Episode 12: Structural Change For Inclusion And Belonging With Aaisha Hamid

If inclusion and belonging are what you're striving for, you have to make sure you have the structure in place to do it. You need to make sure that your organization as a whole, from top to bottom, understands that you're trying to cultivate a culture of inclusion. If not everyone is on board, that culture will be difficult to develop. Join Megan Martin as she talks to the Assistant Vice President and DE&I Manager of Alliant Insurance Services, Aaisha Hamid. Learn how she manages DEI within companies and organizations. Find out how data is gathered and analyzed when it comes to DEI. Start developing a culture of inclusion today!


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Structural Change For Inclusion And Belonging With Aaisha Hamid

We're excited to have you here joining us for another great conversation about the digital community. I am pleased to be joined by Aaisha Hamid. We're excited to have you.

I’m very excited to be here.

We are excited to talk to you. You've been working in the DE&I space for quite. I am excited to pick your brain. Especially as a woman coming into this space, we don't see that quite as frequently. It's becoming much more common. I can't wait to dive into that experience. Before we kick off, tell us a little bit about you, how you got into the space and maybe a little of your background.

I am serving as the Assistant Vice President and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager at Alliant Insurance Services. We are an insurance brokerage firm based in California and provide services nationally. Before that, I was in the academic and legal sectors. I started diversity work at the University of Louisville without realizing that's what I was doing. I was involved, through our diversity office, in a variety of different roles.

I've worked with our women's center and done a lot with gender equity. I've worked with our Mohamed Ali Institute, also on racial and ethnic, minority issues. I've worked in a couple of different places that deal with social mobility. When I entered the corporate world and in the workforce, I joined a firm called Hogan Lovells, based in DC and a global law firm.

That's when I realized that it was something that more organizations were thinking about because, not only internally, was it something that was important, it was something that a lot of our clients were asking us about as well. That was where I got a better chance to understand what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean on an operational level and what can be done, not just locally and nationally, but what this work looks like on a global level in Asia and Europe. I got a chance to experience that a little bit more. I've always been a bit of a writer as well. I have written a couple of books as well.

My passion is structural changes that cultivate cultures of inclusion and belonging. A lot of my writing deals with identities and how do you create spaces and make sure that there are structures in place that are going to allow people to feel like they are a part of it, that they're engaged and belong. That's essentially where I came into this world, then. Eventually, when I started in the US, I was doing diversity work, primarily with the US and Mexico, those offices in Monterey. Eventually, once I'd done work there as a DE&I coordinator at Hogan, I moved up.

I got moved to DC, which is where our headquarters were. I took on a global role, which allowed me to be a DE&I plan project manager and oversee our efforts to integrate some of these efforts across the organization. It was a great opportunity. Once I experienced that, I was recruited by Alliant, which brought me into a different industry.

As a whole, the insurance industry is a little behind on the diversity, equity, and inclusion front, but now more than ever, they're realizing the importance of it. We're seeing more, efforts being done in this arena, but to me, it came across as a challenge I realized that the knowledge that I did have, I wanted to be able to take it into a field that was even more homogenous if we're looking at the data.

I was like, “Let's take what I know. Let's think about the idiosyncrasies and the behaviors of this, completely different industry and organization and let's see how I can work together.” My primary responsibilities are I helped develop and co-execute our six-pillar data-driven people-centric strategy. I love developing ideas, creating them into a product and launching them. That's been primarily what I've been doing here.

You certainly sound like a very busy woman with quite the credentials behind you. It's very impressive. It seemed like you fell into this space. You said you were doing this work without even realizing it when you were at the University of Louisville. What interested you to follow this passion and diving into it further?

Part of it is my educational background. I often tell people now that I've had a very unorthodox upbringing in that I attended an elementary school that was primarily Christian Baptist students. I went to an Islamic middle school, where I thought about my identity even more.

Culture difference.

In the next phase, I went to an all-girls Catholic high school.

You went all over the place.

That was the place where I became very hyper-aware of my identity because I'm older. In that phase, when you're a teenager, you're already thinking about identity. There's nothing that's questioned. When I went into that high school, everything about my identity was questioned. I was one of very few racial minorities. I was the only Muslim at the time in the school. I had a lot of questions asked, like, “Why do you believe in this?” It helped me get a better understanding of identity. It also made me realize what it feels like to be the only one in a room.

That was my first experience before we got into the workplace of what that feels like. I fell in love with being able to be in these kinds of spaces and to represent them. This idea of representation, which is what I think is a cornerstone of diversity, equity, and inclusion to move the needle forward, you want to make sure that there's equitable representation across the organization. That is where my passion started. When I went to college, I was a part of these different organizations that had nothing to do with my identity. Eventually, in the workplace, when I realized you could do this for a living, that's what I ended up wanting to do.

