Prioritizing the Human Side of DEI Efforts
TCB Talks: DEI panelists Pat Pratt-Cook, Bukata Hayes, and Sophia Khan Jordan Buckellew

Prioritizing the Human Side of DEI Efforts

Highlights and takeaways from our June 22 TCB Talks: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion event.

Sophia Khan’s work in diversity, equity, and inclusion didn’t start at a corporate office. She traces it back to the playgrounds of her youth. Bullied because of her Muslim and South Asian background, Khan said she had to learn how to advocate for herself, and in doing so, she has made it her life’s work to advocate for other marginalized folks facing discrimination in the workplace. 

With more than 25 years of experience as a global diversity and inclusion executive, Khan joined Minneapolis-base Allianz Life in September as the insurance company’s vice president and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. She reports directly to CEO Jasmine Jirele. Khan describes herself as “cautiously optimistic.” She admits, however, that some days her work leaves her exhausted. 

“I don’t feel like I have the option not to do this work,” she said. 

Khan, along with fellow DEI leaders Bukata Hayes, vice president of racial and health equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, and Patricia Pratt-Cook, senior vice president of human resources, equity and inclusion at St. Catherine University, sat down Wednesday afternoon at the Minneapolis Club with TCB’s editor-in-chief Allison Kaplan to discuss DEI practices and how companies can keep doing genuine work toward progress. 

 

 

This discussion comes at a time when DEI efforts in corporate spaces have become a focal point for retention and recruiting, but perhaps even more critical, the panelists said, is addressing company culture. The biggest change to DEI work since the 2020 murder of George Floyd is it’s no longer marginalized, Khan said. Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is a business imperative. 

Here are three key takeaways from the discussion:

Stay local

There is no one size fits all method of DEI work, the panelists said. What works for one industry, might not work for another. 

“The most important DEI work is fiercely local,” said Hayes, featured on the TCB 100 for 2022. “What I encourage is: don’t try to be someone else. You have to do your work at your company, however that works. We’re up here as encouragement, but don’t just say ‘I’m going to do what Blue Cross did.’ It’s not cookie-cutter. Do your own work within your organization. That helps us set expectations and follow through.” 

Focus on humans over data

In business, it’s common to measure success with numbers. But DEI work can’t be evaluated by numbers alone, Khan said, and progress doesn’t happen in a quarter, or after one exercise with a facilitator. The most important thing leaders can do is check in with their workers and keep the “human” at the forefront of their work. “It’s about being honest.” 

“Start small, it’s not quarter by quarter,” Khan said. “I mean, I’m a business person first, and I love data, but, we have to be honest that it’s going to take two years, three years.”

Prioritize mental well-being

As more DEI officers have been brought into the C-suite, Pratt-Cook, who was named as a Notable leader in human resources by TCB in 2021, said it’s important to recognize the weight of this work. 

“In the past, I thought the work was exhausting. But now I think it’s even more exhausting because – when you think what’s happening with George Floyd, what’s happening with COVID, all the things happening socially, as well as politically – there’s a lot of distressed and traumatized people who are out there,” she said. “Work really can take a significant toll if you don’t have the right kinds of support. 

In addition to checking in with employees on a personal level, the panelists suggested flexible schedules, mental health benefits, and days off as ways to recognize the weight of the work.