When Michelle Jordan accepted a product development role at AT&T in 2006, she initially agreed to a yearlong management position. However, Jordan continued climbing the career ladder until she found her footing as AT&T’s CDO, working, in part, toward building better employee communication.
“It’s been an incredible 17 years…because I’ve had the honor and benefit of seeing the business from a lot of different vantage points,” says Jordan. “I started at ground level, then went from ground level to a 30,000-foot view; from product management to corporate strategy.”
After spending a majority of her tenure as an HR executive, Jordan was promoted to CDO at AT&T in July 2022. “One of the things that made it easy to say yes to this role was not having to convince our leadership team that [DEI] is important and that we need to make it a priority.”
Read on for an edited excerpt of Senior Executive DEI’s interview with Michelle Jordan about how AT&T is building a culture of DEI through a one-of-a-kind mobile app and through its Rising Future Makers program.
Senior Executive Media: What is your proudest accomplishment since joining AT&T?
Michelle Jordan: One is inclusive leadership and making sure that we’re equipping our employees and people leaders, particularly, with skills to help them be successful. Another thing that I’m super proud of is, back in 2021, we launched Equality First+, a first-of-its-kind [mobile] app at AT&T that allows employees to learn about different cultures, have difficult conversations, and get to know their colleagues on a deeper level.
We load the app with employees’ stories. The app also includes a podcast that features employees sharing their stories and their experiences, employees that you might sit next to but you haven’t had an opportunity to get to know on a deeper level. We showcase employees not just through the podcast, but through them telling their stories through other mediums in the app, such as videos or articles. We also partner with film festivals and we highlight short stories to help drive greater understanding to help facilitate dialogue across communities within AT&T, so that’s something we are super proud of.
Our Equality First+ desktop experience is specifically catered to people leaders. The experience provides opportunities for learning through various tools and resources that can be used to navigate tough conversations, broaden perspectives on a number of topics, and encourage their teams to do the same.
“The [Equality First+] app drives our DEI strategy because it’s facilitating dialogue. It’s getting us closer to understanding, appreciating, and respecting our differences.”– Michelle Jordan, Chief Diversity Officer at AT&T
Senior Executive Media: How is AT&T’s corporate app facilitating better conversations in the workplace?
Michelle Jordan: The impetus for this app was to facilitate those uncomfortable conversations and uncomfortable dialogues and create as many mechanisms [to communicate] as we were all working from home during COVID and after George Floyd’s murder. There are a couple of ways you can engage in the app. You can engage by merely consuming content. There are all sorts of stories, videos, podcasts, articles, interviews, etc. You can also be matched with another AT&T employee based on how you completed your profile, where you are in the business, your name, likes, etc. [The app] notifies you when you have a match and encourages you to reach out to them and get to know them. If you so choose, you can reach out to them and get to know them.
Senior Executive Media: How does the app fit into your overall DEI strategy at AT&T?
Michelle Jordan: The app helps drive our DEI strategy because it facilitates dialogue. It’s getting us closer to understanding and appreciating and respecting our differences and commonalities. The unique thing about the app is that it showcases the variety of dimensions of diversity that I talked about. Many of the stories that are featured on the app are stories of people who represent underrepresented communities, whether it be face-to-face conversations or difficult dialogue in conversations that might be uncomfortable to have.
We have, for example, a short, creative story on Black women and our hair. The story helps people understand what the issue is and the beauty of the many dimensions of a Black woman’s hair and why it’s not cool to just walk up and touch someone’s hair. Those sorts of stories are featured in the app in an edu-tainment format and in a way where it breaks down the barriers of discomfort.
You can learn in the app, and you can take those stories and share them to facilitate a team dialogue. My team, and I’m a little partial, but we use those stories to facilitate monthly dialogue.
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Senior Executive Media: You have a little more than a year under your belt as AT&T’s CDO. What challenges do you look forward to continuing to take on in your role?
Michelle Jordan: Taking care of our people continues to be at the forefront. What we’re focused on right now is making sure that we fully understand the diversity of our employees. Geographic diversity, gender, race have always been at the forefront for many companies, but there are so many different dimensions of diversity, not just at AT&T but in society and in general. We want to make sure that every single person at AT&T and in the communities where we work and live feel like they belong, feel like they’re included, and that requires building some muscle, especially if you’re a people leader, understanding how to meet people where they are. That’s one dimension that we’re focusing on is making sure that we are leaders in keeping, building, and creating a culture of inclusion.
Our Equality First+ offering is a huge part of how we build a culture of belonging and respect. We also have a desktop version of the app specifically for supervisors or people leaders so that they are equipped with the tools and resources they need to foster belonging amongst their teams. We also just recently held our 15th Employee Group Conference, which highlighted the efforts of our 26 employee groups at AT&T … Our EGs (employee groups) and DEI advocates play a critical role at our company and have a huge influence on our culture — they provide safe spaces for genuine connection, opportunities for networking, learning, and ultimately helping foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie among colleagues.
The other thing is getting really smart about not only understanding who’s in our organization but understanding how to ensure they can thrive. That requires us to have solid measurement capabilities, so we’re elevating that as well. Every year we take a look at our workforce diversity, which we publish on our website. This gives us a good understanding of who is at our company globally, and in the U.S., including at the leadership, middle-management, and frontline levels. On top of that, our iCount program helps us measure other dimensions of diversity beyond race and gender, like veterans, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities. Knowing who is at AT&T is important to how we reach everyone and ensure all people are equipped to thrive here.
We’re also looking at early career [employees] and making sure that we’re readying talent, especially underrepresented talent, for bigger roles, for exposure, and for enrichment opportunities.
Senior Executive Media: How are you readying underrepresented talent at AT&T?
Michelle Jordan: One example is five years ago we introduced Dream in Black, a micro-brand focused on making sure that we’re connecting with the Black community. As a part of Dream in Black, we launched the Rising Future Makers program that allows us to bring 25 students from HBCUs into the fold [and] identify, celebrate, and recognize them with rewards because of their contributions to their communities and to their campuses. They’re entrepreneurs. They’re dreamers.
We spotlight 25 students over the course of the year. We put $5,000 in their pockets for them to further their dreams and the impact that they’re making on their communities. We also equip them with 5G-enabled devices that provide them service over the course of that year. And it does not stop there because we also help them expand their networks. We allow them an opportunity to get mentored through celebrities that we have relationships with or subject matter experts in the community.
Senior Executive Media: What is the process like for students looking to join the Rising Future Makers program?
Michelle Jordan: The students are required to submit an application and a video about the impact they’re making. We have a panel of diverse judges who help select those students who should matriculate and participate in the experience.
Then, we pair them with leaders in the community. I had an opportunity to host them at the All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City. Part of that was they had an opportunity to meet NBA athletes and the NBA’s chief diversity officer [Lesley Slaton Brown]. Athletes actually came and engaged with [program participants] directly. They get those opportunities throughout the year with us at events like the NCAA Final Four and Essence Festival. They get intimate opportunities to engage with various celebrities, industry experts, and executives at AT&T for mentorship. Our 2023 RFM class is open for applications now.
Looking for more insights from top DEI leaders? Read these exclusive interviews by Senior Executive DEI.