Encouraging Diversity

An Interview With Kuma Roberts, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Arrowhead Consulting

Encouraging Diversity

Early in her career, Kuma Roberts hit a roadblock as she was climbing the ranks from receptionist to vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at the Tulsa Regional Chamber. The next stepping stone was a leadership development program, but she couldn’t afford it. In a random conversation with the CEO, she mentioned her dilemma, which he solved by telling her to apply, and the tuition would be covered. “It was just a special case, but a lot of people slip through the cracks,” says Roberts, now the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Arrowhead Consulting in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

That kind of dialogue—about creating opportunity instead of assuming it happens—is at the heart of Roberts’ work today. The Arrowhead Consulting business partner guides CEOs and community leaders through incorporating DEI into strategy development. Roberts crossed paths with the leadership at the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute of Organizational Management program and is now working with FPA membership and staff on the whys and hows of DEI. It is work that she loves.

While she is teaching FPA about diversity, FPA is teaching her about the flexible packaging industry and its opportunities. She admits to being nervous when she made a recent presentation at FPA’s annual meeting in March. Few other people of color or women were in the room, but that meant she was reaching her target audience. “This is the group that needs to know why diversity, equity, and inclusion matters,” she says. “It was like validation for me to be able to speak to the group, and I had such great feedback and a great experience in doing so.”

FlexPack VOICE®: What is your message about DEI?

Kuma Roberts: Don’t flinch. Get fearless about DEI. These words “diversity, equity, inclusion” used to be hopeful and necessary. They are aspirational, beautiful words, and over the past three years, they became scary. We need to be more fearless about how we approach it. Sticking our heads in the sand to avoid differences is no way to solve anything.

FPV: How can DEI help solve the problem of labor and talent shortages in manufacturing?

KR: If you’re not embracing refugees and immigrants, veterans, more women, people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people, then you’re keeping a file that’s already small, and you’re struggling for people. When I learned the amazing average wage of $83,000 a year in flexible packaging—my word! There are tons of African American people who have master’s degrees in engineering but don’t know anything about the industry because the industry isn’t looking for that kind of talent.

FPV: Employers often say that diverse candidates aren’t applying for their jobs. How do you respond?

KR: I hear that a lot. “We can’t find them, so they don’t exist.” There are so many more places to post jobs than online sites like Monster and Indeed. You post at the big university, but meanwhile, there are probably Historically Black Colleges and Universities near you. Are you talking with their recruiters? Are you going to their school of accounting or the engineering school? Because those people exist. There are professional boards for people of color and other communities. Is there an organization that helps people with disabilities train for jobs? Is there an LGBTQ+ center in town? If you don’t have that diverse universe to pull from, you’re going to get a very homogeneous group of individuals.

FPV: How are diversity, equity, and inclusion defined?

KR: Shared language is super important in this work. When I say “diversity,” I’m not just talking about race and gender. I’m talking about all these various ways in which we are different. And when I say “equity,” it’s not a handout. It’s providing the right tools. We provide ramps for those in wheelchairs to get into our building, and this is like providing the right access for people to be able to thrive in our organizations. And then there’s inclusion. Everybody thinks inclusion and feels so warm and cute and cuddly, but real inclusion means that people have a voice, power, and decision-making authority in your organization—a  say in their career trajectory and the direction of the organization.

FPV: You have said that consistency in training and development is a key factor in DEI. What does that look like?

KR: It should be a part of strategic planning. How are you making your goals? It should be a part of onboarding. How are you recruiting in a way that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive? It should be a part of everything, and therefore, that consistency is going to show up in how you talk to people every month. When you’re talking about your numbers, highlight the things about diversity in your culture and what has been made better as a result or made worse.

FPV: How does a family-owned company, where leadership tends to be of the same race, address DEI?

KR: It’s great that you’re a family-run organization. You don’t have to snap your fingers and be 50/50 women and people of color. What’s most important is that the team—that family—has the same capacity, awareness, and understanding of what it takes to do the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As long as you’re demonstrating your commitment to it and are trying to find the most diverse, highly skilled, educated team you can, then keep it up. You can also partner for vendor diversity. Who’s providing your paper? Who’s cleaning your office? How are you partnering with people to lift them up as you are also trying to execute your business goals?

