Top Diversity Leaders

Over the last 10 years Chief Diversity Officers have made great strides in reshaping the corporate landscape

Not so long ago, merely mentioning that companies should take diversity and inclusion into account when hiring would raise eyebrows. But that started to change in 1987, when the Hudson Institute’s landmark Workforce 2000 study forecasted that the American workforce would become much more diverse in the new millennium—and companies that couldn’t adapt would risk losing their competitive edge.

The Hudson report was right on the money, and that trend is only continuing. In fact, experts say women and people of color constitute 70 percent of new entrants to the workforce.

Many organizations have responded by creating a new executive position—chief diversity officer—with the sole responsibility of promoting workforce diversity. Just a decade ago, this position was almost unheard of, but today, approximately one in five Fortune 1000 companies have diversity managers. These CDOs are implementing comprehensive programs to help their company boost diverse recruitment, help those employees advance, implement diversity training, and even forge relationships with diverse vendors. Experts say these efforts help build morale, reduce employee turnover, and build stronger relationships with customers in diverse communities—and ultimately boosting a company’s success.

Because women have often come up against barriers themselves, it’s no surprise that some of them have become the country’s most influential diversity leaders. And they’re making progress from every conceivable angle—some are CDOs in Fortune 500 companies, some have launched their own training and consultancy firms, and still others are working within the nonprofit sector.

We salute the following dynamic women who are leading the charge by changing the way we think, interact, work, and do business, each and every day.

Lenora Billings-Harris, consultant, international speaker, and author of The Diversity Advantage: A Guide to Making Diversity Work (Greensboro, North Carolina)

Lenora Billings-Harris founded her own corporate training firm 22 years ago—but it was during a single, powerful moment in South Africa that she discovered her true calling.

“I was presenting a customer service workshop in Johannesburg two months before Nelson Mandela was elected, and the tension in the country was palpable,” she remembers. “After the workshop, a woman who had been standing in the back of the room came up to me, gave me a bear hug, and started crying. She said, ‘I’m an Afrikaner. My husband, brothers, and sons are looking for ammunition to kill every black person they see. When I saw that you were the speaker, I couldn’t think of a reason to stay in this room. But now I know my real reason for being here today was to experience your presence, and I must go home and convince my family to put down their guns and work for peace.’”

Since that time, Billings-Harris has helped scores of Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations embrace diversity and build healthier, happier workplace She helps organizations develop comprehensive diversity strategies, and has spoken on the topic to groups throughout the U.S. and around the world. Wherever she goes, audiences love her humorous, light-hearted approach: She’s been known to use characters from The Wizard of Oz as a teaching metaphor, for example. As she says, “The topic is serious, but I make it really fun and upbeat so people can go on that journey without feeling judged.”

Lee Gardenswartz & Anita Rowe, founders of Gardenswartz & Rowe (Los Angeles, California)

Pioneers in diversity and inclusion training, Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe met when they were both schoolteachers for the Los Angeles Unified School District. When mandatory integration swept into the district in the 1970s, the two joined a federally-funded project to help with the transition—an experience that prompted them redirect their life’s work. In 1980, the duo left teaching and launched their own diversity and inclusion training firm.

Gardenswartz and Rowe did seminal research in the field and developed comprehensive programs that incorporated communication, decision making, team building, and change management. They arrived on the scene just in time, as some well-intentioned companies had tried to develop diversity programs on their own, with poor results. “When some of these places would tell us what they’d done, we’d just shudder,” Rowe says. In fact, some companies’ efforts were so misguided, they found themselves in lawsuits.

Because they wanted to help—but couldn’t be everywhere— Gardenswartz and Rowe authored several practical, tool-driven books, including Managing Diversity: A Complete Desk Reference & Planning Guide. “Our objective was to help people create kinder, healthier spaces in which to work,” Lee says. “We knew things were happening that weren’t good, and we wanted to give information.”

Gardenswartz and Rowe continue to train some of the country’s premier organizations including Boeing, Disneyland, Harvard Medical School, the Internal Revenue Service, Starbucks, and UCLA Medical Center.

