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Columbia Business Monthly

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Executives Talk About What it Means and Why it’s Important

Jan 28, 2022 04:36PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

Q. What has influenced your thinking about DEI and motivated you to get involved in being an advocate for change?

A. My son was diagnosed with autism about three years ago, and from that day I vowed to be his advocate, and for everyone else who may look different or have different abilities. Initially when he was first diagnosed, my fear was that he would be treated as less-than and overlooked for opportunities because he communicates and views the world differently. However, I decided to channel that energy into making change, specifically in the workplace. My goal was to create a DEI program with my former employer to bring awareness to neurodiversity, and increase cultural competency skills through training, while also celebrating our differences.

Larrolyn Bennett,

talent acquisition manager,

Discovery Life Sciences in Simpsonville

A. In 2010, when I was charged with leading the DEI initiative at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE), the executive director at the time, said to me: “These are the current numbers as far as DEI staffing and spending (10 to 12 percent) with minority-women-owned businesses, now go and double those numbers.” Getting those marching orders from the top leader empowered me to enthusiastically work hard to make a difference in the DEI landscape..

In terms of staffing, as a human resources professional, I have seen firsthand how a diverse staff on all levels of an organization is progressive and forward-thinking. In 2010, I became the first minority ever at a director level in leadership at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. I was thrilled to be the first but I had a determination that I may be the first but I would not be the last or the only minority at that level.

On the small business outreach side of DEI, I was motivated firstly by being the daughter of a small business owner all my life, and I knew the possibility of small-, minority-, and women-business owners if given an invite to the table. I and the team at CAE worked very hard to at least bring these minority-women-owned companies to the table and make them aware of the opportunities with the possibility for inclusion in the process to do business with CAE.

Chappelle Broome-Stevenson,

director of human resources and diversity,

Columbia Metropolitan Airport

A. I spent much of my life being on the outside as a woman of color in a white-male dominated industry. While I was able to successfully grow my career, I still felt excluded and unseen in many ways. I know that I was not alone and that many people, specifically from underrepresented backgrounds, feel that way in corporate America. I want to contribute to a world where everyone feels like they belong, no matter their skin color, their nationality, their gender, their accent, their weight, or who they love. I want everyone to have equitable opportunities for success and equal pay. I want young people to see themselves represented in success and have full assurance that they can be successful as who they are without having to assimilate into being someone else or hide a part of themselves to be accepted.

Beth Ruffin


The Everyday Inclusionist

A. My lifelong experiences as a woman and a minority have been the most influential when it comes to my motivation to advocate for change. Throughout my career, I have seen, firsthand, how the best and brightest ideas rise to the top when people of diverse backgrounds come together to create a new initiative, manage a project, or solve a problem. In situations such as these, the group gets the opportunity to try out new theories, knowing that everyone in the group has the same goal, so everyone is working toward a positive outcome 

In the last two years, it has been refreshing to see corporate America, on a large scale, embrace diversity and inclusion as a business advantage. Companies are finally beginning to recognize the true value of diverse experiences and ideas. I am proud to have been at the forefront of advocacy for change and I look forward to more impactful changes in the future.

Tonia Buie

director of employee experience

ChartSpan Medical Technologies

A. As an African American woman, my personal and professional life experiences have influenced my thinking around DEI and motivated me to be an advocate for change in the community and the workplace. I realized early on that in order for change to be impactful, it must be intentional, it must be purposeful, and it must be persistent. I have found myself in several conversations with people who did not see eye to eye with me. But through civility and respect, we can come to an understanding that does not divide but unites us for the greater good of everyone. My goal and mission in doing this work is to make an impact and help organizations foster a more inclusive, diverse and equitable environment for all.

Kizmet T. Moore

CEO and founder

Kulture Beyond the Rootz LLC

Q. Can you share some examples of how DEI affected your company in a positive way?

A. When the DEI program with International Vitamin Corporation was first introduced to the organization, we received tons of positive feedback! Employees were pleased to see that the company was taking steps to create a more inclusive culture. Our DEI interest survey showed that a huge area of concern was the lack of diversity in leadership positions. Soon thereafter we added a female chief of marketing officer. In addition, a Leadership Training program was established for the sole purpose of developing our current talent with hopes of promoting into leadership roles. Over 50 percent of the participants were African American.