FPV: Where do company culture and DEI intersect?

KR: In my presentations, I share the image of an iceberg. Above the waterline is how people say the work gets done in their organization—the strategy, the policies, the procedures. We love to say, “We’re guided by our mission, our vision, and our values.” But you are leaving unaddressed a bunch of things underneath the surface—tradition, unwritten rules, social codes, habits, beliefs, and groups that are “in” or “out.” That’s what is tanking the culture.

FPV: How does a company start to change the culture and address the part of the iceberg below the waterline?

KR: At Arrowhead Consulting, I use our organizational health assessment tool to focus on DEI across four categories—communication and outreach, organization, accountability, and leadership and talent. When I give your employees this assessment, it gives me a heat map in red, yellow, and green. It shows where you’re good and the areas of opportunity. That helps narrow down the necessary strategies. Maybe it’s that women don’t see their career trajectories, so you can start a mentorship program. Or maybe you need tuition reimbursement to help people who don’t look like everybody else get their engineering degrees. I wish I could say it’s a cookie-cutter approach, but it’s very specific to what your organization needs.

FPV: How does a company deal with employees who won’t or don’t comply with a DEI-focused culture?

KR: If the culture starts to change, and it’s upheld at the highest elements of the organization, those people will exit themselves out because they realize their thoughts, their views, and their mentality are not welcome. It’s the leader’s job to make it very clear that your expectation is that we’re going to be well-rounded, inclusive individuals, and it’s going to be a part of our evaluations. If you’re not putting some teeth into it, then you’re going to maintain a culture that’s keeping people out and keeping you from thriving. It’s hurting your profitability because no one wants to work for an organization that doesn’t value who’s working for them and all the different kinds of people they could be.

FPV: Where does a company begin the work of DEI?

KR: My mom would say, “You can only eat an elephant one bite at a time.” If you want to get started in DEI, create a DEI committee. That committee’s first step is creating a purpose statement. A really good DEI purpose statement has three components. First, what makes your organization unique? Second, what is the vision of what to improve as it relates to DEI? Third, there’s the promise to improve and the things you’re seeking to do. Maybe you seek to create space for conversation related to racial data. We want to make sure our culture is inclusive and equitable, and this is what it looks like. Those three components make an excellent pur-pose statement that you can put everywhere. If you’re going to take the time to create one, put it on your website, put it on your board documents, and put it in your onboarding.

FPV: How does a company implement that statement?

KR: Use what I call the Four F’s. First, we have to be able to fail. Let’s look at failing as a first attempt at learning. Second, we have to face it. There’s a hard history of the organization. Is it the fact that you look around and don’t see anyone with a difference in your leadership team? Is it that you’re wondering where the women are and why they’re all stuck in middle management? Know your numbers and face the truth as it stands. Third, fix it, which looks like finding the right person, inside or outside the organization, to help make it right and use some of the simple assessment tools out there to identify where you are on the trajectory. And fourth, focus on what matters. It needs to be upfront and a part of your work each day.

FPV: How does leadership create that safe space for conversations?

KR: We have to be consistent with being uncomfortable. Once that consistency is made very plain, people rise to the level of expectation and are prepared. After the George Floyd, Jr. murder, I pulled together my staff and the CEO and everyone, and we had a really tough conversation that included white women whose husbands and fathers were sheriffs or police officers, and Black men and women whose wives or young sons were afraid to just be Black out in the street. These are very uncomfortable conversations, for both sides, but hearing both sides in the same context, in the same conversation with people who we loved and knew, was very powerful. Then, the next time something challenging happened, we started to get comfortable coming together to talk about it. It isn’t easy. There are a lot of tears, a lot of emotion. We just encourage people to not say they’re OK if they’re not OK and that we are going to make space to talk about this situation.

FPV: How does leadership project its commitment to DEI?

KR: My advice is, “Do no harm.” Recognize that there are people who do this work better. Be present, but don’t take a position of leading when you don’t know it all. That requires a little bit of vulnerability, but it is so necessary in the world of DEI and addressing culture. You have to be able to say, “Here’s where we have some struggles, and here’s where I know that we could do better.” It takes a leader to be able to say that honestly.

M. Diane McCormick is a freelance writer and editor based in York, Pennsylvania.