the real threat of racism and the true importance of diversity, as this article stated, nothing was being done. Therefore, I took it upon myself to create change.

    I created a vision for a club named ABIDE, an acronym for Anti-racism, Belonging, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, that would bring together students of color in the community and work to raise more education and awareness about not only the need for DEI but also about our school community’s different cultures. Unexpectedly, however, I received an enormous amount of pushback from the school administration. The students engaged in the club became called radical, and the club was denied membership.

    At this point, I regarded giving up. As a freshman, Asian girl, I felt as if I was creating trouble, but my peers reminded me of the importance of DEI. As Renita Miller at Wharton School stated–– “Building relationships is the key to this work. You can’t do it alone.”

    I refused to let this dream die, and I gathered together some students and teachers who supported DEI and organized a protest in front of the school entrance. This protest led to multiple meetings with school administration, including the head of the school and the board, but ultimately, after multiple conversations about the need for active DEI work on the student level, the club was passed.

    While at first, I thought I was merely advocating for my club, I slowly realized that the movement was something much bigger. While people are comfortable acknowledging the existence of racism and the need for DEI work, taking the first step of action is always the most difficult action. After ABIDE was approved as a club, other cultural clubs started pouring through––Korean Club, Hispanic Heritage Club, and Middle Eastern Club. The importance is in the first, difficult step of action. Yet, as this article stated, it is the youth and the students of the next generation that are calling the loudest for change and DEI action, and we are not afraid to demand it. Thank you Diana Drake for bringing attention to the complex work Diversity Officers do as they take active steps to champion DEI.

    • Hi Jamie! Your comment and connection to this article was inspiring and relatable with my own experience as well. You’ve made me realize that I’m not alone. You’re not alone. I am also a high schooler from Korean and Chinese descent, however there are many times where I feel disconnected from my heritage. Even in school around my predominantly white peers, it can be hard to feel super comfortable in my own shoes.
      I appreciate all that you’ve done to help support our community; the club you made is inspiring to me and motivates me to look for more ways to push inclusivity in our world.
      Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. As social awareness of DEI continues to grow in recent years, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion have emerged as crucial elements in the corporate landscape. This article emphasizes the fact that companies become more sensitive about ESG factors and their societal values, and that often bring more advantage in company operation and employer recruitment. Personally, living in the Middle East, I didn’t have much understanding of the concept of DEI before, but after reading this article, I gained great faith in the work of developing DEI in our daily lives. In fact, I asked a couple of friends living in different areas and surprisingly found out that some of them hold positions such as the DEI Ambassadors to help maintain an equitable school environment. I believe this article truly inspired me to start such initiatives in my school and make an effort in supporting DEI.

    However, having thought and researched about this topic, I started to be concerned about some potential risks and downsides of DEI. One of them is that I wonder if companies are embracing these principles not for the sake of social responsibility but as a strategic business imperative that can glorify their reputation. I fear that companies and organizations would practice including individuals from underrepresented groups merely to create an appearance of diversity without fostering genuine inclusion.

    Another big concern is that DEI initiatives may prioritize diversity at the expense of meritocracy. One of the most controversial events recently is the lawsuit between Students for Fair Admissions and Harvard regarding the university‘s race-conscious admissions process and potential discrimination against Asian applicants. Why are we prioritizing race factors for the sake of diversity? Has DEI in some context another blatant racial discrimination against a group that’s not considered unrepresented? I truly believe that developing DEI and both Dr. Miller and Edwards’ work is vital and influential in a more inclusive world. Nevertheless, the readers of this article shouldn’t solely acknowledge how DEI could create a Utopia society, but also the tokenism and further discrimination that the false implementation could bring.

    Julie Park, an associate professor at the University of Maryland said, “They have these policies that are trying to facilitate equity, but they also have these policies that undermine equity”. The balance and boundaries in DEI are vague, and it’s still an ongoing task for humans to find the right amount of equity. There is room for improvement in achieving DEI, but through the constant work of people like Dr.Miller and Edwards, I hope to see people in a workspace and the world being treated without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin. Thank you, Diana Drake, for submitting your article!

