Companies across the country and around the world are buzzing about diversity and inclusion and hiring professionals to help them walk the talk. The employment website Indeed reports that between September 2019 and September 2020, job postings in diversity and inclusion rose 56.3 percent. Furthermore, after the pandemic caused the U.S. economy to decline in the spring of 2020, the D&I industry recovered quickly, with job postings rising by 123 percent between May and September 2020.
Statistics such as these don’t surprise Natalie Kelly. As a corporate responsibility professional leading diversity and inclusion in the construction industry, Kelly is well-connected to other professionals working to promote diversity and inclusion in businesses and organizations. In fact, she hosts a diversity managers roundtable to help those working in the field find community and camaraderie. Her group began with six. Now, her virtual meetings boast 45 attendees.
“It’s exciting to see so many companies committed to making positive change for their employees and the future of their organizations, but it must be thoughtful, authentic, and sustainable,” Kelly says.
In the wake of protests for social justice, many businesses have been eager to show their support for Black employees and to demonstrate their dedication to equality in the workplace and the world. Diversity leaders such as Kelly help corporations make good on their promises.
But Kelly wants corporations and organizations to remember that the people doing this work need support, too. In addition to the diversity managers roundtable, she has also launched Inclusion Speaks, a platform designed to share the impact and stories of diversity and inclusion professionals.
“There is an obvious focus on strategies and outcomes when you talk about corporate diversity and inclusion, but I think the stories and experiences of people doing this work is something we can all celebrate and learn from,” Kelly says. “I want to capture that.”
Selling the Vision
Employers and employees can learn much about diversity and inclusion from Natalie Kelly’s story—a story that began before her current role as director of corporate responsibility.
In 2009, Kelly launched mgreenbirmingham.com, a green-living online resource for Birmingham, and soon after developed a site for Montgomery, Alabama, as well. With her websites becoming the go-to guides for eco-friendly living, Kelly was eventually called on by companies to help with their sustainability efforts. Her company evolved into an environmental strategy and media agency she called Sustain.
Kelly believes every step she took with her company helped lead her to the work she does today.
“I always say that anyone who has the guts to be an entrepreneur can do just about anything,” Kelly says. “In my case, my company served as a great launching pad into corporate responsibility. Much of the work I did was to help organizations develop strategies and solutions to advance sustainability and inclusion and be better corporate citizens.”
Entrepreneurs must also learn how to pitch ideas. And Kelly believes that, in many ways, diversity and inclusion is a sales job.
“You are constantly selling the vision for a future and better state in your organization,” she says.
Growing up, Kelly had no plans of being an entrepreneur. The Birmingham native admits she had no idea what career she’d pursue in the future.
“I changed my major in college a number of times and then randomly landed on 18th Century British Literature,” says the Auburn University graduate. “I still didn’t know what my plan was, but I loved reading and writing and knew I’d figure out where to go from there.”
But perhaps entrepreneurship was inevitable. Her father, Robert Kelly, owns a construction company, and so did her grandfather.
“I saw firsthand the level of dedication it takes to be a successful entrepreneur,” Kelly says. “And then I experienced it, and I loved it. Building something that’s wholly yours, building a team, brand, and product is a special and proud experience.”
Doing work that helps make the world a better place seems fated for her, too.
“I have guiding principles I live by that help me be intentional about generosity, service, and my faith,” Kelly says.
A Marathon, Not a Sprint
Drawing on her experiences both as an entrepreneur and as a corporate responsibility professional, Kelly has many words of wisdom to impart regarding diversity and inclusion.
“The work of diversity and inclusion is a marathon and not a sprint,” Kelly says. “As a former entrepreneur who was so wired for results and client satisfaction, that was honestly a tough pill to swallow when I first started working in this space. I wanted to make an impact and do it quickly, but building relationships and trust is key to being an effective diversity and inclusion practitioner.”
In any organization there will be people eager to embrace change, people resistant to change, and people who aren’t quite ready for things to be shaken up but want to learn more. Diversity leaders must gain the trust of all three camps.
“You may not agree with some, and you may not change everyone, but having a rapport will take you far,” Kelly says. “Shaking things up is part of the job, but be intentional about bringing people with you along the way.”
Kelly says it’s crucial for organizations to have a diversity and inclusion strategy that employees can understand and in which they can participate. She recommends management conversing with employees about what they’re doing and why, and listening to feedback.
“Listening to employees about issues related to your culture, processes, and the everyday work experience will help you address blind spots and deal with root causes that stifle inclusion in your organization,” Kelly says.
And don’t try to do too much too fast.
“It’s natural to want to do everything you can to better your company, but my approach is to focus on a few key initiatives, do them well, assess and reassess, and then continue to refine and add to your strategy,” Kelly says. “Having a manageable, well-communicated, measurable, and well-resourced plan in place allows you to generate some small wins and set the stage for those big shifts that are going to prove fruitful for years to come.”
Leaders such as Kelly know that the work of inclusion isn’t just about hiring minorities and women, but also keeping them on the team. And that requires knowing the difference between equality and equity.
“Equality says I am going to make everything the same for everyone. Equity recognizes that we all have different circumstances and experiences that either accelerate or hinder our potential for success, so we have to ensure a level playing field for everyone,” Kelly explains. “Being conscious of those experiences for people of color and women allows companies to act on opportunities to create employee experiences and pathways for growth that will keep top talent on the team.”
When a company focuses on equity, underrepresented talent will feel more confident that every opportunity that is available to their co-workers is available to them too.
People of color and women also need to feel that they belong.
“Belonging is so important in the employee experience,” Kelly says. “No matter your race or gender, everyone wants to feel valued and a part of the team.”
But there’s another side of diversity and inclusion work that isn’t talked about enough—the toll it takes on the leaders forging the pathway to change.
“I was never more mentally exhausted than in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor,” Kelly says. “Everyone in the world was talking about diversity and inclusion, and I had a lot of people looking to me for guidance, when in fact I was very broken and scared.”
Kelly had to get intentional about taking care of her mental health. She built a support network of friends and other professionals. And when necessary, she turned off the news, logged off social media, and took a break from work.
“The world is starting to wake up to how incredibly important diversity and inclusion professionals are to the progress of our society and organizations,” Kelly says. “It’s a privilege to be a part of that, but you do have to take care of yourself in the process.”