Inside a Critical DEI Conversation at the FN Summit: ‘This Work Is About All of Us’

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Four years after the murder of George Floyd sparked a national reckoning around race and corporate diversity, DEI is at a critical crossroads. That’s why it was so important to bring the conversation to the forefront at the FN Summit on Tuesday.

Top execs from Puma and PVH sat down with André Pinard, director of culture at Exposure, to open up about this challenging moment, what has actually resonated — and the road ahead.

“We’re at this moment in time because a lot of people still don’t know what this work is. Certain people only think it’s about race — and when they think about race, they think it’s Black and Hispanic — and about gender,” said Michelle Marshall, head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Puma North America. “This work is about all of us. It’s about so many different aspects.”

Complicating the situation is the fact that some companies rushed to “check off the box” in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, when they hired chief diversity officers and put new programs in place — but in some cases, only for a brief time.

“When the dust started settling, companies then started cutting positions,” said Karen Mercado, vice president of talent acquisition at PVH. “With that being done, it showed employees it didn’t really mean anything. You have loss of engagement and individuals leaving. It’s about engaging with companies that actually stand for something.”

To that end, both Puma and PVH have made sure their work resonates both internally and in the community.

At PVH, the company has made nine DEI commitments around three pillars: workforce, workplace and community. “We’re not only saying these things, but we’re tracking and measuring and providing progress reports,” Mercado said. (The company has invested $10 million alone in partnerships to give back to the community.)

For Puma, work around social justice began prior to 2020, but there wasn’t a defined DEI strategy. The first step was to engage employees to understand what was most important to them.

“Top of mind [was] increasing representation in the workforce. Our North American headquarters are in Boston, and it doesn’t tend to be the most diverse city, so it’s sometimes difficult to recruit people of color,” Marshall said.

When it came to financial investments, the team wanted to ensure “we weren’t just writing checks, but we were also driving impact with changing the narrative … and opening up access to our industry to more marginalized communities.”

At this critical juncture, where should the broader industry go from here? “When I think about DEI, it’s about innovation, diversity of thought. How do we ensure that we don’t see a retreat of funding, support and organizational integration of the DEI movement that kicked off four years ago?” Pinard asked.

“For me, it starts with senior leadership. Don’t always think because you have these big titles, you’re supposed to have the answers,” Mercado said. “PVH is all about co creation of strategy — bringing your future leaders into the conversation. That’s one way to pave the way for the future of the next generation. You want to make sure all your employees are coming into an inclusive workforce.”

Puma’s Michelle Marshall and PVH’s Karen Mercado speak with André Pinard during a candid conversation.
Puma’s Michelle Marshall and PVH’s Karen Mercado speak with André Pinard during a candid conversation.

Marshall said it’s also critical to embed the work into the business and that companies must always reiterate their commitments. “We have conversations monthly to make sure that we’re still meeting our goals and making sure leaders are on board with all the things that are being done.

Last year, Marshall went to the leadership team and expressed that some team members were worried that DEI efforts might go away. With top executive support, she was able to reassure them in a public company town hall that wasn’t the case.

It also comes down to having a proper structure and support in place, she said. “The DEI team should be set up just like any other team would to make sure they have the proper staffing. A lot of companies might have one DEI leader, but you can’t have a person being the strategist, the executor and the admin,” the executive said.

Also, it’s important to constantly solicit feedback from the team. “Ensure you’re always gauging employee sentiment. You may think you’re making great strides, but employees might have a different opinion about the environment,” Marshall said. For the new class of employees coming in, “make sure you’re always using voice,” she added.

Ultimately, DEI is not a destination, it’s a continuous journey, Mercado said. “Let’s make an authentic and true effort to bring our BIPOC employees into the conversation and continue to sponsor them throughout their journey.”

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