– Larrolyn Bennett

A. Internally, today there are women and minorities on all levels of leadership in the organization, from executive-level directors, to managers, supervisors and including diversity and leadership in our Public Safety Department. Staff members have taken advantage of the opportunities for tuition reimbursement, training and certifications, and there have been positive examples of DEI promotions from within. CAE spending dollars went from around 10-to-12 percent to a high of 40 percent with small, local, women-owned and minority-owned businesses. As the aviation arena recovers, CAE will be resetting goals for its DEI outreaches to businesses.

Externally, for the many strides CAE has made in DEI, CAE has been recognized with the S.C. Chamber of Commerce Excellence in Workforce Diversity Award, the Airports Council International-North America Inclusion Champion Award for Small Airports, and as a founding member of the SC Airports Coalition, the Upstate diversity Leadership Award. One does not work for awards, but it is a positive when your industry peers acknowledge the successes and accomplishments your team has made in DEI in the past 11 years.

– Chappelle Broome-Stevenson

A. At ChartSpan, the establishment of a DEI committee, led by front-line employees, has been a game-changer. Our front-line employees can now impact company culture by using their influence to weigh in on policies and practices that impact them directly and indirectly. In 2021, several policies and practices were modified based on input from the committee. Many employees have commented on how pleased they are to see that the committee has a voice. They have remarked about how their trust in the leadership of the company has increased since the committee has been in place.

Also, in 2020, after measuring diversity throughout the organization, we found that minorities and women made up only 8 percent of our professional employees. This was genuinely concerning, and the executive leadership team committed to increasing the number of minorities and women among our professional ranks. By 2022, minorities and women occupied 27 percent of our professional positions. We are seeing positive impacts on the organization from sales to patient operations; the company is performing much better as an organization than we did before our diversity efforts.

– Tonia Buie

Q. How do you get your entire company – including the leadership team – on board with DEI initiatives?

A. First, share with stakeholders how DEI positively impacts company goals and demonstrate how they tie to the bottom line. Make a business case for it, but don’t forget the personal connection as well! Secondly, get employees involved at the onset with the initiatives by implementing a DEI committee or board and creating employee resource groups. In addition, regularly communicate the company values to all the employees, always using inclusive language. This creates more awareness and possible discussions around it. If employees can see the commitment from leadership, they are more apt to commit as well.

Most importantly, all efforts have to be consistent. Driving an effective DEI program is no small feat and requires inclusive, strong, and consistent leadership. Such initiatives are no longer a business choice — they are a moral imperative for managing a 21st-century organization.

– Kizmet T. Moore

A. At CAE, the executive director made it a part of the department head’s annual performance. For example, in the spending initiatives with minority-/women-owned businesses, department heads were charged with including at a minimum of at least one minority-/women-owned business in their quote processes for their departmental spending.

– Chappelle Broome-Stevenson

A. The work of DEI should come from the top, beginning with the vision of the CEO. DEI should be tied to the company’s overall strategic vision and plan. It should be woven within every company function, and leadership should be held responsible for the outcomes. DEI should be included as part of leadership reviews and expectations. It should be considered a business imperative, and tied to the mission and vision of the company. Anyone who is not on board should evaluate if the organization is still a right fit for them. That’s how important this work is.

– Beth Ruffin

Q. What are some creative ways to proactively source candidates from underrepresented communities?

A. The goal is to be inclusive in your recruiting and to broaden the talent pool by reaching as many communities as possible. Build relationships and partner with your local community organizations like Vocational Rehab to reach individuals with disabilities, 2nd Chance community organizations for individuals who were previously incarcerated, etc. When recruiting early talent, proactively search from HBCUs, community/tech colleges, and at many predominantly white institutions you will find various networks like LGBTQ groups, Hispanic Student Alliance, etc. Secondly, take a look at your employer’s referral process. If the goal is to add a woman to an all-male IT team, increase the reward when an employee refers a woman. Lastly, source from your internal talent. Oftentimes, African American professionals can get stuck at the supervisory level and for whatever reason just don’t make it to manager- or director-level roles.

