Sustenance is more important than initiation: Sneha Suresh, Wells Fargo
Sneha is a Vice President and heads Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) for Wells Fargo India and Philippines. She leads and drives the inclusion strategy across Gender, LGBTQ+, People with Disabilities and Veterans, and coaches senior executives on embedding DEI within their businesses and in their role as inclusion champions.
An experienced DEI professional in the financial services industry, Sneha has strong expertise in building inclusive cultures, talent strategies and employee engagement.
In this exclusive interaction with People Matters, Sneha reflects on the three realizations that shaped her approach towards diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging, the biggest pitfall for LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace, emerging relevance of technology in the DEI space, and a day in the life of a DEI leader.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
What does a day in the life of a DEI leader look like?
Not like yesterday and not like tomorrow. Each day is unique because we primarily work with people and culture, which is ever-evolving. Be it leadership coaching, inclusion strategies or advocacy, the lens that we apply to each of these is distinctive.
The spectrum of my work includes developing diversity, equity and inclusion strategies for India and Philippines. This involves a plethora of efforts such as enabling individuals to bring their most authentic selves to work; building equitable workspaces; driving external advocacy; and equipping managers as inclusion champions and leaders.
What I feel most lucky about my role is that no two days are alike because no two people are alike.
Given your strong background in the diversity, equity, and inclusion vertical for top players in the financial services industry, what are some key realizations/learnings that have shaped your outlook and approach?
The lens that I keep in mind when thinking about strategies is typically three things:
- Never underestimate the power of visible and vocal advocacy, especially at the top. Leadership advocacy plays an integral role in building the culture of inclusion itself. That's something I learned and use as a guiding principle.
- The organization is obviously a microcosm of the environment. So, how are we enabling the environment to support our microcosm? I find asking myself some questions always helps: How are we building grassroots talent pipeline? How are we enabling entrepreneurship at the grassroots level? Enabling each other's environment and ecosystem is something that guides a lot of my thinking.
- I'm personally also focused on the sustenance of an initiative.
It's very easy to run initiatives and programs, but the effort is to establish a self-sustaining culture and ecosystem of inclusion.
Therefore, I value consistency and sustenance more than initiation. Because what you're hoping for is a multiplier effect. You touch one life, and that one person touches five more. That's going to work only if they genuinely believe in it.
Wells Fargo was recognized as a top employer in the bronze category in the 2020 Workplace Equality Index, India's first comprehensive benchmarking tool for employers to measure their progress on LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace. What are some key practices that led to this accomplishment?
We are very excited for the recognition as it reaffirms the direction of our strategy, especially since we recently started our journey in the space.
Leadership commitment at the top definitely set the foundation for our efforts.
Some of them from a policies and infrastructure perspective include gender-neutral policies, same sex partner benefits, gender affirmation surgery insurance coverage, gender-neutral restrooms etc. We are also continually focused on building an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ professionals through awareness-raising sessions and workshops. We are very proud of also being able to demonstrate our commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion through displaying a huge Pride flag outside our building premises during Pride month. This is an ongoing, long journey and we are happy to have made good impact in the first year of the same!
How are you mapping the progress made towards LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace? What are some milestones and pitfalls that remain critical in the journey ahead?
I look at measuring the impact of a particular strategy in terms of how equipped the overall ecosystem of that strategy is. In the space of LGBTQ+, it becomes even more important because of the cultural nuances, because of the environment and the framework in which we operate. I define clearly what the end goal for us is: for example, are we looking at attracting these professionals, hiring them, developing them, and so on. For all to these things to happen, we need to have a whole structure in place. Then, we tackle the next set of questions. Do we have the right policies, infrastructure and benefits? Do we have the right culture to support individuals from the community? Are we communicating that we are advocates for LGBTQ+ inclusion externally and internally? If you look at impact, you have to look at it holistically.
The biggest pitfall that you could encounter in the LGBTQ+ space is to look at only one part of the employee lifecycle in isolation.
You can't just look at hiring, because you need to think about the support mechanism that is also in place. Neither can you think about only external advocacy, if you don't have an internal mechanism to support LGBTQ+ individuals.
