Most American business leaders today understand that not only do people of all races, genders, sexualities, and class-backgrounds deserve to hold positions of power, but that building a diverse workforce is also good for business. Employing a diverse management team has been shown to increase revenue for companies by 19 percent, and companies with gender-diverse leadership teams are 15 percent more likely to surpass industry median financial returns. However, when companies work to build cultures that embody diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), their claims can sometimes feel empty, and, in the end, minority groups sometimes receive insufficient support.
The surest way to engage and retain a diverse population of employees is through an active investment in their well-being, their sense of community and belonging within your organization, and their career growth. I was given an opportunity in November –– alongside three colleagues, all four of us are women of color –– to attend the AFROTECH Conference in Austin, Texas. This experience gave us new energy around our work, a renewed sense of commitment to our company, and led to the development of a Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness (SCARF) Model training scheduled for January of 2023.
What is AFROTECH?
The AFROTECH Conference is the largest annual Black tech conference globally where a community of over 25,000 Black tech innovators gather to network, learn, and meet with industry leading businesses to discuss the newest trends in technology.
Highlights of attending the AFROTECH conference
At the November event I was joined by my WEX colleagues,
- Contessa Hoskin- VP, Global M&A Business Integrations, Strategy
- Chloe Jackson- Quality Assurance (QA) Manager, Product Technology
- LaTaschia Valasquez- Manager, Account Services, Fleet
where we were inspired by a broad ranging set of talks from many different industry leaders.
One of the highlights for us was hearing the Chief Diversity Officer of GM, Telva McGruder, speak about the overlapping needs and focus points between diversity and the energy transition. She shared that GM had made a $50 million investment to assess the disparities and the needs of low-socioeconomic communities as electric transportation becomes more prevalent.
We also heard an engaging talk given by Alexandra (Ally) Legend Siegel, the Chief Diversity Officer of Expedia, about how her company is building “the underlying platform that all ladders up to one thing - the Traveler.”
A group of small business owners shared the stage in a panel focused on entrepreneurship’s impact on the growth of the Black American economy. The question posed was, “What’s next for Black entrepreneurs?” These talks were led by a panel of Black entrepreneurs, who were part of a whole host of burgeoning industries.
How a feeling of inclusion can be impacted by product design decisions
By far the most compelling conversation at AFROTECH was led by Hassani Turner, Vice President, Portfolio Management (Customer Data and Profile) and Head of Product Inclusion at American Express. Turner’s talk was focused on designing and engineering inclusive products. She expressed the idea that every product design decision your business makes has the potential to include or exclude customers. In this interactive workshop, members of the American Express product inclusion team covered the fundamentals of applying an inclusive lens and incorporating diverse perspectives into the product development and design lifecycle. The session focused on methods to better identify with customers, achieve greater empathy, and create stronger products that truly speak to customers and support a diverse array of demographics. This talk gave me a new perspective on my mission at WEX, and I came back to my work wanting to play a larger role in how our customers experience our products. I want to help ensure that we look at the products we’re creating with a line on inclusivity. I was finally able to see the relationship between my role at a fintech, and what is at the heart of my work as a diversity, equity, and inclusion advocate.
The benefits of attending conferences like AFROTECH
As Tessa Hoskin shared, one reason a company like WEX should attend conferences like AFROTECH comes from a talent acquisition angle. Diverse companies enjoy 2.5 times higher cash flow per employee, and that cash flow begins with the workers. There is a talent pipeline at conferences like AFROTECH that would give companies like WEX direct access to a diverse pool of tech professionals. Tessa witnessed talent acquisition teams from global companies hiring people on the spot, and she envisions a future where WEX could take the opportunity to meet new potential employees at AFROTECH and other conferences like it. “It's really about adjusting our mindset and our belief surrounding where solutions come from and the level of excellence that can be found in a whole diverse set of communities in the technology space.”
What made the AFROTECH conference special from a diversity, equity, and inclusion perspective
Tessa described the feeling so well for us four attendees –– for all of us it was the first time we found ourselves in a work environment where we did not feel like we were in the minority. As Tessa said, “Some people attending described it as feeling at home. You feel safe. You feel you can be your authentic self.”
Emphasis at AFROTECH on the impact of your network on career growth
Both Chloe and LaTaschia came to AFROTECH with a developed understanding of some of the more salient topics covered at the conference, having just completed a six month McKinsey leadership course together. As Chloe shared, “The McKinsey course was focused on strategy and within that teaching was a focus on the importance of one’s network. The way the course described it, your network represents your net worth.” Chloe and LaTaschia approached AFROTECH through that lens which meant they entered every opportunity with an eye to how the tens of thousands of attendees might become a part of a larger future resource for them, and for WEX.
Coming out of AFROTECH with a renewed commitment to authenticity
Chloe, LaTaschia, Tessa, and I discussed one of the main themes we felt coming out of AFROTECH. Fortunately for us, the idea is already a cultural pillar at WEX, where all employees are encouraged to “bring our authentic selves to work.” When we were at AFROTECH, we all found it easier to be ourselves, unapologetically, and we left that experience forever changed. As LaTaschia described it, “I want to be more my authentic self, because that's not a bad thing. The experience of AFROTECH was inspiring to me. In my work, I have always felt like I needed to fit into a certain mold in order to be accepted. I came back from AFROTECH with a sense of pride in who I authentically am, and an understanding that it would be okay to bring some of the freedom of expression I had experienced at the conference to my job. What came with that feeling was a feeling of renewal.”
