Why DEI Has Become a Business Imperative
From left: Panel moderator Stephanie Pierce, Hennepin Healthcare chief equity officer Nneka Sederstrom, Best Buy chief inclusion and diversity officer Amelia Hardy, and General Mills head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging Courtney Schroeder Photos by Joy by Jo Photography

Why DEI Has Become a Business Imperative

The work has moved from a “nice-to-have” corporate function into an urgent matter for organizations large and small, a trio of panelists said at TCB Talks: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Nneka Sederstrom knew that implementing mandatory antiracism training would ruffle some feathers at Hennepin Healthcare. But, in the face of mounting racial health disparities, she said she had no choice.

“Every day we don’t get this right we impact the health, lives, and wellness of others,” said Sederstrom, who serves as chief health equity officer at Hennepin Healthcare. “It is a sense of urgency in the health care space that’s unparalleled everywhere else.”

Her remarks – delivered at TCB’s June 15 panel discussion at the Minneapolis Club – encapsulate the next chapter of diversity, equity, and inclusion work. What was once viewed as a “nice-to-have” corporate function has evolved into a business imperative, panelists said. Though all three panelists came from different backgrounds, each said that diversity and inclusion have become key to the basic functions of their organizations as they serve increasingly diverse populations.

Consultant, business owner, andTCB columnist Stephanie Pierce moderated the panel.

Amelia Hardy, who serves as chief inclusion and diversity officer for Best Buy, noted that her company’s hiring metrics are now regularly reported out to investors just like operating income and revenue. “It is not a choice,” Hardy said “It’s something that’s going to help us attain our business metrics.”

As the United States continues to become more diverse, it’s incumbent on big retailers like Best Buy to adjust. It’s a similar story for consumer product companies, too. Courtney Schroeder, who serves as head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at General Mills Inc., noted that his company has been working in the DEI space long before it became in vogue.

“Consumer product companies … started much earlier, in large part because when you sell food to people, you quickly recognize the diversity of the people you’re talking to,” Schroeder said.

All of the panelists agreed that executive buy-in is essential to a successful DEI program. Without it, inclusion programs often wither, especially when the C-Suite looks to rein in spending during economic downturns.

“You can do lot of programming and provide a lot of support, but if you don’t have leadership buy-in, I would expect it’s probably only a matter of time [until it’s cut],” Schroeder said.

It’s also generally a good idea to start diversity and inclusion training at the top. If there’s any pushback once DEI initiatives reach frontline workers, executives who have gone through the process can explain its importance to lower-level employees.

To be sure, it’s probably quite a bit easier to implement DEI programming at Fortune 500 companies or large public agencies. Panelists acknowledged that smaller and midsize firms face their own unique challenges in the space. Best Buy’s Hardy recommended starting off with employee resource groups, or ERGs, which are generally no- or low-cost ways to start thinking about diversity and inclusion. DEI consultants can help executives understand a company’s needs, too, she noted.

There’s even the option of partnering with other companies or joining coalitions related to DEI.

“These disparities impact all of us,” Hardy said. “We’re in the same community. So, pulling together with other organizations, finding where you can partner, where you can share resources, is a good way to get started if you don’t have those internal DEI resources.”

More than anything, though, the panelists suggested proceeding with grace and empathy while rolling out DEI programs. Employees and executives may not get it right on the first try. “There’s no clarity on what it looks like to be in a non-racist America,” Sederstrom said.