From a milestone perspective, it's important for us, especially in India, to bear in mind and celebrate incremental progress. We work against many years of culture and societal influences, so celebrating even the smallest of wins is crucial. My biggest personal/professional achievement is the first time somebody came out to me, and I was the second person in their whole life that they shared their story with. At that point in time, I felt like I must have done at least something right that they trust me with their story.
It is very important for us to keep in mind that it’s not the number of individuals you have in your organization, it's how you impacted an individual's life authentically.
And organizationally, if that individual has trusted me to come and share their story, there are better chances for me to retain that individual because they feel safe. So it's really a mutually beneficial relationship. We must not lose sight of that in the journey. The way I see it, we need to think about realistic ways and measuring milestones in the LGBTQ+ inclusion space, and start with baby steps.
Beyond hiring, how do you see the role of technology in fostering inclusion?
Technology is definitely a boon in this space. Having said that, we'll have to be mindful around the regulations around it as well. For example, there are applications that screen certain traits that are more prone to bias. I'm curious to understand who designed that program. If it's a man, will that application be free of stereotypes that his life experiences exposed him to? Similarly, if it were developed by a woman, I would ask the same questions. Who makes a product/tool is as important as how it is made. This is the conversation around AI and biases; how do we govern that sort of opportunity available?
Technology has opened up talent channels in a manner such that assistive technologies are available for people with disabilities. So that's proven to be a boon.
In the learning space, there's also great opportunity because it provides voice to conceptual learning. For example, in interactive learning and game design.
Game design is fantastic for DEI trainings, because it puts you in a situation and gives you options to choose from. That’s a safe space for a learner, it's between them and the AI; the AI is not judging them.
In the learning space, technology also provides opportunity for scalability. Especially with the kind of increase in workload currently, for us to be able to communicate our broader DEIstrategy and touch individuals in a manner that's meaningful, technology is very helpful.
Something to bear in mind is that the DEI space is still personal, with a person-based approach. So, retaining that personal touch with the help of technology to enable our strategy is critical. We should leverage the help and support, accelerate our progress as an organization, as a country, but we should also use it in a manner that supports and enables progress in the right direction.
For professionals from under-represented communities, discrimination and discrepancies in cultural acceptance have been observed, depending on where they rank in the organizational hierarchy. What is your take on this?
An organization is a microcosm of the larger environment and we are aware of how society’s deep rooted beliefs, power structures and biases impact an individual’s behaviour.
I believe in leveraging individual and organizational levers to drive social change. Only sustained efforts and incremental progress over a period of time can bring about systemic change.
In that light, it is imperative that organizations empower individuals to call out discriminatory behavior irrespective of their titles or roles. For this, one has to establish and sustain a zero-tolerance culture in action through multiple avenues. This cannot be just on paper; it has to be communicated loud and wide, through every individual in their day-to-day actions. Sometimes, there is fear of repercussion of calling out inappropriate behaviour. This needs to be mitigated by demonstrating that an organization listens and actions upon it.
There is also a need to empower bystanders and allies, especially in this context, due to the historic societal discrimination against under-represented communities.
The accountability of building safe spaces does not lie with one person or one team; this is every person’s responsibility.
This isn’t an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conversation, and hence, the importance of integrating allies and individuals from the communities in driving change is very important to mobilize any progress in organizations and society at large.
There are several reports cautioning the global workforce around the post-pandemic reversal of progress made towards building diverse and inclusive workplaces. What does 2021 look like for you from the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion?
I view 2021 as a year of opportunity. 2020 threw a lot of light on micro-inequities in the broader society, and startling inequities in the environment. The last year also taught us a lot of things in terms of access to resources within equitable populations. Understanding what our role is in bridging that gap became important in 2021. In the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a global crisis, the need to belong to a space, to a group of individuals, is essential. As organizations, can we provide those safe spaces? Can we provide those opportunities where people feel valued?
2021 is also an opportunity for us to reiterate the business case for inclusion. It is imperative to understand that inclusion isn’t about altruism. It makes business sense to have a diverse workforce and, as studies have shown time and again, investing in inclusion enhances productivity, team performance, innovation and just is a business smart decision. In 2021, and from here on, we cannot forget that fact.