Becoming a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader is not just a career choice; it’s a profound journey shaped by transformative experiences. Each DEI leader carries a unique story, often marked by pivotal moments that have left an indelible mark on their paths.
Below, a panel of DEI Think Tank members from diverse backgrounds and industries share their stories to uncover the most impactful work-related experiences that molded them into advocates for change. From confronting systemic bias to fostering inclusive cultures, their stories offer invaluable insights into the profound impact of these experiences on the evolution of DEI leadership.
My first thoughts were the national presentations and keynote addresses that provided a significant platform for me to educate and facilitate the growth of thousands, hone my skills, and be deemed an expert in this space. However, the most impactful experiences are, in fact, when I have been able to walk alongside individuals on their journey of growth and understanding. Answering questions, providing tangible tools and resources, and witnessing the sustained change was personally transformative.
Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, I witnessed the deep scars of systemic injustice, igniting my passion for storytelling as a catalyst for change. When I began working in the tech sector, I realized the profound impact these companies had in shaping our interactions with the world and the significant economic opportunities they presented, but I was disheartened by the lack of diversity. Pivoting to DEIB merged my two passions: inclusive storytelling and increasing representation in technology.
At some point, while doing DEI work, I felt as if I was spinning my wheels. I also witnessed my peers unapologetically and sometimes unsuccessfully take on DEI to no avail. Their hearts were there, but their tactics were ignored or seen as divisive. It was then that I realized that as much as I wanted to blaze ahead, I really needed to meet people where they were, catch them up to speed, and then bring them along for the ride — after all, that is the spirit of inclusion.
In a previous role, my budget was continuously cut, and I was told that I “hadn’t proved the value” of the work (despite generating tons of media coverage for the program). I realized that being effective in this work was not just about creating positive representation and impact, but making sure that I was describing that impact in ways that those in power cared about; by thinking in the language of capitalism as well as social justice, I could build a program that was sustainable and durable.
When I was in the military, I indirectly started a DEI group. We would meet to discuss the issues that we were facing in the service. I guess you could say that I was discussing DEI before it became a “trend.”
It was actually as an early childhood educator coming out of college. I was exposed to and learned the importance of creating and utilizing an anti-biased curriculum. It served as the foundation for all the teaching, training, community-based engagement, and DEI work I would do throughout my professional life.