– Larrolyn Bennett

A. Businesses must sometimes go where the underrepresented communities are: churches, barbershops, beauty shops, etc. CAE once contracted with a minority company that had video commercials that played continually in these types of locations. Information about how to do business with CAE and getting on our business listing were played at many locations around the city where these underrepresented communities went for services. CAE increased our outreach in a cost-effective manner.

We hosted a “Let’s do coffee” morning with a prime construction company one year looking to meet with small businesses for construction subcontractors.

This is redundant but it is about relationships. It is about who you know. Underrepresented communities must do their part as well and show up. Show up for the pre-bids; show up for the outreach events, build a strong network that can keep you apprised of opportunities. It may not be your opportunity but pass it on in your network. Get to know the decision makers, find out their names and make an introduction or follow-up on an introduction made at an event.

In staffing opportunities: Volunteer, do internships, job shadowing, build relationships.

– Chappelle Broome-Stevenson

Q. What is your biggest piece of advice for getting started with DEI within a company?

A. The best way to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion in your business is by starting with a top-down approach. It is important to start the necessary conversations with leadership to get buy-in from the top, then move through middle management and nonmanagement employees to get everyone proactively involved. It is important for business leaders to understand diversity, equity, and inclusion should not be a stand-alone priority on their list, but rather it should be ingrained into every single other priority so their business strategy has an inclusive lens. It makes it less a task on a list and more of an approach to business and building and inclusive, diverse, and equitable sustaining culture 

– Kizmet T. Moore

A. You must, must, must get the CEO on board with DEI. The CEO must see the value in being an inclusive and diverse environment, whether it is in personnel or how the money is spent. The CEO must also see the risk of not being a DEI company. It has to start at the top! Sometimes risk will work with the CEO if value does not.

– Chappelle Broome-Stevenson

A. Start with an assessment to see your areas of strengths and opportunities. Survey your staff to determine how included or excluded they feel. Review your policies and procedures using an inclusive lens. Look at your marketing materials to see who is missing from the external picture you present to your customers. Use all of this data to assess the gaps and lean into your strengths to build your strategy.

– Beth Ruffin

A. I would advise companies who are getting started with DEI to pace themselves. It is tempting to go all-in and launch big, far-reaching initiatives at once; however, they must keep in mind that the quality of the initiative is just as important as the number of initiatives launched.

My advice is to begin with the end in mind. For example, at ChartSpan, our goal was not necessarily just to increase diversity among professionals. Our goal was to improve the profitability of the company. Our diversity efforts were part of a larger picture of a stronger organization.

– Tonia Buie

Q. Should CEO pay be tied to diversity progress? If yes or no, please explain why.

A. During the social unrest in 2020 that took place after the murder of George Floyd, hundreds of CEOs were putting out statements advocating for more diversity within their employee base. After the dust settled, it was found that not much progress, if any, was made toward increasing diversity. To combat this, I do believe the CEO pay needs to be tied to diversity metrics. For this to be effective, specific goals need to be set. Similarly to how employees in corporate America earn a bonus if they meet certain criteria, I believe the CEO should also be held accountable.

– Larrolyn Bennett 

A. If diversity progress is a stated objective of the company, yes, CEO pay should be tied to how well the company meets the diversity objectives, just as it is impacted by the accomplishment of other stated objectives.

– Tonia Buie

Q. Should companies face penalties if they don’t have gender/race representation on their boards? If yes, please explain why or how.

A. Yes, they should. Some of the recent issues with boards and companies making egregious statements or decisions, whether it be fashion houses or coffee businesses, may well have been prevented if there were diverse persons on the board to question decisions from a totally different set of eyes.

– Chappelle Broome-Stevenson