Today’s guest columnist is Nicole Jeter West, CEO of Underdog Venture Team.
Over the past few years, I’ve had several conversations with colleagues from many different backgrounds and industries regarding the role and impact of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at sports teams, leagues and Fortune 500 organizations. It’s unfortunate to hear that many chief diversity officers are leaving their jobs, and the decline in their average tenure is concerning. The role of a chief diversity officer is critical in promoting DEI initiatives and creating an inclusive work culture that benefits everyone. There are various reasons why these leaders are leaving their positions, such as lack of support to create meaningful change, insufficient resources or resistance to new ways of doing things.
According to Russell Reynolds, an executive search and leadership advisory firm, 60% of chief diversity officers at S&P 500 companies left their jobs between 2018 and 2021. They also found the average tenure of these leaders decreased from 3.1 to 1.8 years in 2021.
Real, meaningful change takes time. As the calendar has moved past Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, I find myself taking stock of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, and I’m reminded of the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “To lose patience is to lose the battle.”
But it’s clear that the appetite for change hasn’t been satisfied, and those figures on DEI officers show how much people’s patience is being tried.
Inequality is part of the patchwork of this country. Most organizations were not built with the intention of being diverse. In fact, most organizations purposefully excluded and discriminated against minority groups, resulting in a mostly homogenous workforce across numerous industries, which created a need for DEI leadership.
In an effort to produce change where the majority of people may not see or want it, leaders who champion solutions and can be a voice for marginalized, underrepresented groups are critical. It’s vitally important to not treat DEI as just another box to check in your operations handbook. Chief diversity officers must have adequate budgets and staff, along with the support of leadership to create meaningful change and help make sure their work remains a top priority. There are a few organizations making strides, but the majority still have a ways to go.
As a society, we celebrate and rightfully applaud the trailblazers who continue to break down barriers in their respective areas, paving the way for the next Kim Ng (the first female GM in MLB history), Sandra Douglass Morgan (the NFL’s first Black female president), Katie Sowers (the NFL’s first openly gay female coach) or Shelia Johnson (the first black woman to be an owner of three professional sports franchises). All of these accomplishments deserve to be celebrated.
However, the fact we are still marking “firsts” for marginalized people is an indicator of the systemic flaws in our organizations, schools, government and companies. Until there is fundamental change at the root level, we will need to have DEI leaders in place to ensure access and accountability. It’s also worth noting that DEI is not just the responsibility of the chief diversity officer. It’s a collective effort that involves all team members and leaders in an organization. Companies that prioritize DEI and make it a part of their core values tend to have better outcomes and attract top talent.
That’s not just my opinion. These are the facts. Corporations identified as more diverse and inclusive are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors, says McKinsey. Diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture new markets, according to HBR. Diverse teams are 87% better at making decisions, People Management found, and BCG reports that diverse management teams lead to 19% higher revenue.
With Underdog Ventures, I’m fortunate to be part of a company that was built with diversity in mind from day one. According to McKinsey, HBR, People Management and BCG, I like our odds. Underdog doesn’t have a head of DEI currently, and my hope is that we never need one, because diversity is in our DNA. Instead, we will have a chief culture officer to make sure we are who we say we are, and that our DNA is unchanged. Our CCO will ensure that we are upholding our mission and values for all of our team members and partners.
Still, impatience is in everybody’s DNA. Even young children in a car on a family road trip or waiting in line for a ride at the amusement park repeatedly ask, “Are we there yet?” or “Is it my turn?”
I still find myself asking “Are we there yet?” when I look around my community, industry and the world at large. The difference is that this time, we are not counting down the hours on a road trip or waiting to get on a rollercoaster. Now the stakes are much higher; it’s not just about me but about the collective world. These days, the questions I ask myself sound more like: “When will we close the gender pay gap? When will the representation on the field of play be reflected in the front office? When will people with different abilities be normalized in the workforce? When will there be more equal representation in ownership?”
Solutions and progress on this road feels slow, and the detours and roadblocks unending, but I believe we can get there if all of us do our part. And there are things that leaders can start to do today.
First, stop checking the box; it’s performative and elongates the journey. Second, give your DEI team a real budget and the ability to make decisions that make an impact. Finally, ask yourself why we aren’t there yet. And then ask what you can do to accelerate the journey.
Before joining Underdog Venture Team, which builds brands through strategic partnerships, marketing, experiential services and investing in early stage startups, Jeter West was head of brand marketing and engagement for the LA28 Olympic and Paralympic Games, CMO of Legends, managing director of ticketing and digital for the United States Tennis Association, and marketing executive for the New York Knicks.