Redia Anderson Banks, chief diversity officer, Deloitte & Touche USA, LLP (Houston, Texas)

Because her father was in the Air Force, Redia Anderson Banks grew up surrounded by people with different backgrounds. So when she began working in human resources, she noticed something. “There were sometimes misunderstandings based on cultural differences, and people didn’t quite recognize it,” she says. Anderson Banks found ways to build bridges—and built herself a rewarding career in the process.

Today, she spearheads diversity initiatives at Deloitte & Touche, a leading financial consultancy and Big Four accounting firm. An impressive 40 percent of the company’s new hires are minorities and, once they’re in the door, employees are encouraged to join a Business Resource Group to boost their business skills and networking opportunities. (There are groups for Asian, Black, Hispanic, women, and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender employees, as well as for those who are parents.) Meanwhile, promising minority managers can enter the company’s Breakthrough Leadership program to build skills and advance up the ladder. In just its second year, that program turned out six graduates who then became partners, principles, or directors.

Anderson Banks is also proud of the company’s Women’s Initiative, designed to retain women employees and help them rise into leadership positions. In fact, Deloitte & Touche has the highest percentage of women partners, principals, and directors amongst the Big Four.

“We’re creating an environment where people want to join us, and want to bring their friends and colleagues to come work here,” Anderson Banks says. “For us, diversity is all about helping our business grow and become more profitable.”

Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (retired), and founder and president of Educational Achievement Services (Las Vegas, Nevada)

Raised by immigrant parents in a small barrio in Texas, Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch overcame poverty and discrimination to graduate from college and then join the U.S. Army, eventually becoming the highest-ranking Hispanic woman in the Combat Support Field. But when the Army offered her a coveted command post—having chosen from 26,000 candidates—she stunned everyone by turning it down.

Instead, wanting to honor her mother’s deathbed wish that she help others, she founded Educational Achievement Services, Inc., to empower the next generation of Hispanic leaders via talks and workshops. A passionate public speaker, Castillo Kickbusch has already reached more than a million children, parents, and educators in 43 states. “We have to show children that they have options, and who better to tell them than someone who has been in their shoes?” she asks.

Castillo Kickbusch is also in heavy demand as a speaker on diversity and leadership for clients such as Boeing, Dell, Ford, Lockheed-Martin, the National Football League, the Department of the Treasury, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. For her efforts, she’s received many awards, including the prestigious Hispanic Heritage Foundation Award for leadership.

Margaret Regan, CEO, Future Work Institute (Brooklyn, New York)

As the first woman executive at Con Edison years ago, Margaret Regan learned firsthand what it feels like to be the only woman amongst men. In that position,. she spearheaded an effort to hire hundreds of people from economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods to help families end the poverty cycle.

Her interest in gender and race issues eventually lead her to found the Future Work Institute, an innovative full-service diversity consulting firm affiliated with Towers Perrin that starts by giving organizations a peek into their future.

“We give our clients a very strong picture of the workplace, workforce, and marketplace over the next ten years,” Regan says. “We research those trends for every industry. For the pharmaceutical industry, for example, we have tremendous research on how different cultures look at health and healing.” Organizations such as American Express, the New York Stock Exchange, and the United Nations have hired the Future Work Institute, which offers a comprehensive change process—from behavior skills training to 360 assessments on diversity—and uses fun, interactive, up-to-the-minute tools.

Amy S. Tolbert, Ph.D., principal, Effective Creative Change in Organizations (ECCO) International and author of Reversing the Ostrich Approach to Diversity: Pulling Your Head Out of the Sand (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

While in graduate school, Amy Tolbert, Ph.D. had a light bulb moment. Working as part of an ethnically diverse research team, she noticed that the group members would all sit in the same meeting and come out with completely different understandings of what had occurred. Mystified—and intrigued—she decided to focus her doctoral research on Human Resources with a multicultural focus. As she says, “Experiencing things through a different set of eyes changed my field. It changed my life. It changed everything.”

