Extreme Networks’ Demetrius Cunningham On Turning DEI Into A Competitive Advantage

“[DEI] is a check in the box for some companies. [But] it’s a business imperative for Extreme. … More and more, employees and candidates care about companies who are really trying to add value and taking a position on certain issues. Who’s doing the work, who’s walking the walk and not just saying, ‘Diversity? Oh, we have that,’” Extreme DEI Director Demetrius Cunningham tells CRN.


Extreme Networks didn’t want diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to be simply a box the company checked. That why in 2022 Extreme appointed a full-time, dedicated diversity officer to keep it accountable and help build out a systematic approach to the company’s DEI efforts year-round.

Demetrius Cunningham, Extreme’s senior director of DEI Initiatives and partnerships and former chair of Black@Extreme (BEX), is focused on several strategic areas: community, culture, career and commerce. Extreme today has nine employee resource groups (ERGs) in which about 35 percent of the company’s employee base is involved. Cunningham’s role is to make sure that Extreme continues to advance its DEI strategy as a company, while effecting change, both inwardly and outwardly.

Extreme wants to make sure it is attracting and retaining a diverse workforce, as well as optimizing employee productivity. The networking specialist also wants to identify and expand into new markets, a goal the company is really focused on in 2023, Cunningham said.

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Cunningham, who has more than two decades of experience in the tech space having worked for Dell Technologies, Dropbox and Aerohive Networks before joining Extreme after its Aerohive acquisition, spoke with CRN about the benefits that partners working with DEI-focused vendors can expect, how to avoid DEI becoming a focus only during the ‘highlighted months” and the work that Extreme has been doing to “walk the walk.”

What follows are excerpts from the conversation.

Tell us about the work Extreme is doing to avoid the dreaded DEI ‘checked box’ phenomenon.

Here’s the thing. DEI—it’s been around for a while. And it’s a check in the box for some companies. But the employee base, they understand the value. It used to be a nice-to-have, [but] it’s a business imperative for Extreme. We really are ultimately trying to turn it into a competitive advantage. If you look at society today and the studies, more and more employees and candidates care about companies who are really trying to add value and who are taking a position on certain issues. So, who’s doing the work, who’s walking the walk, and not just saying, ‘Diversity? Oh, we have that. It’s at whatever percent.’

We’re actually doing the work. And I’ll give you an example. The employee life cycle—attracting, recruiting, on-boarding, developing and either evolving or separating, that’s the life cycle. We have looked at how DEI impacts every single piece of that employee life cycle so we are walking the walk. It’s not just the check in the box or a nice-to-have. And in fact, you talk to our board, our board backs all the efforts that we’re doing, especially our leadership team. Diversity and inclusion are one of our highest-rated areas on Glassdoor. We understand that it’s important and we get that for potential candidates or even partners that are doing business with us, they want to make sure that we are walking the walk. We’ve launched a diversity, equity and inclusion badge for our partner community in August. This is something that’s very unique where they can display it to say, ‘Hey, we’re in partnership with Extreme when it comes to diversity, equity inclusion.’” So, we’re doubling down on those efforts when it comes to DEI.

[Extreme partners] can go on the partner portal, and there’s an agreement that they can simply click on and receive the badge. There are certain things that we are asking of the partner, for instance, doing a joint community event with Extreme to give back to the community, or talking about DEI best practices and how they form their culture. It’s a new program and we will continue to evolve that DEI badge program.

Can DEI help to fill the skills gap that many vendors and partners are grappling with today?

Yes, absolutely. We want to make sure that we are finding new candidates, whether it’s from universities or whether it’s from various partners and different communities. And if you look at it from a partner standpoint, we’re also looking at diversity in our partner community because that also leads to expansion into new markets.

Part of the ask in [our DEI] program is Extreme Academy, a free course that is online on YouTube where anyone anywhere could go out there if they wanted to get the basics of networking and try to upskill themselves. It is vendor-agnostic. But it’s something that we also kind of feature to build up that talent pool and that community. In fact, we have certain partnerships where we have presented what we’re doing within the walls of Extreme, and we talk about Extreme Academy and how we have a community where we’re looking at not just the skill set—of course, there are certain qualifications that we have—but we’re confident that when you come on that we have a pretty strong on-boarding program. That allows us to reach out to different communities to try to bring them inside of the walls of Extreme.

How important is it for partners to work with vendors that prioritize DEI, and are partners asking Extreme for help launching their own DEI strategies?

I think it is becoming a lot more important. Before, I don’t think there was as much of an emphasis, but we’re starting to see more and more partners who are looking for [things like] ‘What are you doing around DEI?’ So[partners] are starting to become a lot louder, if you will.

The partners that we have, if you look at the maturation process, some might not even have a DEI initiative. But you have others who are extremely advanced, and they’ve been on this journey for a while. So, our thought was why don’t we pull that together and form a community and talk about where you start? Or if you’re advanced, what are some of the things that you and [Extreme] are doing to share those best practices? So, I think we start to hear and recognize the opportunity in the marketplace with our partners around DEI.

What are the direct benefits for partners in working with a vendor that’s prioritizing DEI?

I’ll point directly back to our strategy because we could help [partners] attract and retain a more diverse workforce. Again, that’s important. Let’s say you have an engineer that you’re looking for in a certain part of the U.S. that has certain qualifications, we can certainly try to help in terms of attracting.

We also want to make sure we help optimize employee productivity. People usually scratch their heads when it comes to that, like, ‘How do you do that?’ Well, employee resource groups. Our ERGs, they allow our employees to have a safe space, or a space where they can bring their authentic selves to work at any point in time. They have a group that they can identify with. One of the leading indicators of productivity is engagement. If you have an engaged workforce and you are getting more productivity out of them, one of the ways that you help engage the workforce is by providing that safety and that’s where the ERGs come into play. So, you have psychological safety, psychological availability and psychological awareness. Those are the three areas that that you look for when it comes to productivity. And then finally, [we can] try to help the partners identify and expand into new markets. That’s another benefit. You can look at all the studies that are out there when it comes to DEI—I think it became really hot, probably a few years ago—a study that talks about the benefits of increased productivity [linked to] increased revenues. Those are some of the things that I would point to in terms of why you want to do business with a vendor focused on DEI.

What are you doing to make sure Extreme is ‘walking the walk’ 12 months of the year when it comes to DEI?

I love that question. You have to make sure that DEI is a part of that employee life cycle. And that means that it’s a part of their every single day when it comes to attracting, recruiting, on-boarding, developing or evolving or separating. That’s part of it, but the other part of the answer is intersectionality. So Black History Month, [for example]. I encourage our ERGs to work with each other, even though there’s a highlighted month. So, there could be programming around Black Pride members, or Black women or Afro Latinos, or any other group, maybe Black veterans. Same thing when it comes to Women’s History Month. It’s something that you have to do day in and day out. It’s critical that the businesses show up for all the groups throughout the year.

We put programming in place, and we have mentorship programs. I will say that 75 percent of our ERG members are involved in our mentorship program. So, [employee engagement] is really, really important. This is how you have to address it, just because [if] next month is Black History Month, it can’t be, ‘Oh, this is great. And then we take off the rest of the 11 months.’ That can’t happen. We can’t allow that, and it happens too often, but it’s critical to remain engaged with our employees and our ERGs are doing things all the time. Those ERGs, they’re not corporate-led. There’s no mandate that said, ‘Hey, you need to go do this.’ It’s employee-led, but corporately backed.