Natalie Nielson Edwards, WG’18, joined Wharton’s Stew Friedman to discuss how diversity work has evolved in 2020 and the role that both individuals and companies play in contributing to the movement.

The massive support for Black Lives Matter and national movement against police brutality and systemic racism has shined a spotlight on company actions, reactions, and diversity initiatives. Natalie Nielson Edwards, WG’18, leads as the global executive director of inclusion and diversity at the Estee Lauder Companies and has a host of experience when it comes to implementing diversity and inclusion strategy and operations. Natalie joined Stew Friedman on his show, Work and Life, on Wharton on Business Radio 132 to discuss how diversity work has expanded beyond traditional D&I initiatives on both the individual and company levels, and the importance of embracing conversations about race to establish lasting change.

Here are highlights from their conversation, available in full here as a free podcast.

During her time at Wharton, Natalie discovered that her desire to work in the restaurant business stemmed from a larger passion for diversity and inclusion work.

“I really wanted to go into the restaurant business and hospitality business. I spent over 10 years working in restaurants and what I loved is that they were very diverse environments. You didn’t get to choose who sat down at the table. You had to respond to different cultures, different languages, different needs. And if you’ve ever looked behind the scenes of a restaurant operation, it’s usually incredibly multilingual, multicultural. I love that. The [Total Leadership] class helped me realize that restaurants and hospitality were really the industry, but what I loved about the work was the inclusion aspect and the service leadership aspect.”

“I may one day still manage a restaurant or own restaurant. Who knows? But right now there’s a huge Venn diagram of what I do now in the beauty industry and what I thought I wanted, which was going into hospitality. The overlap is understanding, and I think many MBAs and many peers of mine had to learn this later on, that sometimes there’s a difference between industry and core values of what you want in your career. Your core values can actually be served in a job that’s an industry you had never even considered.”

“Going through those exercises made me realize that a core value of mine was understanding and empowering equality and then also doing strategic work to drive progress. And so for me, working in diversity and inclusion, particularly in a beauty industry that has the power of changing who looks at ads and sees themselves as beautiful or worthy, or is affirmed at a young age. Working in diversity and inclusion and getting to impact future generations based on whether they see themselves presented as beautiful can literally change the world.”

The idea of representation – having examples of others who look like you in a position you aspire to be in – is a problem that permeates all stages of life, from grade school to business school and into professional careers.

“Being the only one in the classroom, where you were expected to perform well and have numerous conversations about applying to college and taking your academics to the next level, it made me wonder why it was that the students that weren’t in that room looked like me and the students in that room did not.”

“Taking that to my current role, it made me realize how important it is to see yourself represented at all levels of the organization. That way the choice for your career is truly yours and there’s nowhere you’re supposed to be. It was also ingrained in me to make sure that you may be the only person in the room, but it’s also up to you to influence the fact that once you leave that environment, there will be more representation than what you encountered when you were in that room.”

Companies have the influence and power to take a stance on societal issues and provide widespread impact on employees, customers, and investors.

“What George Floyd taught us, what Jacob Blake is teaching us, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, the list goes on, unfortunately, is that the role of the company is a societal one. We do not just sell products. We empower. What I say all the time within the company is that if we sell products that make people hold their heads up high, then it is our business to understand and impact what makes people hold their heads down. So what is going on in society that is impacting humanity, which is impacting civil rights, how people navigate the world around them, that’s our business too.”

“When you’re a large organization like Estee Lauder Companies and you make billions of dollars a year across nations, when you make a statement that says black lives matter, that makes an impact. People hear you. All of our consumers hear us. The effect is cumulative and consequential across different people’s networks. The conversation keeps moving.”

“We made commitments to racial equity that are public; some pretty bold ones that have been applauded across industries, such as making sure that in the next five years we reach population parity for black employees at every level in our organization. Currently black people in the United States are about 14% of the population, so in the next five years we hope to reach 14 percent black employees at every level.”