In 1989, Dr. Tolbert founded ECCO, which applies solid research in intercultural communication to create diversity strategies for organizations like 3M, Best Buy, the Mayo Clinic, and Radisson Hotel Systems. Each client’s progress is measured and tracked over time, helping to ensure success.

“Research shows that multicultural teams are more susceptible to conflict in the beginning,” Dr. Tolbert says. “But once you work through the misunderstandings, they are much more adaptable to change.” The organizations ECCO works with seem to agree, with 80 percent of the organization’s business coming from repeat clients.

Gwen Crider, executive director, National Multicultural Institute (Washington, D.C.)

A former executive director at various museums, Gwen Crider helped make the arts-and-culture world friendlier and more inclusive by spearheading diversity strategies for both the Association of Science–Technology Centers and the Association of Children’s Museums.

Following her successful work with museums, she broadened her influence by joining the National Multicultural Institute, an organization that reaches tens of thousands of people. “Promoting diversity needs to become a shared responsibility across an organization,” she says. “It can’t just be minorities participating, and it takes strong leadership from senior levels. Otherwise, it’s not taken seriously and it doesn’t become imbedded within the culture.”

The National Multicultural Institute offers in-depth training workshops and private consultation, as well publications on diversity and inclusion to clients ranging from the American Cancer Society, to Lockheed Martin Corporation, to the Department of State.

Belinda Grant-Anderson, vice president, Workforce Development & Diversity, AT&T (San Antonio, Texas)

A former engineer consultant for AT&T, Belinda Grant-Anderson eventually migrated into Human Resources, armed with a plan to help the company attract top talent and work inclusiveness into the company’s very fabric. “Having a diverse workforce gives you a competitive advantage,” she says. “People are the most important part of a company, and you have to make them feel that their contributions are valued.”

To do that, AT&T has set—and met—specific goals to ensure its commitment goes beyond mere lip service. Diversity goals have been incorporated into the company’s Leadership Development Program, for example, a program for recent college graduates that offers mentoring, networking opportunities, and training workshops. “Our target is that half of all participants be women and half be people of color,” Grant-Anderson says.

And these efforts have certainly borne fruit. Currently, 42 percent of AT&T managers are women, eclipsing the average of most Fortune 500 companies, and 28 percent are people of color.

Tammy Edwards, director, Inclusion and Diversity, Sprint (Overland Park, Kansas)

At the start of her career, Tammy Edwards was an intern with Sprint through the INROADS program, which places talented minority youth in business. So years later, when she had an opportunity to get involved in Sprint’s diversity and inclusion efforts, she jumped at the chance. “Diversity and inclusion is a business imperative,” she says. “And we look at it holistically—from an employee, customer, supplier, and community standpoint.”

Edwards is especially proud of Sprint’s employee resource groups—including African-American, Hispanic, Gay and Lesbian, and Asian/Pacific American groups—which have worked tirelessly to help the company recruit, retain, and mentor talent from their respective communities. The company has garnered numerous diversity awards and has been included in the  Diversity Inc. Top 50 list four years in a row.

Marilyn Tam, business and diversity consultant and author of How to Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want (Santa Barbara, California)

Having grown up in a traditional Chinese family in Hong Kong, Marilyn Tam wasn’t prepared for the reception she’d receive in the United States as a young college student. “It was hurtful when people refused to serve me at restaurants or didn’t allow me to rent housing because of the way I looked,” she says. “And as I started looking for work, I encountered more prejudice—based on gender as well as color—so I became sensitized and interested in making a positive difference.”

That she certainly has. As president of Reebok Apparel and Retail Group, for example, she brought the ratio of women and minorities to parity with the general population throughout the ranks. Fifty percent of managers reporting to her were women, including several African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and foreign nationals.

Following a distinguished corporate career—she was also CEO of Aveda and vice president of Nike—Tam struck out on her own as a trainer, consultant, and speaker on leadership and diversity. In that role, she helps Fortune 500 companies, governments, and nonprofit organizations alike develop winning strategies for embracing and leveraging diversity to achieve success.

