Diversity & Inclusion

Championing Diversity While Pursuing Inclusion

One of the most interesting aspects of our series on chief diversity officers (CDOs) and other leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and people management is the paths they’ve taken to reach their current positions. Rarely do we speak with diversity or HR leaders who say they knew from early on they wanted to serve as a CDO, chief human resources officer, or chief people officer. Instead, they tend to find their way to these positions somewhat serendipitously.

Sonja Wilkerson

In almost every instance, however, the personal characteristics of the executives we speak to—their compassion, their personal experience as part of a traditionally marginalized community, and their passion for coaching or professional development—draw them to these roles and help them excel there.

A Circuitous Path to Silicon Valley and HR

Sonja Wilkerson, Chief People Officer at Bloom Energy, fits this mold perfectly. Today, Wilkerson can claim the title of a longtime Silicon Valley resident, having lived there for over 25 years, but she remembers the initial culture shock she experienced when she first arrived.

“It just kind of shocked me because I grew up in different part of the world, while it is in the United States but very different kind of world,” she explains. Wilkerson grew up in Roanoke, a small town in southern Virginia, where she was raised by a mother who had her first child at age 14 and gave birth to Wilkerson at age 16. She describes her early years as being part of a very family-oriented culture and credits that upbringing with her future career.

Wilkerson says she came to California with a very limited education and with no clue about what Silicon Valley was about. With no experience and no résumé, Wilkerson says it was sheer luck that she was contacted and interviewed by a woman named Mary, a recruiter at Sun Microsystems. Wilkerson recalls being presented with an opportunity, albeit an unfamiliar one. “Mary says, ‘so do you want to go into marketing or HR?’ and I was like, ‘Okay, I think I could do that people thing.”

Not Entirely Unfamiliar with HR

Of course, HR wasn’t entirely foreign to Wilkerson. Her mother had worked as an HR professional previously and had done well in that field, but it certainly wasn’t part of a grand plan Wilkerson had laid out for herself. “You could have been talking to a CMO today, rather than a CHRO,” she jokes.

After landing her first HR job, Wilkerson decided to go to college and earned her BS in Organizational Behavior, an MBA, and a MS in technology management. “I did my Master’s in organizational MBA,” she explains. “I did my undergraduate in organizational behavior, working full time. I completed my MBA, working full time, and completed my second master’s in technology management, working full time. So, I decided that education was my path to open more doors for me from a career perspective.”

As a black woman, Wilkerson didn’t exactly fit the stereotype of a Silicon Valley executive. She says there were certainly not a lot of black role models in high tech, particularly at the time she started her career—but that remains true even to this day. Nevertheless, Wilkerson says she loved the HR function and was successful due to her ability to get things done, think outside of the box, and take appropriate risks. That success led to recognition and promotions and eventually caused her to set her sights on a C-level HR role.

“I set out at some point, to be a CHRO,” she says, “And I said, ‘Well that’s to tell them I want.’ And over the years I started building my toolbox, from being an HR generalist, to being an HR manager to moving into roles that gave me international exposure. I’m very proud of the fact that I have experienced many cultures in countries around the world as a result of my role and that I have had an impact on companies in those countries.”

Diversity Starts at the Top

Wilkerson attributes much of Bloom Energy’s success at DEI efforts to its leadership team, including a highly diverse executive management team and board of directors. “Diversity starts at the top,” Wilkerson says. “I do want to give our CEO full credit. Dr. KR Sridhar is a leader who prides himself on being an inclusive leader and supporting and reinforcing the person.”

Furthermore, Wilkerson stresses the importance of allies and majority groups in promoting DEI efforts. “We can’t do this ourselves,” she says. “And I think when many companies talk about diversity, you have diverse people talking to diverse people about diversity. That doesn’t work.”

Meaningful Emphasis on Diversity in Hiring

Wilkerson takes an active role in the hiring of senior leaders at Bloom, and she says the company places an explicit and genuine emphasis on diversity in hiring. “We’re not just creating a diverse pipeline to say we have a diverse pipeline,” she says. “We’re creating a diverse pipeline to really hire diverse champions. We take that every seriously, as you can see in our senior leadership team.”

In addition to senior leadership recruitment, Wilkerson says Bloom also focuses on diversity at the other end of the pipeline, starting with promoting diversity among participants in its summer internship program, many of whom eventually get offers of employment.

Bloom’s focus on diversity even goes beyond its own organization, though. Along with Hewlett Packard, Bloom is one of two companies that actively supported the passage of California Assembly Bill 979, which requires “boards of California public corporations to include directors from underrepresented communities by Dec. 31, 2021.” 

Leading with Inclusivity

Wilkerson notes that companies have historically focused first and foremost on the diversity aspect of diversity and inclusion (D&I). However, Bloom strives to really emphasize the inclusion element first. Wilkerson argues that companies that truly embrace inclusiveness end up naturally attracting diverse talent as a result because people simply want to be a part of an inclusive organization.

Silicon Valley doesn’t exactly have a reputation for aggressively and meaningfully promoting D&I efforts. But a new generation of executive leaders like Wilkerson are working hard to change that image and reality. These leaders recognize that promoting D&I is not only the right thing to do but also a foundational element of a company’s success.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.