Diversity & Inclusion

Rohini Anand: Gaining Understanding and Creating Change Through Personal Experience

What does it really feel like to be privileged? It’s a tough question to ask and one many take for granted, especially those who have grown up in an environment where they represent the majority. While there are certainly countless people today who strive to understand their privilege, which can be defined as “an unearned advantage in society through some aspect of your identity,” in truth, those who have that privilege can really never fully comprehend what their lives would be like without it …

Rohini Anand DEI
Rohini Anand, PhD

… unless they somehow find themselves in a situation in which they no longer have that privilege and they become “the other.”

That was the case for Rohini Anand, PhD, who grew up as a member of the majority in Mumbai, India.

Recognizing the Impact of Differences

In Mumbai, Anand says, “I was surrounded by people who pretty much looked like me. I had the privilege of not having to think about my identity.”

But then, she moved to the United States as a single, immigrant woman. “[M]y identity shifted from being someone who saw herself as the center of her world to being a minority—to being an immigrant, to being a foreigner. I honestly was not quite prepared for that,” she says.

Few, if any, of us would be.

Her experiences have made work in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space very personal to her.

“Understanding what it means to be perceived as a minority—as an outsider—is very much at the heart of my work,” she says. “My work is about leveling the playing field so everyone can succeed.”

A Background in DEI  

Anand’s expertise spans executive leadership, human capital, global DEI, and corporate responsibility. Most recently, she was SVP Corporate Responsibility (CR) and Global Chief Diversity Officer for Sodexo, where she reported to the global CEO and was a member of Sodexo North America’s executive committee. Anand successfully positioned Sodexo as a global thought leader in DEI and CR. Sodexo’s remarkable global culture change, led by diversity and inclusion, is featured in the Harvard Business School case study “Shifting the Diversity Climate: the Sodexo Solution.” 

Anand left Sodexo in 2020 as COVID hit, using the time to write about her experiences in DEI in Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations. Today, she is an advisor and a strategic coach to business executives, as well as a frequent speaker, and serves on a number of nonprofit and for-profit boards, diversity boards, and other advisory boards.

5 ‘Must-Haves’ for Getting It Right

When it comes to DEI, Anand says, it’s not about “a series of activities or initiatives—it’s really about transforming the culture and making it more inclusive and equitable.”

That’s not an easy task.

What does it take? In her book, Anand outlines five principles for being effective with DEI cultural transformation.

At the outset, it takes leadership commitment. But, Anand notes, “that leadership commitment has to be authentic, and leaders have to lead the workforce with purpose and passion.” To do that, “they have to really internalize the benefit of DEI to themselves and to the organization.” And, she adds, there must be a clear rationale for change.  

In addition, organizations need to know “why they’re doing this—what is the benefit?”

That benefit, Anand says, can be a business benefit or alignment to the mission of the organization or to address social justice in the community. “Without a change rationale, without a change narrative, about 70% of change transformations fail. There has to be clear focus on how this is going to benefit the organization.”

At Sodexo, she notes, the focus was very clear. “It was about business growth, and DEI leadership in the space was a differentiator that helped to grow the business and provide access to clients. It was a competitive advantage.”

The third principle required for success, according to Anand, is that “it has to be embedded within all of the processes internally and externally.”

DEI “is not the job of HR—it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

The fourth requirement is having clear targets and metrics, “like you would with any other aspects of business to hold your teams accountable,” she adds.

And finally, especially when doing this work globally, “it has to be localized to the laws, to the culture, and to the environment in different locations.” It must be done in partnership with local change agents to bring about change.

Challenges to Overcome

However, Anand acknowledges there are several challenges to achieving success with DEI initiatives.

One is that organizations aren’t always fully committed. They may have provided a budget or appointed positions, but unless there is full commitment and visible support, these initiatives will fail.

In addition, Anand says, the individual placed in the role responsible for DEI initiatives often doesn’t have access to key decision-makers in the organization and is not positioned for success. Unfortunately, she adds, “Sometimes I think people in this position are figureheads to keep the companies out of trouble.”

Finally, DEI efforts are often the first expense to be considered dispensable in tough times, which is what happened during COVID-19 and the economic downturn, Anand says. Budgets were downsized at the same time that women and people of color were feeling the disparate impact of the pandemic—and systemic racism was accelerating.

Her advice to those in roles charged with impacting organizational DEI:

  • Understand the business, and understand what you are solving for. “What is the organization solving for by hiring you? What opportunity are you addressing?”
  • Embed your efforts within the core business strategy or the mission of the organization. What you’re doing has to be core to the foundation of the business.
  • Look at your data and analytics to see what the gaps are.
  • Listen to what people are saying and how they experience the organization.
  • Work with leaders to understand where they stand—their beliefs on DEI—and bring them along.

Anand says that she used to say those in DEI roles would eventually work themselves out of their jobs, but she no longer believes that’s something that will happen in her lifetime. It’s important work and work that must be ongoing. Leaders in this space, she says, need to work with intentionality and a sense of urgency to achieve change and make their organizations more diverse, equitable, and inclusive so employees feel a sense of belonging because of their uniqueness and not in spite of it.

It’s not an event—it’s a process, one those like Anand who have experienced both privilege and being the “other” can uniquely get behind and influence.

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