There’s no doubt that the focus on DEIB has faded from the national conversation over the last year. Many companies are quietly rolling back DEIB initiatives, no longer pretending to care so much about it. And as many startups and tech companies try to gain their footing during this time of uncertainty, DEIB can become a “nice to have” instead of a “need to have.”
But as we think about the future of work, we have to think about the future of DEIB and how we can keep pushing things forward.
So we chatted with Mary Chapman, a people operations expert with twenty years of experience. Working with startups and tech companies like Apple and currently at data.world, she’s seen first hand the effects of a genuine DEIB strategy — as well as the performative strategies, too.
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A candid conversation with Mary Chapman on culture, DEIB, and retention
Q: For companies that are feeling a little stuck in their DEIB initiatives right now, what do you recommend?
Mary: First of all, you have to look internally to see where your efforts are coming from. If we’re doing this because we think we have to, to follow a trend or fulfill a quota, then it’s not going to be all that effective. When the trend dies down, so will your efforts. But if your DEIB strategies are driven by a genuine commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, that’s so important. It has to be a part of the culture at your company.
Q: Why do some diversity and inclusion initiatives fall flat?
Mary: A lot of diversity and inclusion initiatives can feel really performative. And we’ve seen examples of that lately, as companies roll back their programs, or task their Chief DEI Officer with other responsibilities. A lot of companies were just trying to check a box. It’s important to also note that diversity extends beyond race and gender; it encompasses different perspectives, religions, abilities, experiences, sexual orientations, and more.
To go beyond the performance of checking a box, you have to think about the B in DEIB: belonging. Focusing on belonging shifts the narrative from mere representation to creating an environment where everyone's voice is heard and valued. This is what makes a strategy genuine, and also effective — especially for retention.
Belonging encourages employees to bring their true selves to work, enabling them to speak up, share their perspectives, and contribute to the organization's growth. When employees feel valued and understood, the company benefits from their unique ideas, leading to innovation and increased productivity.
Q: People operations leaders across the country are thinking a lot about retention right now. How does fostering belonging improve employee retention?
Mary: Yes, retention is at the top of everyone’s minds right now. And research shows that when employees feel a strong sense of belonging, they are five times more likely to stay with a company for a long time.
When employees feel heard, seen, and valued, they are more likely to invest themselves in the company's success. They experience higher rates of engagement, and actively participate in moving the business forward.
On the other hand, if people don’t feel like they belong, they are less likely to be engaged at work, and more likely to leave the company. When people don’t feel like they can speak up in meetings, they won’t share their unique perspectives and ideas that can really push a company forward.
Not making belonging a critical part of that defeats the purpose of any efforts in the first place.
In order to compete for the best talent, you have to build a culture of belonging into the foundation of the organization. It’s great to have diversity, but a diverse workforce is only as effective as the culture it operates within.
data.world CEO pictured with employees at company event
Q: What are some concrete ways companies can foster belonging?
Mary: Here are some strategies we’ve implemented at data.world that have worked really well for us.
1. Educate, Activate, Celebrate
Acknowledging diverse holidays, events, and milestones is a tangible way to cultivate a sense of belonging. Whether it's celebrating a holiday from a different culture, or by educating employees about prominent women in the field during Women's History Month, these efforts demonstrate a commitment to inclusion and help employees feel seen and valued.
For example, at data.world, our conference rooms are named after pioneers in data. One of them is named after Grace Hopper. But who was Grace? This is something we talk about at the office and educate each other about important, underrepresented figures in history.
2. Recognize Different Communication Styles
Not everyone thinks or communicates the same way (hello diversity!). So to make sure everyone feels a strong sense of belonging, it’s important to understand and respect different communication styles. Encouraging open dialogue and providing platforms for diverse voices to be heard fosters an environment where everyone can contribute effectively.
And on the other end of communication is listening. We have to make sure we actively listen to each other. This is especially important for leadership. When people speak up about an issue, we have to listen. You don’t have to have a solution right away, but as a leader fostering belonging, it’s critical to say, “I hear you, you’re right, and I want to fix it. Let’s work on this.”
3. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
Creating spaces for employees with shared interests or backgrounds, such as LGBTQ+ or cultural affinity groups, helps individuals connect, share experiences, and feel more at home in the workplace. At data.world we have Slacks pods for almost anything: the environment, pet parents, crafting, you name it. It’s a great way to bring people together who might never have met otherwise and help people bond.
4. Develop and Support Managers
Leadership's commitment to fostering belonging is critical in the success of any DEIB initiatives. Cultivating a sense of belonging isn't just about articulating values on paper — it's about embodying those values in every decision and interaction. Consistency, transparency, and authenticity are the cornerstones of a culture that truly embraces diversity and promotes a sense of belonging.
But oftentimes, people get promoted and are left without any support. It’s critical to set up a consistent management training, so that all managers are equipped with the skills to manage diverse teams, provide support, and ensure equitable opportunities for growth. Consistency is key. If some managers are good at this and others aren’t, that’s a big problem for the people on that manager’s team. It has to be a consistent effort with consistent training across the board.
Mary Chapman, pictured centered front in the party hat, with data.world team at company event
5. Level the Hybrid Playing Field
Remote and hybrid work environments have created new challenges in a variety of ways. In remote-first or hybrid organizations, it's crucial to ensure that all employees, regardless of their physical presence, feel included and engaged. Hybrid workplaces need to ensure that in-person activities don't inadvertently exclude remote employees. Inclusive meetings and hybrid team-building events can bridge the gap and create a unified sense of belonging.
At data.world, we are remote-first with about 35% of our team outside of commuting distance to the office. If there’s a meeting on the calendar, we never assume that it’s happening in the office. Everyone is welcome to dial in, no questions asked. It helps level the playing field so that no one feels out of the loop or left behind.
Q: Who’s responsibility is it to make sure this kind of stuff is happening?
Mary: DEIB work is not a task for one single department; it requires a holistic approach that permeates every aspect of the organization. And it has to come from the leadership at the top.
There’s no perfect way to run a company, but there’s a lot that we can all do together to make it a great place to work — for everyone.
Great talent is your top asset, and prioritizing belonging is one of the best ways to help employees thrive and stay for the long term. The DEIB journey has to evolve beyond the superficial to foster a sense of belonging that’s rooted in the company’s culture and values. That’s what sustains a company's growth and success… and makes for happier employees all around.
Curious about working at data.world? Check out more about the company and their open roles.