Creating workplaces that enable people to do the jobs they love without cultural barriers is the aim of Collective, a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lab. Founder and CEO Kellie Wagner reveals how her experience as a Black woman drove her to spearhead sustainable change.
Kellie Wagner loves working in the tech industry. But she had to leave several companies in the course of her career because “the culture was just not friendly to people like me.”
Even her attempts to advocate for equality were perceived as aggressiveness. This negative experience as a Black woman motivated her to strive for sustainable change around DEI in the workplace. Wagner founded Collective in 2017 to spearhead inclusive work cultures and policies and challenge traditional DEI dogma.
“My goal with Collective has always been to create workplaces where people can do the work they love and not have the culture be a barrier,” Wagner explains. “I didn’t have a background in HR or organisational development. Some might say that’s a disadvantage, but t I think it gave a new lens for approaching this problem, particularly because I had spent time as an employee trying to advocate for this work.
“I recognise the barriers firsthand, which in DEI traditionally starts with a group of leaders at the top saying, ‘okay, I think this is the problem’. More often than not, people who are so far removed from the lived experiences are then tasked with providing solutions or making key decisions. Or they engage a traditional consulting firm who advises ‘here are all the best practices in the industry, and this is what’s going to work for your company based on that.’”
Wagner argues that these approaches make little sense. She points out that new products, in technology, for example, are developed based on research with potential users. With this in mind, Collective starts with interviews, focus groups and surveys among employees to understand their unique challenges and how their identity impacts their experiences. The results are compiled into a report, following which employees and leaders collaborate to create a strategy to suit the organisation. And, because people feel involved and their voices have been heard, they are more likely to buy into it.
Then there’s learning and development. Because many organisations struggle to bring what’s written on paper to life, Collective offers support with implementation. This ensures that teams are equipped with the skills to live the behaviours that would lead to inclusion and equity.
Wagner recognises that some companies are reluctant to focus on DEI and believes this is down to human motivations. She explains: “A CEO is not just a leader; they’re a person. It’s very humbling and scary to look underneath the hood and see all the problems or areas where maybe this thing that you built that you’re proud of has issues. Even from a risk mitigation standpoint, we’ve certainly seen companies who are reluctant to start serving their employees and hearing these things because, once they’re heard, they have to do something about it.”
She cites the example of companies wary of carrying out a pay equity analysis in case it shows significant gaps that they can’t afford to fill. Also, companies were afraid to make a mistake, especially when they don’t know what good looks like.
Poor DEI hurts employees
“One thing that is maybe surprising or different about how I talk, particularly to founders, CEOs, senior leaders, in organisations about this work, is that I don’t believe that every company should do DEI work,” Wagner admits. “Ideally, they should, but is every company ready? We’ve gotten to a place where there’s a moral judgment on companies; you do the work, you’re good. If you don’t, you’re bad. But the challenge is if they aren’t truly invested in this work, or their values don’t support it, the business simply goes through the motions and DEI is done half-heartedly. Ultimately it hurts their employees.
“For those that do it well, one of the most foundational things that they have is that it’s truly aligned with their values and who they want to be as a company. When they can operationalise those values, have a clear sense of how it should show up in terms of behaviours through the policies they create, it takes DEI from being this siloed initiative, that is under HR, into something that is just lived and breathed in the company because it is core to their mission.”
Ben & Jerry’s was a perfect example of a company that was clearly in support of social justice. This meant that employees knew what they were signing up for, and consumers knew what they were buying into when purchasing their ice cream.
The power of good branding
It also highlights the power of good branding for connecting with the people you want to reach. That is why Collective has just launched its new identity by New York-based branding and design studio, Gretel.
Wagner states: “When I started Collective and looked around in the DEI space, but even broader in the consulting space, I saw a lot of dated unappealing websites. You couldn’t really get a sense of the personality.”
She adds that, since then, the DEI industry has exploded, with companies clearly articulating what makes them unique.
Creating a new identity provided Wagner and her team the opportunity to “dig deeper and say who we are and who we want to be. Branding shows the level of humaneness that people aren’t just data points. They’re vibrant living beings. Being able to find the creativity and inspiration in this work is so vital to it being sustainable. Those are some of the things that we wanted to convey through our new branding.”
According to Daniel Edmundson, Executive Strategy Director, Gretel’s aim behind the partnership was to “create a visual identity and voice that highlight the approachability and vitality of Collective’s DEI work. This allows the brand to retain its challenger spirit while also providing the tools it needs to scale.”
Although Collective is aimed at millennial-driven companies, it does work with people of all ages. Wagner believes that generational diversity tends to be ignored because, as new generations entered the workplace, there was an evolving expectation of what employers owed their employees. Millennials and Generation Z were more vocal about how they wanted to be treated, and brands that target them were under more pressure to engage in DEI work.
“I think Gen Z and Millennials are very sophisticated consumers in that they grew up with so many options, so they can be pickier about only buying from companies that align with their values and so on,” she argues. “Those companies that kind of fit that profile tend to be more motivated to do the work than maybe some of the legacy organisations where this is how it’s always been done and are slow to change.”
“Based on the feedback we’ve received thus far, both internally and externally, our new branding by Gretel matches our energy for 2021 and beyond, which is brimming with inspiration, growth, and possibilities”, adds Kellie.
Gender and race are more visible
Regarding demographics, Wagner says the focus tended to shift, depending on what was happening at the national and international levels. The pandemic had highlighted mental health, and Black Lives Matter brought racial equality to the fore. However, race and gender tended to be the mainstays of DEI efforts.
“That’s because they feel very visible,” she explains. “They’re also the first thing people see, and we make assumptions about people with our eyes. That is our first line of processing information about the world around us. When you talk about things like faith, for instance, because it’s not always as visible, unless someone presents physically in a way that identifies them as belonging to a certain faith, it can be very easy to assume a lack of difference.
“In the inclusion survey we run with our clients, we track people’s experience and ask about their demographics to be able to compare and contrast. We look across many dimensions beyond race and gender, including faith, socio-economic upbringing, age and mental and physical disability. We often find that it is those things that are less visible, that people will say they don’t feel like they belong because they believe in this particular faith.”
Finally, Wagner advises companies wanting to engage in DEI to invest in coalition-building first. She says: “To really make an impact takes commitment and effort by so many different people across so many different levels of an organisation.
“Often consultants or in-house people are tasked with building a strategy. But they struggle to get it off the ground because that groundwork of making sure that you have all the right people bought in and willing to go along in that journey is skipped. You are then left with a beautiful plan that you can’t seem to make headway on.
“Relationship building, getting people invested, is one of the best ways you could spend your time even more so than building a robust strategy.”