Diversity & Inclusion

Ilina Ewen: Born into the Role of a Diversity Leader

Our subject for this installment of our ongoing series on chief diversity officers and other diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) leaders is someone who says she was “born into” the field of diversity and inclusion (D&I).

Ilina Ewen DEI
Ilina Ewen

Ilina Ewen, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Samet Corporation, a North Carolina-based construction firm, has leveraged her own experiences as a woman and a person of color to shape her approach to developing an industry-leading culture of DEIB at Samet.

‘Born Into’ a Diversity Role

It’s notable how many diversity leaders are women and/or people of color. One of the many reasons for this is that the lived experiences of many people from traditionally marginalized groups have given them a firsthand understanding of the challenges these groups face in the corporate world. Those lived experiences were a big factor in Ewen’s decision to pursue a diversity role.

“You might say I was literally born into it,” Ewen says. “I have always been the only ‘other’ in the room throughout my schooling and career, so I lean in to lived experiences—I was often the only woman or the only person of color. I started in advertising out of college and worked my way to financial services, brand strategy and marketing consulting, politics, advocacy, and now construction.”

Ewen didn’t wait to have an official senior position to start making a difference in corporate diversity. “I started a diversity committee at American Express when I was early in my career there,” she explains. “It was a successful initiative that centered on celebrating diversity, including producing a cookbook of family recipes from our various heritages.”

Diversity at Samet

Ewen’s role at Samet was new when she stepped into it, and it’s part of the company’s overall corporate social responsibility umbrella. “My role has become an invaluable part of the company and corporate social responsibility is something that we take very seriously,” she says.

Furthermore, Samet takes a holistic approach to DEIB, embedding it throughout the organization. “The work is integrated into our overall strategy rather than siloed as a ‘diversity’ initiative,” Ewen explains. “We started employee listening sessions and held executive training as well. We know that there are so many untapped areas of growth, and we would like to foster an environment where team members can thrive. I am consistently encouraged by curiosity and the conversations I have with all of those who participate. Even our interns are encouraged to participate to get the most out of our D&I Initiatives.”

Samet is also in the process of launching employee resource groups centered on both identities and issues, e.g., women, veterans, and caregivers. The first is called Women@Work. “The aim is to collaborate across regions and roles to identify issues and solutions, provide a platform for associates with similar needs and concerns to share, and to celebrate each other’s successes,” Ewen explains. 

An Inclusive Approach to Helping Employees Navigate Life’s Challenges

DEIB efforts are focused heavily on women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and other traditionally marginalized groups. But, Ewen cautions, it’s important not to allow this focus to lead to the exclusion of others who may be members of groups that have traditionally had more power and privilege but may be dealing with important challenges and stresses that can impact their work life.

“We are shifting the narrative around issues that are traditionally women’s issues,” Ewen notes. “Childcare, work/life balance, burn out, etc., are worker issues that affect everyone. We are looking for ways to mitigate stress and care for all employees. As an example, we implemented paid parental leave that benefits all new parents, including adoption and foster. The vernacular is important to note; parental leave is our terminology, not maternity leave. Samet allows me to focus on these important topics and use business for good to create real change rather than performative gestures and platitudes.”

Diverse Recruitment at Samet

As with many organizations invested in DEIB efforts, Samet has centered heavily on recruitment and retention, focusing on outreach efforts to hire more women and underrepresented populations in construction. Ewen believes Samet’s approach to diverse recruitment and retention and creating a culture of belonging sets it apart from the rest of the industry. “Our work to increase representation of women is unparalleled, especially in this industry,” she says. “We are amplifying more holidays and cultures and demonstrating an authentic thoughtfulness and intentionality to increase representation in our corporate culture.”

Samet also has an employee referral program, attends career fairs, and engages in community outreach, including speaking with middle and high school students, to build a pipeline of talent. “We are focusing on recruiting more women and underrepresented populations through college outreach with Society of Women Engineers, Black, indigenous, and first-generation engineering clubs. We are also recruiting more interns from [historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)],” Ewen adds.

Crafting a Diverse Culture

Whether it involves DEIB, work/life balance, business ethics, or any variety of corporate goals, defining and shaping corporate culture to pursue those goals is notoriously challenging. Workplace culture affects and is affected by how employees work together.

Ewen acknowledges that Samet’s pursuit of a more diverse culture “is a work in progress and a journey that evolves rather than a destination with an endpoint.”

That journey involves patience, thoughtfulness, and thoroughness and can’t be achieved by simply paying lip service to the ideals of DEIB. “We are growing and building thoughtfully rather than checking boxes to be performative,” Ewen notes. “Simple things like celebrating diverse holidays and cultures and catering from women and minority owned businesses helps to start a dialogue about points of views and experiences that are new to many. We approach the topic of ‘diversity’ as something to celebrate rather than compliance.”

Ewen knows what it’s like to be an “other.” As a woman and a person of color, she’s spent her whole life experiencing the general lack of DEIB in so many institutions, including the workplace and corporate America. Those lived experiences are part of what has inspired her to work so hard to create a compassionate, understanding, and inclusive culture at Samet.

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

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