Making the Business Case for D&I

Hyatt’s Tyronne Stoudemire has one overriding philosophy about D&I programs: they must enhance the bottom line

Stoudemire_Tyronne_cop_optGrowing up in the 1960s, in a suburb of Detroit in a middle-class African American family, Tyronne Stoudemire was one of the few black students in his school. That experience—at times both positive and negative—has informed his thinking and his innovative and frank approach to D&I.
As the vice president of Global Diversity & Inclusion for the Hyatt Hotels Corporatio
n, Stoudemire has had a long and illustrious career in diversity and inclusion. He previously served in diversity leadership positions at Mercer and Aon Hewitt. At Hyatt, based in Chicago, he is responsible for 95,000 global employees.

Despite his 20-plus years in D&I, when he was first asked to enter the field, he wasn’t the least bit interested.

Diversity Woman sat down with Stoudemire to explore his initial resistance to the D&I field, his philosophy of diversity and inclusion implementation, and how his upbringing influenced his thinking and career.

Diversity Woman: Tell us about your upbringing. What did your parents do?
Tyronne Stoudemire:
I was born and raised in Detroit. Both my parents came from the South for a better life. My mother was a registered nurse. My father worked at Cadillac Motors. He took early retirement and started his own trucking business, hauling gravel and sand. He became pretty successful. We moved from the inner city to the suburbs for a better life. This was back in the mid-’60s. We were the first black family to move into this community. We were not welcome. Many people would throw trash on our lawn or throw eggs at our windows. They would drive their cars across our lawn. It was really very scary.

DW:Did that experience come to influence your current work in diversity?
TS: Absolutely. When I coach on diversity, I tell that story about how I moved from a very homogenized community where I was most comfortable to a place where no one in my family was comfortable. I had to navigate through those differences. Now, I didn’t do that independently. I did that with people in my community. There was a [white] couple by the name of Wally and Laura who lived on the corner. They were your typical Leave It to Beaver family. Laura wore the poodle dress, the apron, the curls, the heels. She was a baker. Wally was always manicuring his lawn, trimming the bushes, always doing something in the garage. They actually came over to welcome us into the community and brought us some apple pie and cookies. I took the apple pie and cookies, and my mother said, “Do not eat those cookies because they’re going to try and poison us.” These messages of like and dislike and race and status were part of my life.
Laura and Wally befriended our family and became very close. They would come over to help us clean up the trash on our lawn. They were very instrumental in trying to make us feel comfortable and that we belonged in the community. When it was time for me to go to school, they volunteered to take me because my mother worked nights and my father worked days. They took me to school, to my classroom, and gave me my lunch. Wally patted me on the head and said, “Have a good day, son.” I went back Tuesday, and on Wednesday, and then on Thursday, my father decided to pick me up from school. That’s when the difference began. Prior to my father picking me up, everyone assumed that Wally and Laura had adopted me from India.

DW: Many chief diversity officers have a personal story about how they got into the field. What’s yours?
TS: I began my professional career at Hewitt Associates, which was an HR outsourcing consulting firm based in Lincolnshire, Illinois. It was a very homogeneous environment. I was one of five people of color that they brought into management from the outside during that time.

I was a unit manager for the operations group in customer service, and I was one of the top-ranking African Americans in the organization. One day, around 2008, a woman, Juanita Robinson Brown, came to me and said that she had started an African American business resource group. She said, “Tyrone, I need you to come and spend some time with our other leaders. You’re the highest-ranking African American male. They need to see you, touch you, feel you, etc.” I resisted at first, because as a child my parents told me never to find yourself in a non-revenue-generating role, because when times are hard, those jobs are typically eliminated. They also told me never to assimilate with more than one or two blacks because your white counterparts will feel you’re trying to overthrow the government or incite a riot.

Well, I finally gave in and went to a black history program. She asked me to address the group. I came into the room, and there was fried chicken, orange pop, and watermelon. It was just like every stereotype about black culture. I walked them through the evolution of the history of blacks in America and the evolution of diversity, and I said if we really want our colleagues to have a true experience, we need to make sure we do it from a cultural perspective. Let’s take a deep dive into who we are and celebrate that.

I have a musical background so I used that skill to create a Hewitt chorus. We put a posting out to all the employees. We had over a hundred some odd employees respond, and 98 percent of the group was white. Our black affinity group said we could not have an all-white choir doing the black history program. My response was sure we can, because if, indeed, after working 8 to 10 hours a day, they are going to come into the basement and learn how to sing gospels and Negro spirituals and anthems and hymns in front of their peers, that’s all right with me. We put on a great program.

DW:</strong> Was there any fallout?
TS:
No. In fact, our CEO, Dale Gifford, got up and said, “Whoever put this program on needs to be part of my executive committee.” I picked up the phone and gave him a call, and we had lunch. He said, “We’ve got this thing called diversity, and we want you to lead it.” My response was “hell no.” It was not revenue generating, and I didn’t want to be the poster child for diversity—because I was black didn’t mean I knew anything about diversity. But you typically don’t tell a CEO no. He asked me why, and I said because there’s no one in the top echelon of the organization beyond me that looks like me. I’m not sure it will be a success. I didn’t want to be part of a “build a better Negro program” for Hewitt. I did not want to be that exceptional person who only came in when they were having issues with black people. So he said, “I want to reserve the right to come back to you on this.”

DW: And did he do that?
TS: Yes, he came back a few months later. He had hired a director of diversity and said, “We have a strong strategy but we need you to operationalize the diversity. You have a strong operations background. If you come over and operationalize the work and you don’t like it, we’ll put you back into business after two years.”

I said, here’s the deal. There are three things: One, if indeed we’re committed to this, and you want to drive this, I think you need to be the executive business sponsor. He said, yes, I can do that. Next, I said, we need resources. We need people, we need money, we need budgets. He asked, how much? I actually made the number up. I didn’t know. I just said $2.8 million. I had just processed an invoice to a client and that number was in my head. He said, you got it. Then he said, so what’s last? I said, well, if we’re a consulting firm and we have these issues, our clients are having the same issues. If we can turn this into a revenue-generating function, then I’m your guy. I wanted to make sure that I was able to be adding value to the organization’s bottom line.

So we did it. We had a great deal of success. We had zero percent turnover of women and people of color for two years, we had a 50 percent increase of diverse middle managers and above, we had three women on our board of directors, and we had four or five women reporting to our CEO.

DW: You seem to be passionate about D&I. What does it mean to you?
TS: I believe this is my mission in life. This is not a job for me. This is my mission. This is a ministry. DW

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