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Career Lessons from Erin Mitchell Richeson: Seeing Through the DE&I Lens

​In the days following the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, Erin Mitchell Richeson knew a generic employee memo would be an inadequate response. “We didn’t want just corporate speak,” says Richeson, vice president of global diversity and inclusion for Kimberly-Clark, a global paper products company based in Irving, Texas.

Richeson and her team concluded that the long-held assumption that conversations about race and social justice don’t belong in the workplace no longer applied. They also understood they needed to help Kimberly-Clark’s employees conduct those conversations. The company’s top leadership gave the green light. 

On June 1, Kimberly-Clark issued a statement expressing the company’s obligation to navigate a better way forward when bias, discrimination and injustice affect its employees, consumers and communities.

For Richeson, who’s based in Atlanta, that was just the start. Two days later, she and her team got to work organizing an array of initiatives. One was a global virtual town hall on race and racism that was attended by 2,800 employees and later watched by another 2,500. For the company’s top 600 leaders, Richeson and two other executives held a session on inclusion. Her team also organized what it called “caring conversations”: multiple discussions among small groups of about 10 employees on racism and bias.

For people managers, Richeson’s team created a virtual library of educational resources, including pointers on what to say, what not to say and why. An example: Avoid saying, “Help me learn more about the Black experience,” Richeson advises, because it’s not Black people’s responsibility to educate others about what they’ve encountered.

In all, the initiatives reached between 7,500 and 9,000 employees, most of them among the company’s 11,000 salaried workers. (Kimberly-Clark employs a total of about 40,000 people, including hourly workers at its manufacturing sites.)

“Now the organization sees that the inclusion and diversity lens really applies to everything we do,” says Richeson, who in mid-2019 was promoted from global diversity engagement leader to her current role.

A Clear Case for DE&I

Kimberly-Clark didn’t just start looking through that diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) lens. The 148-year-old company, whose products include Kleenex tissues, Cottonelle toilet paper and Huggies diapers, formed its first employee resource group about 35 years ago.

And 10 years ago, Kimberly-Clark made DE&I a strategic objective, viewing it as the right thing to do ethically and for the business. The focus on business is especially pertinent because of Kimberly-Clark’s customer base. “Our purchasers are overwhelmingly women,” Richeson says, “so we have to appeal to them” in terms of not only the company’s products but also its ways of working. “The business case for making sure we reflect our consumers is a very compelling one.”

For Richeson, the business case for DE&I should always be clear: “I commonly say to my team that if we can’t point back to why a particular inclusion and diversity initiative will help the business achieve X, then we’re not doing it the right way.”

For instance, last year at a session of the company’s general managers for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Richeson explained how leaders could intentionally build their teams to better reflect customer diversity.

“Erin was very effective at connecting diversity and inclusion to our strategy of being consumer-inspired in everything we do,” says Tristram Wilkinson, president of EMEA Kimberly-Clark in Kent, England. “It’s critical that our employee base reflects our consumer audience.”

Referencing The Work of Leaders: How Vision, Alignment, and Execution Will Change the Way You Lead (Wiley, 2013), Richeson says the three concepts in the book’s subtitle guide her work today: understanding the business’s vision, aligning with it and then executing it.

Vision is about “understanding the what and the why behind the what,” Richeson says.

Alignment, she adds, “is not death by consensus but getting buy-in and support for our solutions.”

As for execution, she says, “I have a bias for action and results.” That means tracking year-over-year increases in numbers of employees from underrepresented groups, as well as examining the data to ensure, for example, that such an increase doesn’t happen only in a single job category.

Quick Rise in HR

Despite the high-profile position she holds today, Richeson entered her field just 10 years ago. And six years ago, she took an HR job at the Atlanta-based outsourcing firm MarketSource, which hired her to build its DE&I function from scratch.

“She understood not only how to stand up DE&I in the organization but also how to connect it to business objectives in an exciting way for our employees and clients,” says Jasmine Brennan, who reported to Richeson at MarketSource and who now works as senior manager, global diversity and inclusion, at T. Rowe Price in Baltimore.

Brennan recalls that her former boss energetically established the company’s first executive DE&I council, created its first employee resource group and even volunteered to stuff backpacks for underprivileged students.

‘If we can’t point back to why a particular inclusion and diversity initiative will help the business achieve X, then we’re not doing it the right way.’

Just one year after Richeson joined MarketSource, the Technology Association of Georgia honored the company with an award for integrating DE&I into its business practices.

While at the firm, Richeson says, she learned an invaluable skill from her manager: how to communicate effectively with executive leaders by understanding the challenges they face and elucidating how DE&I pertains to them.

Drawn to Diversity

Richeson has not followed a traditional HR path. She began her career as an attorney. “There was never another career path that even entered my mind” growing up, she says. What drew her to the law? “Honestly, probably The Cosby Show’s Clair Huxtable,” explains Richeson, who has an undergraduate degree from Spelman College in Atlanta and a J.D. from the University of Georgia.

“I always had a fight in me,” she adds. At around age 13, her parents told her to clean her room. The young Richeson consulted her encyclopedia and wrote her parents a missive informing them they were subjecting her to involuntary and illegal servitude, and that if they persisted, she would engage an attorney. Her parents laughed—and let her skip the chore. “That’s when I knew the law had a lot of power,” Richeson says. Today, that framed letter hangs in her office.

At age 15, Richeson studied ancient Greece and Rome in school and told her mother she wanted to take a summer trip to those places. “My mother said, ‘OK, get a job.’ So I did.” Richeson paid for her trip abroad by bagging groceries and working retail. Since then, the longest Richeson has gone without working was six weeks to study for the bar exam.

Richeson cites two people as her greatest professional influences. The first is her father, a former minister who taught Richeson how to play chess and consider different moves from different angles. The second is her grandmother, a Black woman who, in the 1940s, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and became a college librarian in Texas. “If she was able to do all those things without the convenience of technology and with the reality of overt discrimination, what’s stopping me?” Richeson says.

While practicing law in Washington, D.C., Richeson met her future husband, Glenn. A U.S. Navy officer, he was transferred to Connecticut in 2011, but he received his transfer orders the day after the application deadline for the Connecticut bar exam. 

Richeson then faced one of the toughest choices of her career: stay in D.C. and continue to practice law or move with her fiancé to a new state and, in effect, a new career.

“I said the only way I would go was if there was a compelling position in Connecticut that was something I always had a passion for,” Richeson says.

Other than the law, there was one other thing that had piqued her interest when she was young, and it had to do with her family’s frequent moves. Although Richeson grew up primarily in Atlanta, her family lived in multiple states. “Moving around at an early age made me understand the world is so much bigger than what I see around me,” Richeson says. A guest speaker at her middle school put words to that sentiment: diversity and inclusion.

Soon after moving to Connecticut, Richeson accepted a position at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy as a diversity program specialist.

A couple of years later, when her husband retired from active duty, Richeson faced another difficult decision: return to the law or continue in her new field. She chose the latter. In 2013, she became a senior diversity trainer and consultant for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Richeson says it was “the people aspect” of DE&I that led her to embrace her current career. “I’d had experiences in life where I didn’t always feel supported or respected,” she says. “I wanted to work someplace where I’m seen, heard and valued, and I saw that diversity work was about creating that experience.”  

Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

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