Amazon Web Services ‘Works Backwards’ For DEI Goals

The cloud computing powerhouse has unique DEI strategies for a positive work environment—from the individual up. ‘We must ensure people from all walks of life can bring their whole selves to work,’ says leader LaDavia Drane.

Building a DEI program to support Amazon Web Services’ massive, global reach while meeting the needs of stakeholders, is a daunting task, to say the least. But LaDavia Drane, AWS’ director and global head of inclusion, diversity and equity, has developed unique strategies to succeed.

Drane spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about how working backwards from individuals’ needs has helped her stay on target for DEI goals, launch a fund for nonprofits and create a culture of constant improvement for AWS.

In your experience, what’s been an important mechanism to develop an effective DEI program?

We know that our business is only as diverse as the people who make it up. At AWS, we have “builders,” a term we use to call our employees, and customers from all over the world. Given the global footprint of our company, we work backwards to determine how we can best address their unique needs to create an inclusive, diverse and equitable workplace.

Building a program that can scale globally requires the buy-in, perspective and involvement of builders around the world. Working backwards, we created a program called the Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Innovation Fund that allows them to apply for microgrants to support nonprofits that transform the lives of underrepresented groups from all over the globe.

We have projects in every region of the world, ranging from expanding access to STEM education for women and girls in Latin America, to providing a solar-powered water pump in Senegal. Working backwards on behalf of our customers is a mechanism that can truly make a difference in everything we do. In this case, our team’s customers are our builders and underserved communities, and I’m proud of strategic initiatives like the ID&E Innovation Fund to reach them.

How do you coach leaders to speak authentically about DEI or respond to tragedies affecting underrepresented communities?

People come to our team all the time, asking “Should I speak on this? What should I say and how should I say it?” And I understand, because nobody wants to say the wrong thing.

But as cheesy as it sounds, leaders truly need to speak from the heart. In response, I ask them, “How did you feel when this happened? What reaction did it ignite in you? What will you do to work towards building a more just world where we can prevent these tragedies from happening over and over again?”

If you’re part of a community that is marginalized and targeted, the words are already there. Listen to them and speak up.

If you’re not part of an underrepresented group, make efforts to understand their lived experiences and their history, whether that’s by reading relevant books or watching shows or documentaries. The more you learn, the easier it will be for you to communicate from the heart.

And you can always run the message by people from the underrepresented group you want to reach—as long as you don’t expect them to educate you. If you want to do it authentically, you have to put in the time and the work. You can’t have someone else do it for you.

I also applaud leaders who aren’t afraid to say that they don’t have the “right” words right now but are able to share their empathy and demonstrate their allyship and commitments to do better.

Whatever you do, don’t be a bystander. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And I couldn’t agree more.

How do you help your organization and leaders across the business stay focused on DEI initiatives?

The beauty of working at Amazon and AWS is that we’re very data driven. In the beginning of each year, we evaluate the progress made last year and set new goals for the year ahead. After we have alignment and approval on our goals, then I review them with my team on a weekly basis and we triage areas where we need to make greater progress.

For example, we have a goal to increase the number of AWS employees to take our Inclusion Pledge, which is a strategic initiative to encourage them to disrupt bias, increase their knowledge on how to be an ally, and so much more, to 30 percent. We are currently at 22 percent.

And again, we work backwards to reach our goal. Since we’re trying to target employees, what channels are they using internally that we need to leverage to get their attention about this program? Who has influence to get them to join? In a rapidly evolving landscape where we are often pulled into multiple priorities, we can easily lose track of what’s most important. That’s why our goals help us stay focused on the most pressing initiatives ahead.

What’s the biggest leadership lesson you learned over the past few years given how challenging it’s been and how the economy continues to be unpredictable?

First, always ask questions. At Amazon, we live by our leadership principles, and one of them is to “Learn and Be Curious.” Nobody really knows what will come our way in the next few years, or even months, especially in this unpredictable economy. We don’t have to pretend to know something if we don’t. In many ways, it’s very liberating to operate in a constant curious mindset, and it’s part of the “Day One” mentality at Amazon and AWS, which is the notion that we treat every day as if it were our first day in business.

And second, I think recent challenges provide us with an opportunity to be better leaders than yesterday. We have become more open with our colleagues or managers in the workplace, which sometimes involves having difficult conversations around race, identity or our mental wellbeing.

I read this study that Gen Z is more willing to talk about their mental health compared to other generations. It’s an important trend that we should embrace, and in many ways, it gives me hope because it shows that they have a safe space to be their authentic selves at work—free of judgment.

At the end of the day, we want our employees to feel they belong to our organization no matter what they look like, who they love, where they’re from, or what they’re going through. And that’s why at AWS, we lead with inclusion.

It’s not that diversity and equity aren’t important—they’re all equally important. But in order to foster greater diversity and equity, we must ensure people from all walks of life can bring their whole selves to work.

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