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September 1, 2021

Practical Tips for Building — and Supporting — a Diverse Workforce in Ed. Companies

Businesses Need to Look Beyond Hiring, One Organization’s Chief Equity Officer Explains

Originally published on EdWeek Market Brief

Research has found that workforce diversity leads to better financial performance and increased rates of innovation.

But how do education companies go about the practical work of setting out on that path?

It’s not easy. Most of today’s organizations lack mature and effective diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, according to a 2021 study by SaaS-based workforce development company Circa.

Leaders in education companies that are trying to stay competitive—and make all employees feel welcome—know that the process is far from effortless.

“I always say that when I do this work, I try to do it without shame and without shaming,” says Kelli Doss, the new—and first—chief talent and equity officer at Reading Partners, based in Oakland, Calif. “Yes, I am a black woman doing equity work, but I don’t always get it right myself. There are things I’ve learned in this process and am continuing to learn, and I need to make room for other people’s learning if I’m going to be trusted to lead this work.”

Reading Partners is a nonpro!t organization and curriculum provider focused on building literacy skills, particularly within disadvantaged student populations. Prior to joining the organization, Doss served as chief talent and equity officer for iMentor, an organization that seeks to help students from low-income backgrounds complete high school, attend college, and thrive in the workforce.

Speaking to EdWeek Market Brief Contributing Writer Robin L. Flanigan shortly after joining Reading Partners, Doss explains what her role within her organization will be, shares where some companies go wrong in their attempts to do better, and outlines specific steps for creating a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workforce.

How would you describe the core of your work?

I manage the talent and equity function, and that’s everything from leading the culture and talent processes—that’s hiring, recruiting, professional development and manager training—to overseeing the vision and execution of the company’s REDI (race equity, diversity, and inclusion) strategy and goals.

Have you seen new interest in promoting DEI in the K-12 education space among companies since last year?

Absolutely. There’s been a definite shift since last summer with all the protests and focus on social and racial justice. It was such a watershed moment, and in response I think people and organizations are really beginning to respect on what it takes to become anti-racist—especially in education. The interesting thing is that we’ve been having this conversation for years in education. But I think the energy and momentum are different, and that’s what has helped propel this heightened focus on equity work.

Another shift is the movement from this sort of checklist approach we’ve had to systems and processes to the way that an individual shows up in that work. And from there, the way a community or organizational team shows up in that work. The work has essentially evolved and deepened.

Sometimes when companies try to make people of color feel welcome, the pendulum swings too far. It can make new hires feel like they’re under a magnifying glass or microscope.

What needs to occur now to sustain that movement?

So much of this work takes time. As excited and optimistic and hopeful as I was coming off the summer and seeing how organizations were expressing a desire to commit to this work, I was a bit skeptical. I wanted to know how much of the desire was short-term reactionary versus being ready to do long-term work that’s hard and uncomfortable. The question is, how do you stay steady through your own discomfort to get to the other side? But I am still optimistic.

What is the main advantage for a company like Reading Partners in creating a more diverse workforce?

Especially for an organization that serves over 90 percent children of color in predominantly underserved communities, there is true value in children seeing and working with diverse individuals. We’ve heard that time and time again. But it’s not enough just to have diversity. You need inclusivity. Then you can actually elevate those different voices. Ultimately you’ll end up making better decisions—decisions that really meet the needs of the people you’re serving and the people on your staff.

You’ve led DEI initiatives at two prominent organizations. How would you summarize the reasons for that success?

First, leadership buy-in. Two is co-creating the vision. And lastly it’s about shared ownership and accountability for the work.

How do school districts react to an education company with a workforce that reflects the diversity of a student population, as opposed to one that does not?

I would hope they would not just react favorably but that they would actively seek to work with those types of companies. With the organizations I’ve worked with in the past, this was definitely a selling point. We took pride in how our workforce reflected the community we served, and our commitment to that made for some really incredible partnerships. Although it’s really early in my Reading Partners journey, I’m seeing and hearing similar stories coming from them.

Even more so than the hiring, being able to take a step back and assess the staff experience is really key when measuring this kind of work.

For companies interested in building a diverse workforce but unsure where to start, what’s your advice?

To invest in assessing and overhauling hiring practices. So many people think it’s enough to post job openings on a particular website, or to go to a particular job fair, but that’s not all of it. How do you vet out bias in the hiring process? That’s actually a pretty technical thing that I think a lot of organizations take for granted. There are many amazing experts who can come in and help support those efforts.

How can a company that has struggled to build a diverse workforce—but is trying to change—make people of color who are new hires feel comfortable in their new roles?

Sometimes when companies try to make people of color feel welcome, the pendulum swings too far. It can make new hires feel like they’re under a magnifying glass or microscope. You really have to create conditions for an individual to be able to thrive in your company. It’s about more than getting numbers up, it’s about creating a sense of belonging and opportunities for growth. Hiring doesn’t mean anything if you can’t retain.

Especially in the first 90 days, make time for new hires to meet people they’re going to be closely collaborating with, as well as others in the organization. Ask for input and ideas early and often. And engage in storytelling—it’s a way of bridging differences and giving people a sense of belonging.

Where do you typically have the most success finding great people of color as talent?

There’s this narrative out there that it’s really challenging to find talented people of color, and that’s a complete exaggeration. They are out there. I’ve hired them.

I’m pretty fortunate to have an extensive network of recruiters committed to placing talented people of color. I also make it a point in any organization I work with to engage only search firms who have a demonstrated commitment to building diverse pipelines and presenting candidates of color. I also get referrals from other staff of color and look internally, especially when talking about promotions.

How often do you look to hire former teachers and principals from K-12 districts? What advantages do they bring?

I am always excited and open to hiring folks who understand how schools operate. They bring a helpful perspective when it comes to maintaining school partnerships, knowing what goes on in classrooms, and how to work with other teachers.

How do you plan to go about bringing all employees at Reading Partners on board with what you’re trying to accomplish?

My first step is to listen. I can only be successful if I can help inspire people to connect with the work—and the only way I can do that is by being intentional about building relationships. From there we’re going to co-create and work on this plan together.

Any other specific measures that can help a company prioritize its race equity, diversity, and inclusion work?

Ask questions. Do staff feel they have opportunities to grow? Do they feel like they could bring their whole selves to work? Do they feel supported by their managers? Even more so than the hiring, being able to take a step back and assess the staff experience is really key when measuring this kind of work.

About This Analyst

diverse workforce

Kelli Doss is chief talent and equity officer at national early literacy nonprofit Reading Partners, a nonprofit organization that focuses on developing literacy skills in young students. Previously she served as chief talent and equity officer for iMentor, where she developed key organizational strategies focusing on performance management; internal talent recruitment; diversity, equity and inclusion; and organizational culture building. Doss has spent her career focused on serving youth, communities, and urban education systems in major cities across the country.

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