How it Started Versus How it's Going:
The Journey from Engineer to Leading Voice in DEI
One of my favorite introductions when I speak to organizations about my diversity and inclusion journey involves the origins of my work as Nissan’s first DEI leader. I was working in customer satisfaction and one day, HR called me and said, “Hey, we want you to initiate our DEI Program within North and South America.” Mirroring the reaction of many women and people of color when approached about DEI roles, I was initially apprehensive. My fears were allayed when they assured me the assignment would only last a few months. Since I completed a number of large scale Six Sigma projects at the company, I had a pretty good understanding of how the company managed change and the change management tools to put to practice. So, I went to work for six months and my career in diversity and inclusion has lasted 13 years.
The journey towards DEI proficiency often begins with leveraging one's own identity and lived experiences. And no matter what professional background you come from, engineering, education, or any other discipline, that foundation can be a resource to you in becoming an effective advocate for DEI, advancing equity and inclusion.
When I was a mechanical engineering undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I was also a minority peer advisor which is now referred to as a diversity peer educator. We essentially performed the role of a modern-day DEI practitioner, fostering a greater sense of belonging among students, especially students of color, within the residence hall community at a predominantly white institution.
My role was to support all students’ success by encouraging a sense of belonging through organizing events, providing building wide multicultural education, mentoring minority student leaders and working alongside resident assistants (RAs) to address complex conflicts related to diversity, difference, and identity. I would guide the RAs by saying “Ok, here’s what I think is happening. Have you tried this? Would you like me to be part of the next meeting?” I was doing really all the things that a professional DEI practitioner does post college.
Following my time as a minority peer advisor, I pursued a career as an engineer. However, my educational and professional journey extended beyond nuts and bolts. I enrolled at Duke University to pursue a master's degree in business administration, where I was a student leader within the Black and Latino organizations within the program. Together, we collaborated on various projects aimed at promoting diversity and addressing the needs of corporate employers regarding the development of Black and Latino leadership pipelines. Subsequently, I transitioned to working at Nissan for several years.
Although I had experience in change management, what really opened the DEI doors for me was my passion to volunteer to help recruit employees from my universities. My job was engineering, and I also worked with dealers and customer experience, but I would go to HR and say, “Hey, if you're going to Duke or Michigan I want to help.” We went to recruit everybody, but I would also tell them, “I have connections with the Black and Latino organizations. What if you had coffee or lunch with them?” As a result of this relationship and trust building, Nissan yielded a lot of candidates of color.
I enjoyed building these relationships and did not think about it as diversity work. I just wanted to help recruit, so to me it was just doing what everyone is supposed to do as an engaged employee. Nissan made the connection that I knew how to recruit employees of color even before I made the connection.
I also was part of the company’s diversity and inclusion cross-functional team for about a year and a half. We helped launch business resource groups and made a lot of different recommendations to the CEO about what the company could do to identify and recruit the best talent and expand the company's performance in multicultural markets.
So back to the day Nissan asked me to head up their fledgling DEI initiative, I initially questioned why they approached me for this position, as I didn't perceive myself as having significant experience in diversity, equity, and inclusion. In hindsight, I now recognize that I had accumulated a wealth of experience in DEI work throughout my journey. There are very few formal degrees in DEI and all of us doing the work are relying on our lived experiences, the identities we value most and our passion for bringing people together to accomplish more than we can working as individuals.
Today more than ever I take my role very seriously as a leading voice in DEI. I’ve also never forgotten my own feeling of being on an island doing work that both makes people feel like they belong but also directly helps organizations accomplish their missions. That is why I work so hard to ensure that the next generation of DEI leaders has the skills they need to make a positive impact in their organizations. So thanks to Nissan for seeing something in me that I had not yet discovered myself. And thanks to all of the individuals and organizations I’ve worked with over the years for understanding what DEI truly is. A force for bringing disparate people together, making them all feel like they matter, to positively transform our communities and workplaces for the next generation.