Ana Duarte McCarthy, Chief Diversity Officer, Citigroup (New York, New York)

With an academic background in psychology and multicultural counseling, Ana Duarte McCarthy began her career by creating a university program to help economically challenged kids get into college. “I found that supporting equity and fairness was something that I felt very strongly about,” she says.

She eventually brought her passion for fairness to Citi, which has made promoting diversity a core component of its management practices. “For us, it’s imperative that employees feel valued and respected, and that’s why I come to work everyday,” McCarthy says. “We’re in 100 countries, and in some of the places where our employees work and live, there are social challenges that may make them feel inhibited. So when they come to work, it needs to be a pretty terrific place.”

All businesses and managers at Citi are required to draw up annual diversity plans—and track and report their progress. As a result, the company has launched several exciting programs, from a Citi Women’s Initiative to support the advancement of women employees, to an Employee Network program that includes African Heritage, Asian Heritage, Hispanic, Pride, Working Parents, and Women’s groups.

As a result, the company has received numerous recognitions, including consistent placement on Working Mother magazine’s “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers” list and a 100 percent ranking on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.

Geri Thomas, executive, Global Diversity & Inclusion, Bank of America  (Atlanta, Georgia)

Geri Thomas ensures that at Bank of America, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, diversity is incorporated into the very heart of its business operations—and keeps business leaders engaged and accountable. Executives actively participate in conferences and diversity recruiting, and the company’s diversity efforts are measured just like any other business initiative would be.

Besides awarding scholarships to multicultural students, Bank of America partners with professional organizations like the National Black MBA Association, historically black colleges and universities, and others to attract the best and brightest. As a result, Bank of America has set the bar for recruitment diversity, with 55 percent of its new hires being people of color. The company is also committed to using diverse vendors and is one of only a handful of companies that track its use of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender suppliers.

Theresa Alvillar-Speake, director, Office of Minority Economic Impact, U.S. Department of Energy (Washington, D.C.)

In 2001, Theresa Alvillar-Speake was appointed by President Bush to head the Department of Energy’s Office of Minority Impact, becoming the first Hispanic ever to hold that position. Her position, in turn, has allowed her to have a positive impact on minority communities far and wide. She advises the Secretary of Energy on how the country’s energy policies affect minority communities and businesses, and makes recommendations in their best interests.

A passionate advocate of minority business development since the 1970s, Alvillar-Speake also helps direct the Department of Energy’s policies and programs around small disadvantaged businesses and civil rights, and spearheads the agency’s support to minority educational institutions and banks, building an infrastructure of opportunities along the way. But her work isn’t all outward-looking. Alvillar-Speake is also responsible for promoting diversity and inclusion within the Department of Energy itself, giving women, people of color, and others ample opportunity to join the agency and rise through the ranks, as she has.

T. Hudson Williams, vice president, Diversity & Multicultural Initiatives, Time Warner, Inc.  (New York, New York)

Named to The Network Journal’s “40 Under Forty” list in 2007, which recognizes outstanding young minority executives, T. Hudson Williams had already produced impressive results as corporate diversity director for Toyota before rolling up her sleeves to do her magic at Time Warner.

As Time Warner’s vice president of Diversity & Multicultural Initiatives, Hudson Williams works with corporate and divisional leaders throughout the company to promote a culture of inclusion that’s unusually broad. In addition to actively recruiting a diverse workforce and setting up Affinity Groups to support employees once onboard, the company has taken steps to infuse female, multiethnic, and gay and lesbian points of view into the magazines, television shows, and films it produces.

Deborah Dagit, executive director, Diversity & Work Environment, Merck & Co., Inc.  (Whitehouse Station, New Jersey)

A pioneering advocate for people with disabilities, Deborah Dagit played an instrumental role in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, Dagit herself is four feet tall and walks using a cane.) She’s also responsible for placing hundreds of people with disabilities into long-term employment through Bridge-to-Jobs, an organization she founded. Dagit’s approach and successes have made her one of the most sought-after spokespersons on diversity.