How does the SCARF model training tie into the AFROTECH event?
For those of you who are not yet familiar with SCARF, it’s a relatively new way of looking at human interaction that involves five aspects of human social experience: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. The main premise is that the brain makes us behave in certain ways, tied to how to minimize threats and maximize rewards. We respond to the possible threat and the possible reward in the same way we act upon satisfying primary needs, such as getting ourselves food and water. Our social needs are on par with our need for sustenance. This new science has some significant implications for the workplace which is often a highly social place. In our interactions, our brain is busy classifying everything with a “reward” or “threat” feeling in our body, which then registers in our behavior. As Tessa shares, “SCARF has nothing to do with personality. It has nothing to do with IQ. It’s really about neurology.”
Tessa has long been a fan of the SCARF model and what she experienced at AFROTECH illustrated for her how valuable a SCARF training experience would be as a follow-up to AFROTECH: as a person who’s part of a minority group, the things that trigger a fight or flight reaction might be different than for those who identify as part of the majority group. The value of sharing this with the WEX community became clear to Tessa when she was in a setting where she was no longer a minority. Later this month Tessa will be leading a SCARF training for WEX’s Black Growth Council, and this germ of an idea for engaging WEX employees in SCARF training was born at AFROTECH.
How investing in your diverse employee population can give more back to your business
Harvard Business Review’s Paul Gompers and Silpa Kovvali recently released a diversity report which included the finding that once a company has developed itself as relatively homogenous, it becomes difficult to shift to a more diversely populated workforce as the company grows:
“The result suggests that an already homogeneous organization will tend to become even more so as it scales up. So it’s important to encode diversity in a company’s DNA at the earliest stages.” What does it mean to encode diversity in your company’s DNA? It might be as simple as investing in the diverse population you already have and allowing that seed to grow and develop into something powerful.
Sending four employees to AFROTECH might be an example of that kind of action. It provided a segment of our company’s population with professional development as well as personal development, and it gave the four of us a sense that WEX cared about us enough to invest in our being there. It was a feeling of “We want to thank you for your input, and we also want to give you the platform and the opportunity to learn more, grow more, and do more.” When you implement diversity and inclusion programming at your company, and you create incentives or opportunities for advancement –– personal or professional development –– those employees double down on their commitment to the organization. It makes them excited and it makes them want to be there. It also makes them want to stay, so they can have these opportunities in the future. What can also come with that is an opportunity to continue to build a thriving work environment for Black employees, and for everyone who works at your company. When LaTashia, Chloe, and Tessa’s networks learn about the support and resources given to them at WEX, they may be more inclined to apply for a position at the company.
How can you build on your diversity, equity, and inclusion investment
One way to build on any DEI investment you’ve made as a business would be to return to those conferences where you felt the most energy and learning and plan to have more of a presence than you did the prior year. It’s useful to look at the conference from as many angles of opportunity as you can come up with. Using AFROTECH as an example, the best thing about the conference wasn't just an opportunity to network, there was a vast array of tech talent, there were many minority small business owners, and there were panelists and guest speakers who inspired and shared unique ideas. Think about returning with members of your talent acquisition team, with members of your supplier team, and with members of your strategy team. Come back to the best conferences armed with a plan.
I would also recommend sending along employees that don't identify with the diverse population the conference is speaking to. The purpose of this would be to give those not in the minority insight into what some of your diverse employees experience on a daily basis to be in a space where you don’t see anyone else who looks like you.
At AFROTECH, I was a black woman among a large magnitude of people who look like me, who are also in technical corporate spaces. This was invigorating, it gave me a sense of belonging, and it was energizing. The energy I left AFROTECH with was that I belong. I am doing what I’m supposed to do and I can feel proud of the work I’m doing. I’m exactly where I need to be.
While diversity, equity, and inclusion is important for shareholders and for investors, it’s not just a box to check
It makes sense in 2023 for any viable company to put dollars and resources behind diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. As shared in a recent McKinsey report, ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform more homogeneous ones, while gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to do so.
All that said, I would suggest an approach that goes beyond treating DEI simply as a box to be checked in your operations practices. Don’t lose sight of how important it is to feel included. For everyone to feel included, and not forcibly so. Chloe, LaTashia, Tessa, and I were reminded at AFROTECH of the distinction between a sense of being included because of overarching goals of maintaining a diverse workforce versus being included simply because we had intrinsic worth. Being included because each of us provide a valuable resource simply by what we bring to the conversation as smart, capable people.
There was so much we were able to see at AFROTECH including presentations on artificial intelligence, crypto, how to succeed in fintech, and company climate and its impact on the retention of a diverse technology talent pool. By far the greatest impact we experienced as individuals was a renewed sense of purpose, a stronger drive to be more authentic in how we come to work, and a new energy to help WEX become an even more inclusive and equitable place. The value of investing in these types of experiences for your diverse pool of employees cannot be overstated.
WEX has nine ERGs which serve as active communities, acting as touchpoints for various groups across WEX that share interests, cultures, identities, and backgrounds. These groups include: WEX NexGen, Women of WEX, Parents@WEX, WEXPride, WEXVets, Black Growth Council, WEXcessibility, Women in Tech @ WEX, and Latin X @ WEX.
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