So many of the diversity and inclusion leaders we meet through our series on DEI leaders took circuitous, unexpected routes toward their roles. They stumbled into DEI leadership positions through twists of fate and happenstance.
Erin Mitchell Richeson, vice president of inclusion and diversity (I&D) for Cox Enterprises and the subject of this installment of our series on DEI leaders, is a different story. Richeson discovered her passion for DEI as a child, and she’s combined her passion for DEI with Cox’s commitment to a more diverse and inclusive workplace to come up with some great results.
“It All Started When I Was in 7th Grade”
Most middle schoolers spend their days thinking about this week’s math test or maybe their crush in science class. For Richeson, however, middle school was where she first got turned on to diversity and inclusion work.
“It started when I was in seventh grade,” she explains. “We had a guest speaker who said two words I had never heard before: diversity and inclusion. I was just in awe because that was a lot of what I was feeling, and it was a way for me to embrace my unique authenticity and identity. This lit a fire in me and led me to want to connect with other people in this engaging, empowering, and inclusive way.”
This early experience led Richeson to take a closer look at diversity and inclusion in her everyday life and how it impacted the people around her. “I went to the principal and asked to put up a bulletin board for Black History Month,” she says. “Then I spoke with my Asian friends and did one for Asian History Month. These dovetailed into the next year with us celebrating all the heritage months and that continued into high school, where I served on a student advisory committee for the county (we now know these groups as diversity councils).”
Richeson’s First Professional DEI Role
While Richeson had an early interest in DEI, it wasn’t actually her first career path. “I never envisioned a full-time role in diversity and inclusion, but an opportunity presented itself at the time I was considering a move to Connecticut in support of my husband’s naval assignment,” she explains. “I was an attorney in D.C., and he was a submarine officer in the Navy. We were newlyweds and he was being moved to Connecticut. I decided I would leave my role as an attorney if I found something that was interesting and compelling to me. The role I found was as a diversity program specialist for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.”
Richeson took the job, but after two years her husband’s tour was up, and she says she had a decision to make: “Do I stay on this diversity path or go back to practicing law?” Ultimately, Richeson decided to stay with diversity because she loved the transformation she was able to see in such a short amount of time. “I worked with many different groups at the Coast Guard and enjoyed taking one strategy and principle and applying it to different stakeholder groups in actionable ways.”
DEI at Cox
In Richeson’s current role as VP of inclusion and diversity at Cox, she leads the company’s inclusion, diversity, and equity (ID&E) strategy and consults on and supports Cox’s efforts around diversity recruitment, employee engagement, diversity learning, talent development and supplier diversity across our divisions. Cox Enterprises is a company dedicated to its Purpose to Empower People Today to Build a Better Future for the Next Generation.
Unlike many DEI leaders we speak to, Richeson stepped into an existing DEI role, as opposed to a newly created position. “In October 2021, I stepped into a well-established role as vice president of Inclusion & Diversity, reporting to Karen Bennett, EVP and chief people officer at Cox Enterprises,” Richeson says. “I lead all ID&E-related work at the enterprise level through our new Center for Inclusion in partnership with our division ID&E teams.”
Richeson says that one of the things that sets Cox apart from other companies in the DEI space is that Cox understands the role of inclusion and diversity in our success as an employer and how we connect with our customers.
“Our primary focus is creating an authentically inclusive culture with systems, policies and practices that enable employees to fulfill our Purpose in an equitable and inclusive way,” Richeson says. “We recognize that maintaining an inclusive culture where diverse employees want to be is foundation in achieving our company’s Purpose and business priorities.”
An Inclusive Approach to Meeting Employee Needs
DEI efforts often get portrayed as having motivations more firmly rooted in politics or culture wars than anything to do with business. But the fact is diverse and inclusive companies tend to outperform those that aren’t as diverse or inclusive, and part of the reason for that is because employees who feel welcome and included in a workplace are more likely to show high levels of engagement, be more productive and be less likely to leave the company. By working to help employees of all backgrounds and lived experiences feel supported and welcome, companies like Cox know they’re strengthening their organizations.
“We support our people in a variety of ways,” Richeson says. “For example, we provide employees with wide range of benefits that recognizes the differing needs they and their families have, like preventative care, gender affirming surgery, fertility treatments, adoption and an employee assistance program, to name a few. We also provide information and resources that support wellness and mental health throughout the year. Like many companies, we have programs that support an employee’s desire to grow and develop. What makes Cox unique is that we recognize a person’s career is unique, and we recognize careers are not necessarily linear. We consider them more like a jungle gym than a ladder.”
Most sophisticated businesses today recognize the importance of DEI efforts to the bottom line of the business. DEI helps companies boost their creativity, stimulate employee retention and engagement, and helps organizations better connect with diverse markets. The challenge many companies have is figuring out how to achieve meaningful results with their DEI efforts.
The winning combination for Richeson and Cox has been a company commitment to DEI and a DEI leader with a lifelong passion for the work.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.