Building a DE&I Initiative from the Ground Up with Freesia Chen, SHRM-SCP

Freesia Chen, SHRM-SCP, is the Head of People at Fama. With over 15 years of expertise across the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, Freesia brings a wealth of perspectives to the HR profession. We discuss Freesia's experience creating a diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiative from scratch and explore how leaders can build inclusive, thriving workplaces.

-> Related: How Fama's Head of People Leverages Her Non-Profit Experience in Tech

What was the first time you remember becoming aware of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Freesia: The notion of diversity has been in the HR community for a long time. I remember taking a diversity management class in college a long time ago where the class focused mainly on affirmative action plans. Since then, the concept of diversity has changed. It has expanded beyond achieving targets based on demographics and now aims to recognize and celebrate what everyone brings to the table.

In the last 5-10 years, inclusion became much more of a discussion. The focus shifted from, "How do we celebrate all kinds of people?" to "How do you ensure that all people, particularly people from historically marginalized backgrounds, feel comfortable expressing themselves in the conversation, without having to suppress the characteristics that make them who they are?"

I can't give you an exact moment when this happened. However, I can tell you that Fama was the first organization where I got a specific question in the interview process about DE&I. That's when I realized it's not just a topic for large enterprises but a principle that has truly gained broader awareness. I’m sure that if I were to take the class again, the class content would be completely different.

What's your opinion on diversity, equity, and inclusion?

This is my personal belief and another reason that Fama resonated with me: to me, diversity, inclusion and equity can begin the moment you decide it is a priority. Yes, there are targets and numbers to look at, but at its core, I believe DE&I begins with a mindset.

Do we care about celebrating differences, making sure everyone is treated equally, and ensuring that everyone is comfortable at work? Do we care about preventing identifiable and harmful workplace behaviors so all employees can have a positive working experience?

When I ask those questions, I realize that while an expert is going to help you achieve those goals and give you the best understanding possible of inclusion and equity, DE&I is something all leaders have the responsibility of enabling, and that means you can start today.

What's your advice to executives that are considering or newer to DE&I?

The first thing is to understand your employee demographics and get a pulse on your organization. One way to achieve this is to do a comprehensive survey to get employee feedback. There are tools out there that you can use to understand how your employees are doing. From there, you can see which aspects of DE&I require the most attention.  

It’s also important to have the CEO and/or the executive team’s buy in. DE&I initiatives cannot be accomplished by one person or one department alone. They are a company-wide effort.

What would you say to a company that feels out of their depth when it comes to DE&I?

I recently read an article which said that many companies have a DE&I program, but few companies have a successful one. I often try to take a hard look to understand the difference between DE&I programs that are successful and those that fall short.

If the feedback on a program isn’t positive, the first question I usually ask is, “Does it match employee needs?” That often leads me to a deeper inquiry, where I try to ask myself, “what is DE&I and what is its purpose? If it’s not clear, what can we do to learn more?”

Look at the data and challenge your stakeholders with it so everyone can help the organization improve its approach. Respond to employee questions and requests, and when things fall short, admit: "we are working on it, and we are trying to be better."

Finally, ask yourself why you want to do this. Is it for PR, or is it part of your DNA?

What's a challenge you run into when it comes to DE&I?

There are times where I want to put on a new DE&I initiative but wonder, "Is the topic too sensitive?" “How do we create an environment where people are feeling safe to open up?” “Are we ready to have these types of conversations with our employees?”  But sometimes there are important topics that we do need to bring up.

Previously, it was generally the more socially responsible companies that would be outspoken about their DE&I initiatives. But now, you're seeing major corporations taking a stand with Black Lives Matter. They're not afraid of speaking out and not afraid to take a stand for their employees. There's been a shift in recent weeks, and it's been amazing to see.

Is there any advice you could give to other executives who want to continue to take action on this movement, rather than responding quickly and moving on?

That's the question that everyone is asking right now. I'm not sure there's a one-size-fits-all answer or approach to this, but I think it's essential to support the Black community and the global movement for racial justice. We need to have a deep understanding of why this movement is so important and why people feel so compelled to act right now. It's important that we act, that we continue the work, and that we don't dilute the issue.

Everybody is slowly realizing the historical context to these issues—that systemic racism is so deep. [For executives] it's important to bring awareness to and act on this specific issue, but it is equally important to ask, "what other issues are we sweeping under the rug?" I believe this is just the beginning. The goal is to stay ahead and not wait until an issue happens to address it head-on.

What keeps you going?

How do I make this organization better? That's all I think about every day. Beyond that, I'm always looking to acquire more knowledge. What can we do to make employees more engaged? How can I include and empower everyone in the organization?

We did a big survey at the beginning of this year on DE&I. I didn't even realize until looking back that in the last two months, we've sent out four different surveys internally. Having that channel of communication and letting people's voices be heard is so important. Our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are still a work in progress, but I believe we can begin by listening, and I have found that asking for feedback is a massive part of that.