Now in charge of diversity initiatives at Merck—one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies—her fighting spirit has led to breakthrough programs that have put that organization on the leading edge. She launched the company’s Diversity Worldwide Business Strategy team, for example, which developed a diversity assessment tool that can be customized for offices in the U.S. and in various countries.

Meanwhile, Merck is doing its part to enlarge the pool of talented minority students who choose biomedical research careers. The company, for example, made a 10-year, $20 million commitment to the United Negro College Fund for scholarships and internships.

Avid Modjtabai, director, Human Resources and Diversity, Wells Fargo  (San Francisco, California)

Named one of 25 Women to Watch by US Banker, Avid Modjtabai has shown that a large, established financial services firm can be every bit as innovative as a tech start-up. Her company, Wells Fargo, was committed to diversity long before the notion became popular—and Modjtabai, a native of Iran, has taken the company up a rung.

Wells Fargo recently rolled out a Diverse Leaders seminar for African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos, for example. Such initiatives have translated into concrete results: 51 percent of the company’s officers and managers are women, and 22 percent are minorities.The bank has also become a leader in marketing to diverse communities, with 22 percent of its advertising budget dedicated to advertising targeted to people of color, people with disabilities, and the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community.

As a result of its forward-thinking initiatives, Wells Fargo has captured dozens of diversity awards from organizations such as Diversity Inc., the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Rohini Anand, chief diversity officer, Sodexho  (Gaithersburg, Maryland)

A renowned expert on diversity and inclusion, Rohini Anand is a former vice president of the National MultiCultural Institute, where she crafted diversity initiatives for clients in the U.S and around the world. The author of several texts on diversity, including Customizing Diversity Training Using Case Vignettes, her expertise has made her a popular speaker on diversity on national television and at conferences around the country.

Anand’s talents are now being put to use at Sodexho, the country’s leading provider of food and facilities management, where she has launched Employee Network Groups and created a diversity scorecard that links each manager’s diversity achievements to their annual compensation. More than 2,500 managers have attended the company’s Diversity Learning Labs, which include “Muslims in the Workplace” and “Generations in the Workplace.” And in 2006, the company reached beyond its own walls to host its first annual Diversity Business Roundtable, which provided diversity benchmarking and training to 32 clients.

Mae Douglas, senior vice president and chief people officer, Cox Communications  (Atlanta, Georgia)

Mae Douglas has gotten accolades for instituting a number of effective diversity initiatives at Cox Communications, one of the country’s largest cable providers. She heads up the company’s Diversity Council, comprising 15 high-level executives, which sets goals and metrics for measuring progress to ensure Cox is continually raising the bar. Thanks to Douglas’s efforts, the company has received numerous honors, including being named the best cable operator for women by the Women in Cable Telecommunications (WICT) Foundation.

Besides offering companywide diversity training and leadership initiatives within the company, Cox partners with many like-minded organizations that are working for positive change, such as the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications, the Emma L. Bowen Foundation (which opens minority students’ access to jobs in media), and Cable Positive (an AIDS awareness organization).

Magda Yrizarry, vice president, Workplace Culture Diversity and Compliance, Verizon Communications  (New York, New York)

As one of her family’s first generation to become professionals, Magda Yrizarry has dedicated her career to helping Hispanics and other minorities break barriers and reach their potential.  In fact, she was honored by the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for her extensive outreach to the Hispanic business community.

At telecommunications giant Verizon, she has helped hone an assertive diversity strategy that includes mandatory diversity training for all employees. The company is committed to recruiting and advancing a broad workforce, and its efforts show—27 percent of the company’s board of directors and 39 percent of its managers are people of color, while 43 percent of women managers who are promoted are women of color. But Verizon doesn’t just track its raw numbers. The company also measures employees’ sense of belonging by using an index developed based on responses to an employee opinion survey to ensure that all of its workers feel welcome and valued.

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