An inclusive company culture starts with each of us
Yemi Akisanya ’19 (EMBA) is the global head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Chicago-based Groupon. He also serves on the DEI advisory board of the Kellogg Executive MBA Program. In honor of Black History Month, he reflects here on how he pushed through moments of self-doubt in his own career and what it takes to create a truly inclusive company culture.
Black History Month is an opportunity to honor the triumphs of generations of Blacks who have struggled tirelessly for their basic rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s also an opportunity to pause and reflect on our journey.
As a Black man and a Nigerian American who has experienced both the advantages of privilege and the sting of stigma, I’m forever mindful of my history. How generations of people who look like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives.
But that is not all that I am. I am also the sum of my values, and the ideals that have led me to the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) space. I’m also an optimist. A single father. A senior executive and board member. And who I am shapes my approach to my current role as global head of DEI at Groupon.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have times in your professional career that you recognize as watershed moments. Singular experiences sit at the intersection of hard work, strategic planning and, dare I say it, luck. They can be humbling or fill you with pride, but they are almost always exhilarating. I’m grateful for all these moments in my career. I remember December 14, 2019 — the day when 70+ executives and I walked across the stage at the Kellogg School of Management as graduates of Northwestern University. We swelled with pride from the transformative, and pivotal career experiences that this education and global network had afforded us. Kellogg proud!
About two years before this memorable moment, I was challenged with building the first DEI office at a financial services firm. With a new job title and little-to-no experience developing DEI strategies, I spoke to everyone who would take my call. I took DEI courses at Kellogg, read books about how to be an inclusive leader, and searched the internet for every article I could find on building a DEI program and a thriving workplace culture. I felt prepared. Yet, my imposter syndrome got the best of me. I began to harbor doubts about the path I had chosen, or maybe the path that had chosen me.
It’s in moments of doubt that I recall the legacy of my grandfather, Oba (King) Samuel Akisanya. A trade unionist and nationalist from Lagos, Nigeria, he came into prominence during the colonial era. My grandfather helped found the Nigerian Youth Movement, an organization created with the goal of inspiring Nigerians to pursue higher education. He was appointed Oba (King) of Isara in 1941 and held office until he died in 1985. Widely regarded as the greatest king in the city’s history, he is remembered for his commitment to education, empathy and advancement for the underrepresented community.
That brings us back to the matter at hand: How might we begin changing our workplace culture to embrace education, empathy and advancement for underrepresented communities? This isn’t to say that I know exactly how to do it. I don’t. In the fight for DEI progress across corporate workplaces, attracting, retaining and advancing underrepresented candidates remains a top priority. Many companies are taking meaningful and targeted steps to attract and retain underrepresented talent. However, often the results do not meet the level of intent.
It’s not simply that a gap exists between our professed commitment to DEI and the reality we witness every day. That gap has existed in one form or another since America’s birth. What’s troubling is that we are not further along on this journey because we have not authentically approached the work. Current workplace culture is still in a state where making a mistake is treated as unforgivable, rather than using these instances as teachable moments.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend — a white, heterosexual male and a senior executive who leads a Fortune 500 company. I asked how often he participated in uncomfortable conversations at his workplace. His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before saying, ”Yemi, if I’m being candid with you, I’m afraid to engage in these conversations. I’m about ten years away from retirement. Five years away from being an empty nester. My family and I need my income. I’m afraid to go into a meeting and make a mistake, and then I’m deemed a racist or worse. I’d rather be supportive from a near distance.” I understood his plight, and that realization ate away at me.
The reality is that we are all afraid — but some of us do not have the privilege to look away or not engage. To see the progress we desire in DEI, we must be relentless in our aim to instill DEI into the very fabric of a company’s culture and strategy. And this starts with each of us. We must recognize that no matter where we begin, we all have a responsibility to continue learning, improving our knowledge and developing our skills to better support our colleagues and communities. A company that truly represents and serves its employees will birth a different type of culture. A culture that reflects our lives as they are actually lived. One that develops the learning agility and authenticity necessary to harness the power of its people.
For more information on how we’re creating a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion at Groupon, I invite you to check out our recent report in the Harvard Business Review.