Diversity & Inclusion

Shameka Young: A Difference Maker in the D&I Space

A key element of diversity, equity, and inclusion is finding ways to not only hire more diverse workers but also elevate them within their organization. For Shameka Young, VP and Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) at Cognizant, leveraging the company’s focus on affinity groups, targeted hiring, and other practices have been key factors in the success of its diversity initiatives.

shameka young diversity
Shameka Young

A Role Model for Women in Leadership

Young started her career in management consulting. She moved from an entry-level analyst position to consulting practice leader within the communications, media, and high-tech industry before moving into D&I. That level of personal professional success has no doubt contributed to her ability to serve as a leader and role model to other women and diverse groups through her D&I work.

As part of being a practice leader, Young drove diversity into her organization by leveraging campus recruiting and expanding hiring processes while focusing on creating an inclusive environment across various teams. These experiences served as a launchpad for her to become more focused specifically on D&I.

Moving to the Diversity Realm

“In consulting, the numerous unique individuals I encountered allowed me to craft remarkably innovative and productive teams around the globe,” says Young. “Those experiences illustrated the value and impact of diverse teams.”

Young adds that at Cognizant, there has been a historic focus on diversity through affinity group amplification, initiatives to accelerate more women in leadership, and increasing women across the organization through hiring. 

“I served as a regional sponsor for our Women Empowered program and supported numerous diversity recruiting events while also being a practice leader,” she says. “As our leadership adapted strategies, it was clear that a centralized global diversity and inclusion organization was needed to integrate the hiring, development, and retention of diverse talent.”

Young believes that understanding the company’s business objectives and client focus made for an opportunity to accelerate Cognizant’s D&I objectives through a client lens.

“I try to meet people where they are through sharing impactful examples, discussing data, and having open and candid conversations,” Young notes.

Leading from the Front on D&I Efforts

One of Cognizant’s major areas of focus in the D&I sphere is on having meaningful conversations across its affinity groups, along with allies. Expanding allyship and creating safe spaces for candid conversations have been important elements of Cognizant’s strategy. Additionally, having C-level executives actively and visibly participate in those efforts has been a great way to demonstrate the importance the organization places on these initiatives.

“In recent months, for example, we’ve seen our CEO and CFO have a candid conversation with employees around support for our LGBTQ+ community, and our CEO and CPO discuss improvement opportunities with our Black, Latinx and Indigenous Affinity Group,” says Young. “These conversations matter. Of course, we have our training, diversity metrics and programming that all support D&I, but what we’ve found to be most impactful is the engagement from our leaders to host these discussions, emphasize the priority within their individual businesses and measure the impact to drive accountability.” 

Cognizant executives and affinity group leaders recently signed a public-facing D&I commitment statement to make the company’s promises clear to all of its stakeholders. It also recently kicked off All Belong, a quarter dedicated for employees to connect, learn, and level up their understanding of and commitment to inclusion and belonging.

Affinity Groups Drive Engagement and Understanding

Cognizant leverages a variety of affinity groups to both offer employees an opportunity to connect with others who share similar traits and attributes and allow the organization and its staff to learn about these employee segments to drive better understanding. The groups include the following:

  • Women Empowered is focused on elevating the experience of work for women and creating impact for the business.
  • Cognizant Veterans Network was created to hire and help prepare transitioning servicemembers, veterans, and military spouses for new jobs. 
  • The Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Group is committed to developing innovative and creative ideas by employing a diverse leadership and workforce to propel Cognizant to become a global market leader.
  • Embrace is focused on providing a positive, supportive environment for LGBTQ+ colleagues to be their authentic selves at work; creating a strong community among LGBTQ+ associates and allies; connecting with clients’ LGBTQ+ networks to strengthen relationships; and enhancing recruitment of diverse top talent.
  • The Pan-Asian Group promotes diversity and cultivates inclusion, development, career progression, retention, and recruitment of talent for Pan-Asian associates and allies at Cognizant. 
  • Unite is committed to celebrating and supporting people with disabilities and caregivers.
  • Working Parents provides working families with a place to seek and share resources, experiences, and support for all types of families at Cognizant.

“In addition to helping attract a diverse mix of individuals to join Cognizant, our affinity groups also help talent, once on board, to become engaged in Cognizant’s communities and foster a sense of belonging,” says Young.

D&I Measures of Success

Through these efforts, Young and Cognizant are making a real, and measurable, difference. They track various metrics to help them demonstrate and communicate results, and D&I ranks as one of the highest-scoring drivers in their annual engagement survey.

Young shares how Cognizant has taken specific steps to demonstrate its leadership in D&I initiatives:

  • The company recently launched its first Environmental, Social & Governance report, which includes transparent information and data on its D&I strategy and progress.
  • Women make up 60% of the board of directors in the Cognizant US Foundation.
  • Four women serve on the company’s board of directors. 
  • In 2020, 40% of Cognizant new hires were women. 

“I’m proud to say that we’re making an impact across the world and supporting a variety of programs that give back to the communities that Cognizant is a part of,” says Young. For example:

  • In February 2021, Cognizant made a 5-year, $250 million commitment to advance economic mobility, educational opportunity, D&I, and health and well-being in communities around the world.
  • Cognizant is a founding member of the World Economic Forum’s Partnership for Racial Justice in Business.
  • The company is a member of The Valuable 500, a global movement focused on putting disability on the business leadership agenda. As part of The Valuable 500, Cognizant is committed to driving deeper disability inclusion for associates with disabilities, caregivers, and allies.

Young also points to a few initiatives at Cognizant she is particularly excited about as the company continues its D&I journey.

A Focus on D&I for the Future

Two specific programs Young is particularly excited about are returnships and the company’s MAKERS Pledge.

Cognizant launched a returnship program in 2021 targeting technology professionals interested in restarting their careers. Returnships are 12-week paid experiences for technology professionals who have at least 5 years of professional experience and have taken at least a 2-year break from their career.

“We believe that a break in a professional’s career can provide an opportunity to reflect, find areas of focus, and return stronger to the next phase of professional journey with a renewed sense of purpose,” Young says. 

Employees accepted into the returnship program will be able to update their skills in a supportive work environment, get involved with real-time projects, and work with cutting-edge tools and technology. At the conclusion of the program, participants are considered for a position with Cognizant. 

The company is also continuing its sponsorship of MAKERS, an organization dedicated to telling the stories of trailblazing women to inspire future leaders in this space. “Our 2020 MAKERS Pledge was to put 1000 high performing women in leadership levels through Propel—our signature women’s global leadership development initiative—by the end of 2021,” Young says. The company is on track to exceed that goal.

Cognizant’s D&I program clearly comprises several specific and targeted approaches designed to ensure diverse employees not only feel welcome but also have the support and opportunities they need to advance in the company.

Through efforts like affinity groups, targeted hiring efforts, and special initiatives designed to connect with and further develop diverse employees, Cognizant has been able to make a big difference—for the company, its employees, and the markets it serves.

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