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Chief diversity officers at companies like Wayfair and LinkedIn share strategies for getting into the field

Hiring for diversity officers spiked in 2020 and 2021, and many companies are still building out their diversity teams.

Courtesy of Zendesk

  • Companies are hiring diversity leaders as it becomes increasingly important to corporate strategy.
  • Insider spoke to diversity officers in tech, retail, and software on how they landed their roles.
  • They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, showing there is no one path into DEI work.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Dalana Brand, the vice president of people experience and head of inclusion and diversity at Twitter, knows that lots of people are looking to work in the fast-growing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) field.
She frequently fields questions from aspiring DEI leaders.

“I can’t tell you how often my phone rings with younger folks who are, like, ‘How do I get into DEI? How did you get into the DEI?,'” she told Insider in a July 2021 interview. “There’s not one path.”

DEI is a growing field. The hiring of new diversity chiefs of companies listed on the S&P’s 500 index nearly tripled from December 2020 to March 2021, per research by management consultancy Russell Reynolds Associates reported on DiversityInc. Many companies continue to post openings for diversity and inclusion roles. The median income for a chief diversity officer role is $126,000, according to PayScale.

InaMarie Johnson, the chief people and diversity officer at Zendesk, has been in HR for over 30 years. She took on the role of chief diversity officer in 2019, in addition to her job as chief people officer.

“It was really important to me to make sure that our DEI efforts were in the C-suite, and since I was already chief people officer reporting to the CEO, I felt like that would be the best way to ensure that all of the conversations we were having — strategy, customers, product delivery — could be aligned and threaded with the diversity, equity, inclusion,” Johnson said.

But you don’t need a background in HR. Vinay Kapoor, global head of DEI at FactSet, worked in technology until he was 30. Rajiv Desai, former head of global diversity, engagement, equity, and CSR at Gartner, worked as an auditor and financial services consultant for over a decade before getting into the field. He now works as an independent DEI consultant for small and midsize organizations.

While understanding HR and how engagement ties to the overall business strategy was a missive repeated by several DEI leaders about their job, experiences outside the business world can be helpful.

Desai talked about the opportunity to gain experience in equity work as a volunteer. Brand said those with teaching or social-work backgrounds could develop into strong DEI leaders. And JT Saunders, the chief diversity officer at Korn Ferry, reflected on how his experience as a campus tour guide prepared him.

“It really taught me how to think on my feet, to be able to quickly assess situations, read people and their emotions, and be able to change my thinking or approach,” Saunders said. “A big part of this role is spending your day talking to multiple people from different cultures, from different experiences of diverse backgrounds.”

Insider spoke with six current and former DEI leaders to get their best advice for getting into this highly desirable field.

Editor’s note: This article was orginally published in July 2021. 

LinkedIn’s Rosanna Durruthy: Leverage your personal experienceRosanna Durruthy Headshot (1) (1)Rosanna Durruthy, vice president of global diversity, inclusion, and belonging at LinkedIn.

Courtesy of LinkedIn

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is always transforming, LinkedIn exec Rosanna Durruthy said. If you’re interested in a DEI role, don’t be afraid to tell the hiring manager how you might do things differently, she added.

“Envision how you can make a difference,” she said. “What possibilities can I bring to this role as a result of my own experiences, my engagement with the world and what I know can be an obstacle that’s not readily seen by another?”

Wayfair’s KeyAnna Schmiedl: Show that you’re already doing the workKeyAnna Schmiedl's headshotKeyAnna Schmiedl, head of diversity and inclusion at Wayfair.

Lyndsay Hannah

To be successful in a DEI role, Schmiedl said you have to be comfortable with conflict management and communication — and not always having the answers on hand.

“You have to be a bit adventurous, and you definitely have to be resourceful,” she said.

To land a DEI job, Schmiedl recommends highlighting a time when you led DEI efforts in an organization or within your company, or a time when you “built relationships across difference.”

By that she means perhaps there was a time you volunteered with the LGBTQ+ employee resource group or mentored a young person from a different racial or ethnic background.

“Show that you’ve been doing some of the things you’ll be doing in a business environment in this role,” she said.

CBRE’s Tim Dismond: Develop your interpersonal skillsTim DismondTim Dismond, chief responsibility officer at real estate company CBRE


Diversity officers are in constant contact with people from different teams within an organization, so it’s crucial to develop your communications and collaboration skills, CBRE exec Tim Dismond said. 

“The DEI function should not live in a silo and neither should its teams,” he said. “The job requires a delicate balance of interpersonal skills like listening and empathy married with an action-oriented and results-driven mindset.” 

Korn Ferry’s JT Saunders: Understand how diversity fits into your businessKorn Ferry chief diversity officer JT Saunders.Korn Ferry chief diversity officer JT Saunders.

Korn Ferry.

Saunders believes you need to understand the drivers of the business and where DEI fits into that picture.

“To understand business and how organizations function is absolutely critical,” he said. “Getting the skill capability of understanding of how to run a business and why the strategy looks the way it does is going to be really critical.”

Saunders acknowledges that any professional path can lead you into DEI leadership. He noted an increase in people who become DEI executives after working in the business side of the company. For example, lawyers or bankers who become chief diversity officers.

“You have to understand culture and you have to understand business,” he explained. “It’s not just enough to be a D&I practitioner and understand best practice. I think you really have to be able to round yourself out with the understanding that you’re a business leader who does D&I, and that’s how we’re going to make a difference right here.”

Zendesk’s InaMarie Johnson: Educate yourself on how to be inclusiveInaMarie JohnsonZendesk’s chief people and diversity officer, InaMarie Johnson.


InaMarie Johnson said to first acknowledge the mission of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Every single person in an organization has a responsibility to be better to their coworkers and every person also has thoughts for how the company can be more inclusive to their viewpoints. It’s why Johnson recommends looking inward first.

“This role is as much about design as it is change and transformation, both for the company and the individual level,” she said. “We all need to go on our own personal journey to become more aware, to understand our language and its impact.”

Johnson said that in addition to change, transformation, and empathy, “really walking in the shoes of someone else and staying open” is another key attribute.

“I would say it starts with all of us at a personal level,” she said. “Do your own personal work first, understand where you are in terms of your openness and your experience, your language. There’s great assessments out there.”

Rajiv Desai, former head of global diversity, engagement, equity, and CSR at Gartner: Look outside work to promote equity and inclusionRajiv Desai standing.Rajiv Desai, former head of global diversity, engagement, equity, and CSR at Gartner.

Rajiv Desai

Rajiv Desai recommended that people interested in DEI work connect with their purpose and map out what they want their work to look like. Many DEI opportunities exist outside the traditional workplace.

“You can become an activist, you can get into social-justice work for a nonprofit, you can get into philanthropic activities to drive this work forward,” he said. “It doesn’t always have to be a professional call.”

Because of all the DEI opportunities that exist outside work, you may want to focus on equity in your community rather than making it part of your everyday job. You can dip your toes in equity work through employee resource groups or by working with peers to take on small-scale inclusion projects at the company.

Desai also suggested getting a certification in DEI. In addition to the learning opportunity, the coursework can help you decide if this path is right for you.

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