Diversity and inclusion work is an ongoing process that starts with education.

“Diversity and inclusion work requires patience. You can’t boil the ocean overnight. A big priority for me is empowering education. If you don’t understand diversity and inclusion, if you don’t understand what is happening in society, you don’t understand the problem, you can’t be a part of the solution. And you can’t solve a problem if you can’t define the problem.”

“Many of us have to take an annual data privacy training, because the assumption is that you have to do something every year for it to stick. But other companies roll out inclusion training or unconscious bias training and say. ‘Here. Take it.’ And that’s it.”

“What I’m most proud of is that we are continuing the dialogue. This is just the beginning and not the end.”

Diversity work has evolved in both business and everyday life as more companies and individuals adopt and contribute to the movement.

“One of the things that I have been most encouraged by is that employees of all departments, of all levels, are taking on inclusion work. One of the biggest transformations many industries and companies have seen is diversity and inclusion work going from the D&I team to now everybody having some form of responsibility in the inclusion levels of their own teams, their own departments, their own business units, their own brands.”

“People are realizing not just in our company, but at all companies, that everybody has a sphere of influence. Everybody has a family. Everybody has neighbors and community organizations. You can start the conversation where you are. Everybody is the chief diversity officer of the people they interact with on a daily basis.”

“While the circumstances are unfortunate, one of the things I love to see is that there are many anti-racist authors and researchers who’ve had books out for five to 10 years that are now on the New York Times bestseller list. People want to educate themselves. People want to be a part of the solution. I am certainly encouraged by the fact that people are getting off the sidelines and owning their slice of the impact that we can all make together as a society.”

Moving outside your comfort zone and engaging in challenging conversations about race is necessary to generate lasting change.

“What will make lasting change is getting people comfortable with leaning in to conversations that they previously leaned away from. In our current environment, people’s biggest fear is saying the wrong thing or getting it wrong, and therefore their comfort zone is avoiding the conversation. You can’t say the wrong thing if you say nothing at all. Everybody has a learning journey, especially for experiences that they have not lived, and they are afraid.”

“One of my favorite things I tell people to do is to ‘embrace the middle.’ We live in a culture where it’s very binary, either you know everything and you can speak on something or you know nothing and you better keep quiet because you’re going to get something wrong. So just coming to the conversation in the middle to say, ‘You know what? I don’t have all the answers. I am still on my learning journey, but I want to have this conversation because this topic is important to me and it will help to continue my own education.’”

“Let’s make our society more of a culture where it’s okay to be a beginner. We all don’t have to be experts in everything. I am an inclusion professional and I am still a beginner in multiple aspects of inclusion. None of us are going to be experts on how all 6 billion plus other people on planet earth have experienced living in society. We all have room to grow and it’s okay to have humility, demonstrating leadership and communicating that humility to say, ‘I don’t have all the answers. I’m here to enter this conversation and learn a little bit myself.’”

Understanding diversity and inclusion is now a necessary leadership skill that must be implemented in business school curricula.

“We have to embed diversity and inclusion work into our curriculum. Because if you are going to be a CEO because you went to Wharton, then during those two years, you need to learn inclusion. I couldn’t go to Wharton without taking finance. It didn’t matter if I wanted to work in finance or not, that was something the school decided you’re not graduating here without. I would love to see more diversity and inclusion, which I already know is starting to be embedded in our marketing department.”

“We will all be chief diversity officers. It doesn’t matter where you sit in an organization. And especially if you’re going to lead one, you need to be very fluent in these concepts because it’s no longer an elective. It’s a requirement for leadership going forward.”

“(Dean Erika James) has to embed diversity and inclusion into every core competency of a Wharton student for graduation. Her presence and also her history of doing this work have already started that conversation. I look forward as an alumni to see Wharton MBAs, whether they end up working in finance, whether they end up working in marketing, whether they end up working in HR, understand this to their core and see it as a business imperative.”

— Erin Lomboy, W’21

Posted: November 13, 2020

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