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Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In The Channel: Where We Are And Where We’re Going

The channel is paying more attention to DEI and will soon have a new online Inclusive Leadership Network community to help companies share ideas about starting or expanding their own initiatives.

Tanaz Choudhury is a former research chemist with a minor in mathematics, physics and biology. She’s a serial entrepreneur and a tech leader of more than two decades.

She’s also a first-generation immigrant, a person of color and a CEO of her own woman-owned-company who has had to grapple with inequity.

“What I bring to the table should be much more important than the package—the color of my skin, the gender I was born with, and how I look. But I still feel like I have to go out there and prove myself twice as hard,” she said.

As the channel grows and evolves, more credence must be placed on the fresh perspectives, hard work and expertise that all people—regardless of their wrappers—can bring to a business, said Choudhury, president and CEO of Houston-based IT solution provider Tanches Global Management.

Many in the channel agree, according to recent research from The Channel Company, the parent of CRN, which showed that 67 percent of respondents said diversity, equity and inclusion is extremely or very important to them personally, while 59 percent believe DEI is extremely or very important to their organizations.

The 2021 study, which included responses from over 300 solution providers, vendors and CIOs, found that among respondents whose companies have DEI programs, 43 percent said they believe the main objective is to attract and retain talent.

Developing a mission statement and starting a DEI program or initiative within a company can be a great starting point, but action in the form of consistent communication with employees and customers, providing training or access to information, or changing up hiring habits must follow, solution providers said.

Choudhury, the “matriarch” of Tanches Global Management, said that for her company, DEI starts with the hiring process. It’s about finding the right person for the job and a good fit for the team, which may mean looking outside initial expectations, she said. From there, the key performance indicators of a DEI strategy lie in the work.

“[Businesses] should be interested in hiring me because I can do the job cheaper, faster and better, not because it’s the company that has a lady at the helm,” she said. “That’s just the bonus.”

DEI awareness is front and center in the IT space in 2022, marking a significant departure from the past, channel executives said. Even though many businesses are still in the early days of developing a DEI strategy and what it means for their company, it’s imperative to pick up the mantle. That’s because by not saying anything about DEI right now, companies are “saying something” whether they mean to or not, said Lori Cornmesser, vice president of worldwide channel sales for Palo Alto, Calif.-based security startup CyCognito.

“For diversity, equity and inclusion—and I add ‘belonging’ to that—I think there’s a lot that we’ve done to recognize that this is an important topic and it’s no longer a ‘nice to have’ because it makes our customers, solution providers and employees recognize and appreciate who we are as a company and our culture,” Cornmesser said.

CyCognito believes that DEI starts at the top. The company first created a mission statement and video that’s live on its site to get all employees aligned with what diversity means to it. In January CyCognito hired Amy Treadwell as its first vice president of people to look at the company’s recruiting and retention practices. From there, the company plans to add a women’s group and other employee resource groups to foster inclusion, Cornmesser said.

“We’re sort of still at the beginning stages, but we’ve put a stake in the ground,” she said. “It’s one of our proudest moments because we absolutely talk about the culture of who we are and what we want to be able to represent to our customers and partners.”

The channel as a whole has recognized that there’s more that needs to be done in DEI, so the next steps will be for organizations to figure out the actions they can take to make an impact, Cornmesser said.

For CyCognito, one of the main objectives of having a diverse team is the creativity and ideas it generates, she said. DEI is also important for building the company’s reputation.

“I’ve noticed a lot of our customers now looking to our website to see who is in leadership and if there’s a diversity statement. They want to know who they’re doing business with,” she said. And solution providers are doing the same. “I’m now seeing MDF dollars being set aside to do joint diversity events. People are coming together to make sure they’re aligned culturally.”

Microsoft channel chief Rodney Clark believes that it’s a company’s responsibility to do more than just raise awareness around inclusion.

“Cultural improvement takes a massive commitment from leadership,” he said. “We are uniquely positioned, given what we do at Microsoft, to help drive the conversation in a meaningful and tangible way in terms of the tone we set in the workplace and how we can help the entirety of the tech ecosystem.”

DEI is at the heart of Microsoft, but it’s also a big undertaking for the company, Clark said. Microsoft in June 2020 made a five-year commitment to address racial injustice and inequity, starting with a $150 million investment to double the number of U.S. Black, Hispanic and Latinx managers, senior individual contributors and senior leaders by 2025. The company is also investing in its partners through the Black Partner Growth Initiative, which builds community around Black-owned businesses and works to improve their access to capital. The number of diverse or minority-owned partner businesses has increased by more than 150 percent, Clark said.

“We’re investing in these partners, in how they can grow and manage their businesses—many of which are small businesses—in addition to how they can accelerate the technical aspects of their business,” he said. “But building a community is just the starting point. We want to make sure that there’s economic equality as well and that these partners are participating in the upside of what the channel has to offer.”

Measuring DEI Success 

The Channel Company’s research found that 54 percent of companies had established DEI initiatives and 52 percent of companies had DEI included in their mission statements.

A company can prove it’s serious when its DEI metrics are assigned to each leader and their managers, such as head of the sales, marketing and product, Cornmesser said. “It shouldn’t just be the designated DEI leader that is running around trying to push a rock up a hill. It has to be the entire company doing it,” she said.

There must be measurements on a company’s recruiting and staffing, retention and employee surveys to prove whether its DEI initiatives are working, Cornmesser said. “How are you recruiting in new places that you haven’t been before? How are you retaining the employees that you have that are diverse, and do they really feel a sense of belonging? Having a seat at the table is no longer enough. It also has to be a welcoming seat where your voice is heard and validated,” she said.

Enter The Channel Company’s Inclusive Leadership Network, a new community that will bridge the gaps for companies that want to start and further their own tangible DEI strategies.

“Diversity started becoming a mandate for companies for compliance reasons, but now there’s much more of a focus on tying diversity to social justice, or for boosting inclusion and belonging, and that’s because the business case is there,” said Cass McMann, The Channel Company’s DEI community leader.

The Channel Company’s Inclusive Leadership Network, launching May 1, will provide spaces for continued conversation about the importance of equity and inclusion, as well as offer tools and training that individuals can take back to their companies, McMann said.

“There’s really a strong desire for people to do this work,” McMann said. “Inclusion is a verb—it’s something that you do. I think it requires a bit of acknowledgement that you’re not going to get it all right immediately. You just need to start somewhere.”

The Inclusive Leadership Network will be especially useful for smaller solution providers that don’t have the same level of access to DEI programs and resources compared with their larger counterparts. Companies with strong DEI programs generate more wealth, said Phillip Walker, CEO of Network Solutions Provider.

The Manhattan Beach, Calif., solution provider takes pride in its hiring practices, something Walker said he is sensitive to as a person of color. “It’s always looking at people from a ‘What can this person do for my business?’ perspective. It’s getting the smartest people on the bus, no matter what they or their background looks like.”

Walker and his company support work programs in the Los Angeles area for veterans and minorities and also donate computers and time to accelerator programs to teach minority children coding. “It’s exposing that path and about being available to say, ‘Hey, here’s the path forward,’” he said.

The main objective of DEI for Walker’s company is to create the next generation of business owners, and similar efforts from fellow solution providers and their vendor partners are starting to pay off, he said.

“You’re starting to see a different look and feel to the channel, which has historically not been very diverse,” Walker said.

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