Diversity and Inclusion

Is DEI authentic? Caroline Wanga says we need a reframe.

“Our authentic self feeds our career, workplace, and interpersonal relationships. That is non-negotiable.”

Caroline Wanga thinks corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts need a reframe, regardless of the backlash they face in culture and politics.

As President & CEO of Essence Ventures, Co-Founder of WangaWoman, and former Chief Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Target, Wanga champions and inspires authenticity as the key to achieving the “goals” of DEI initiatives in the corporate sector and beyond.

By embracing humanity over numbers, companies can create cultures that celebrate the uniqueness of individuals and foster a sense of belonging—while also making money.

Based on Wanga’s keynote discussion with Elisa Leary, Senior Vice President, People & Culture, Catalyst, at the 2024 Catalyst Awards, here are five questions to ask yourself about the DEI policies and programs in your workplace:

  1. Do your workplace policies give individuals permission to express themselves and ask for what they need?
    “For the amount of time I invested in being in all the right places for DEI, none of my numbers moved because I was there. My numbers moved when people saw me come to work with dreadlocks and finally started wearing their vacation braids to work.”
    White norms are often centered in workplace culture and dress code policies, favoring people with straighter and finer hair while devaluing people with kinkier and coarser hair.As a Black woman, Wanga expressed the freedom she felt when permitted to wear her natural hair at work and how wearing what she wanted to “freed up my mental capacity by 40% to do my job.”

  2. Do your mentorship programs pair employees based on their appearance or deeper qualities they need to succeed?
    “Corporate America mentorship should be aligned to the needs of the person and the best person who can give them that. What they happen to look like should not be a factor in whether they’re a good mentor.”Wanga discussed the transformative effect mentorship had on her career journey to the C-suite, particularly her relationship with Brian Cornell, Chairman & CEO of Target Corporation. Their partnership worked well because Cornell had experience with mental health, which Wanga needed when she was experiencing depression symptoms at work.

    Oftentimes, Wanga found, it was suggested she should pair with mentors who looked like her. “Understand who I am and what I need to succeed and pair me with the best person in the company to do that. And the first qualification is not skin color,” she said.

  3. Does your workplace offer space for employees to truly listen to each other?

    “We were teaching everybody how to come out and say stuff that makes people uncomfortable… What we forgot to do is teach people how to listen to it.”
    During her career at Target, Wanga created listening sessions based on important cultural and political events happening in broader society and how they impacted employees. This strategy creates space for empathy, an important driver for engagement and inclusion.

    She compared the success of these sessions, whose emphasis was on listening over responding, to the “courageous conversations” DEI trend, which focused on speaking over listening.”It wasn’t about who was right and who was wrong. It was about creating a setting that allows people’s humanity to exist. And as long as there was no violation of the law policy, dignity, and respect, you let it happen.”

  4. Do your DEI programs foster personal accountability and action?

    “The next time you use the word ‘DEI,’ instead of saying I need DEI to do this, or I’m worried that DEI is doing this, take out the word ‘DEI’ and put your name and see how you feel. Because if you’re not doing it, I don’t care about DEI.”
    The risks of performative DEI policies are high, including negative impacts on employee retention and performance.

    During her talk, Wanga critiqued corporate cultures that prioritize words over action. “One of the things in corporate America we have to own is how much we like to make things look different, so we have to make as little change as possible,” she said.

    By aligning DEI actions to your company’s values, leaders can create genuine systemic change through transparent communication and accountability.

  5. Are your DEI initiatives primarily for meeting business objectives or creating a more humane workplace?
    “DEI is not about ‘How many of this do you have?’ DEI is not about meeting goals… DEI is about teaching people how to get in touch with what they are good at.”Throughout her keynote, Wanga’s overarching call to action for DEI practitioners and leaders was to get clear on the true purpose of DEI—its human impact.

    During a time of anti-DEI cultural and legal shifts, as well as economic uncertainty, the case-making for DEI is more crucial now than ever. Research shows that justifying DEI by emphasizing how it creates a fairer workplace is more preferred by employees.

    “Before you go criticizing DEI and being worried about the fact that money’s going away, be more worried that people are taking their lives because they can’t come to work as they are—which matters more.”


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