  4. Diana Drake’s article, “The Work of Chief Diversity Officers as They Champion DEI”, features a quote from Natalie Edwards, Chief Diversity Officer for National Grid, which says “Examine your current environment and consider what you can do to make it more diverse and inclusive of all people. Prioritize DEI in your daily life.”

    This quote is incredibly important to me because it resonates deeply with the urgent need for individuals to actively engage in the vital work of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, underscoring the responsibility that each of us carries in shaping the society we live in. The conversations sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd in 2020 led to many corporations and institutions taking action to implement inclusive policies and practices. While that trend has continued and has led to necessary corporate contributions toward furthering DEI work, true societal transformation can only occur when individuals take up the cause of spreading inclusion in their personal lives as well.

    The pursuit of diversity and inclusion extends beyond organizational frameworks and touches every aspect of our lives. In fact, taking a closer look into our own daily interactions, choices, and behaviors with a DEI lens can raise a lot of questions: Do I actively seek out and engage with people from diverse backgrounds to broaden my understanding? How can I contribute to the inclusion of marginalized groups in my personal and professional circles? How do I respond to instances of discrimination or bias when I witness them in my surroundings? Just the mere recognition of our own agency in shaping inclusive communities, as Natalie Edwards encourages us to do, can lead to a profound shift in mindset regarding our ability to advance DEI principles in our lives.

    As a member of the LGBTQ+ community who is interested in business, I have often found myself being erased before I am even given the chance to explain who I am. My gender non-conforming identity has heavily influenced how I present myself, which has unfortunately led to quite a bit of personal experience with the rigid notions of “professionalism”. These standards, which are formed around heteronormative and gender-binary ideals, force individuals to conform to norms that might not align with their gender expression or personal identities. This not only erodes self-expression and autonomy, but also creates an environment full of heightened stress, anxiety, and a sense of exclusion. In the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in the corporate world, the role of individuals in speaking up against such harmful practices can not be stressed enough. By remaining cognizant of our own prominence in helping to promote environments where everyone can thrive authentically, we can help to support corporate initiatives by taking up the mantle of DEI work ourselves.

    Natalie Edwards’ quote is an essential reminder of our ability to become active agents of change. By challenging biases, engaging in open conversations, and taking meaningful actions that promote inclusivity within our own spheres of influence, we are able to play a part in creating a world that celebrates and values the richness of diverse identities. Her words, and Diana Drake’s article, have motivated me to urge others to move beyond passive expectations and recognize their potential in dismantling systemic barriers and fostering a more just and inclusive society.

  5. Dr. Renita Miller’s statement that “Younger people going into business want to be in organizations that are diverse” reflects a growing trend among the younger generation. Many young individuals, particularly millennials and Generation Z, prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) when choosing employers for several reasons:

    1. Values Alignment: Younger generations tend to place a strong emphasis on social responsibility and ethical values. They want to work for organizations that align with their personal values, including promoting diversity and social justice.

    2. Inclusivity and Belonging: Younger workers seek workplaces where they feel included and valued for their unique perspectives and backgrounds. They are less likely to tolerate environments that lack diversity or foster discrimination.

    3. Innovation and Creativity: Diverse teams are known to be more innovative and creative. Young professionals recognize that diverse workforces can lead to better problem-solving and more dynamic solutions.

    4. Market and Customer Trends: As consumers, younger generations prefer to support businesses that are committed to DEI. They are more likely to engage with companies that reflect their values.

    5. Global Perspective: Younger workers often have a more global perspective, understanding that the world is diverse and interconnected. They see the importance of diversity in navigating international markets and building a global workforce.

    Overall, the desire for diversity in the workplace is not just a preference but a reflection of the values and expectations of younger generations, making it a crucial consideration for businesses looking to attract and retain top talent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *