Leadership, Inclusion and Keeping Dow on a Global Scale: A Talk with Karen S. Carter

Karen S. Carter

In a recent interview with TNJ Senior Editor Sergie Willoughby, Karen S. Carter, chief human resources and inclusion officer at The Dow Chemical Co., discussed leveraging sports partnerships, women and sports, and sustainability, topics she covered at the Octagon Sports Marketing Symposium, titled “Breaking Barriers Through Sports Partnerships and Events.” In her TNJ interview, Carter, who was Dow Chemical’s first-ever chief inclusion officer, also spoke about her work in fostering a more diverse environment in the work- place. An excerpt of her TNJ interview is below.

TNJ.com: What accounts for the newly created diversity and inclusion (D&I) positions that have been sprouting up at numerous companies?

Carter: Companies are realizing that the world they are doing business in has changed and is more diverse than ever. Their customer base is more diverse. And in an ever-more global economy, their competitors are more diverse. Technology means you can enter new markets, but it also means your competitors can enter your markets! Responding to these demographic and market shifts requires a diverse work- force and an inclusive environment that maximizes the employees’ talents and creates a rewarding professional experience for them. As I’m sure you know, poor employee retention is extremely costly and hurts the bottom line.

In a nutshell, business demands are highlighting the critical nature of making D&I intentional, actionable, and strategic in companies around the world. It is rewarding to see companies resourcing D&I like any other business imperative and allocating focused leadership to drive real, sustainable progress and results.

TNJ.com: What are some of the challenges that D&I practitioners face?

Carter: Let me first point out that at Dow we intentionally lead with inclusion. In other words, we speak of inclusion and diversity in that order. This is more than semantics. We lead with inclusion because the power of workplace diversity only comes to life through inclusion. Through inclusion, we attract and retain a talented, diverse workforce. Through inclusion, we fully engage this workforce and reap the full financial and human benefits. In terms of challenges, one is having leaders behind their efforts 100 percent. For us, our leaders set forward an ambition for the company that we will be the most innovative, inclusive, customer-centric and sustainable materials science company in the world. Inclusion is fully integrated into our corporate strategy, and viewed as a catalyst that drives innovation, customer-centricity and sustainability forward. Once you have lead- ership support, it’s critical that employees see leaders at every level — not only talking about inclusion, but also backing it up with action — closing what we call the “say-do gap.”

That is why it is so important that inclusion is viewed across the company as a business imperative instead of a nice-to-do activity. I am fortunate that at Dow, we see creating an inclusive culture as critically important to business success. However, I imagine, many inclusion and diversity practitioners at other companies may struggle with shifting the culture to a mindset that equates inclusion with achieving business goals.

A challenge particular to global companies is that inclusion issues may differ between regions and countries. In other words, the focus of creating an inclusive culture in Asia may differ from North America because the demographics, as well as the cultural fabric of each region and country, are different. This is why we have regional inclusion focal points in each of our four primary regions to ensure that we are leveraging a global strategy, but implementing and executing at a very local level.

TNJ.com: Noted companies like Dove and H&M have gotten into trouble for launching marketing campaigns featuring insensitive ads. What do companies get wrong when it comes to D&I strategy?

Carter: I can’t speak to those specific instances. However, I can say that study after study has shown that diversity leads to more creative teams and positively affects a company’s bottom line. In an increasingly global world, you need a workforce that reflects the mar- kets you serve and understands those markets. More importantly, you need to make sure your employees feel valued and are being heard. This starts by building a collaborative culture in which people are comfortable in sharing their perspectives and even dis- agreeing with the status quo, when necessary. That is one of the reasons why we are elevating the role of our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as true resources for our businesses. We want to make it easier for businesses to tap into the wealth of knowledge and insights of our employees. And by using the ERGs as a resource, we are also making it easier for our employees to contribute to high-priority business activities like better understanding markets or recruiting top talent.

So, to answer your question, yes! Having a diverse workforce at the table for a wide range of business decisions makes good business sense. But it isn’t enough to have a diverse workforce present; you also have to have an environment where everyone feels free to voice their opinions and perspectives. Diversity plus inclusion.

TNJ.com: Talk about highlights from Dow’s very first D&I report, and the impact of the company’s 2017 efforts to further its global community.

Carter: Our inclusion report was called “Shine,” because inclusion is all about enabling our employees and the company to shine through our inclusion efforts. In the report, I call 2017 the year of “All In,” where leadership and employees at every level jumped in to make Dow even more inclusive. The report highlighted everything from our inclusion and diversity strategy and governance structure, to the workforce composition and our inroads in supplier diversity, to our work with businesses and organizations outside of Dow. But what really brought the report to life were the many stories of what Dow people were doing around the world to advance inclusion — employees like Beata Kilos-Reaume, a research scientist who is working to expand the number of women in research and development roles at Dow; Chalothorn Soponvuttikul, a leader at Dow’s Asia- Pacific Operations and a champion of, and mentor in, multiple ERGs; and Candace Johnson, who is a leader of the African-American Network that facilitates annual MLK Jr. and Juneteenth celebrations.

In 2017, Dow hosted an African- American Leadership Conference that brought together hundreds of African- American employees with our CEO and other senior executives. It was instrumental in taking our efforts to the next level, and led directly to the creation of my role as chief inclusion officer, as well as a renewed focus on expanding supplier diversity and investing more in historically black colleges and universities. This conference was so effective, that our leadership encouraged us to host something similar for all 10 ERGs. As a result, we are developing additional programs to improve opportunities for women and people of color at Dow and their professional development.

Dow’s African-American Network also hosted an event in Brazil, called “Talent Has All Colors” to promote a debate on racial diversity and foster effective actions for inclusion in the labor market. I’d also like to mention The BEST Symposium, which is intended to introduce African-American, Hispanic and Native-American U.S. doctoral and postdoctoral scientists to the wide range of rewarding careers in industrial research, and in particular, opportunities with Dow.