If you want to move the needle forward, you need to make sure that there's equitable representation across your organization.

You're certainly quite the disruptor. Walking into a space like the insurance industry that hasn't changed all that much in the last couple of decades. You're very much disrupting an industry prime for needing a good disruption. Leading on that disruption, how do you attract and empower diversity? What about these projects that you're working on focus and harness that, not within your organization but potentially disrupting a larger industry?

I love that you say this idea of disruption. It's change management and, like the word itself, disrupt. No one wants disruption. We're creatures of habit. I like to say that organizations are the same. They're also creatures of habit. They have behaviors and specific characteristics.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” kind of saying.

When you go in, then you're like, “I like this habit, but I think this could be worked a little bit differently.” This isn't really what we're looking for. It creates a level of reticence to move forward. One of the first things I always talk about is data. Be able to understand before you can attract and empower underrepresented people or disrupt anything. You want to make sure that you have a strong basis for wanting that change. Not just wanting it but needing it. You have to make a case for it. That comes from collecting data, both quantitative and qualitative, because you want to be data-driven but also people-centric. There's a lot of conversation we can get into about how we need to the human way and how we want to focus on people.

BIDC 12 | Inclusion
Inclusion: You need to understand before you can attract and empower underrepresented people. You want to make sure that you have enough data for wanting change.

I believe the first thing that you need to do is to use your data, your diverse demographic information, do conversations across the organization at different levels to identify the pain points, and use that to help guide the disruption, then you meet with the relevance in a quarter, you tell them why it's important, how it can benefit them. You have to find a lot of commonalities.

You have to be very personable in this space and be able to connect with people and understand people at a psychological level. That's how you end up disrupting. Once you find that basis, you figure out those connections and you get that buy-in, especially from the top down, it makes it relatively easier to start talking about ways that you can change systems to create different results.

When that happens, you're starting to see more representation at different levels. People are staying. That's what attracts people to the organization. How you're able to attract them is when they're seeing that there's equitable representation across the organization. It's reflective of the people that our organization is serving. They are going to realize that, “We have a chance here. We can potentially move into these leadership roles because there are people like us that are in these roles.”

That's how I think you attract underrepresented people and also having a strong brand. Not just saying things, but having things to back. Walking the walk as well, because we often say a lot of things as organizations, but there's no evidence of that. There's no representation or otherwise any action being done. Those two things attract people. You mentioned empowerment as well. what do you mean by empowering underrepresented people?

A lot of what we're talking about is equity essentially, and giving everyone equal opportunity to participate in the space, but then not everyone always feels comfortable. They have a seat at the table for the first time, but then maybe they don't know how to use their voice, or maybe that space isn't comfortable for them to use their voice.

How do you empower them to bring that diverse thought or idea into the space now that they have a seat at the table? They're invited to the party. How do they participate and empower them to use that diversity, whether it's racial or gender diversity, or whatever it might be? How do you empower them to use their voice in that inclusive space?

Without realizing it, you're talking about inclusion and belonging. Empowering people to feel safe is psychological safety where they feel like they can express themselves, take risks and innovate. In order to cultivate a culture of inclusion and belonging that people feel comfortable doing all this and offering their insights, it starts by understanding the organization as a whole and also making sure that there are accountability mechanisms in place. The area that I've heard constantly that stops this from happening is when the message doesn't go all the way from the top to the bottom. The area that always gets stuck that I've noticed in my experience is middle management.

Inclusion: To cultivate a culture of inclusion so that people feel comfortable, you need to start by understanding your organization as a whole.

If middle management doesn't understand the importance of cultivating this kind of culture, then it's not going to happen. A lot of the people at the bottom, especially employees entering the system, are not going to be able to feel that level of comfort to express themselves. A lot of it starts by 1) The data and making sure that organizationally you have the structures in place that aren't going to penalize people for being themselves and for expressing themselves or empowering. The other piece is making sure that leaders are also open to this, that they understand the importance that they're bought in as well. That way, they're leading meetings where they're allowing their direct reports comfortability to be able to express themselves and that they're fully involved in this process.

Even if you have all the structures, the data and everything in place, and you have the top leadership on board, if you don't have managers of people involved in this and understand how to run teams in a way that everyone's going to engage, where everyone's going to get the opportunity to be included, you can't start on belonging. It's important that we understand the difference between the two of these. Inclusion is about ensuring that you're giving people the opportunity to speak at the table. Belonging is, “How hard do people feel?” Those are two different things. It's an employee perception and you are making an effort as an organization to allow people to engage.

I love that differentiator because they are different things and they go hand in hand in my book because they play well together. It's nice to be invited to the party, but if I don't feel like I belong there, then it's a moot point.

Belonging is a more intimate form of inclusion.

Belonging is a more intimate form of inclusion.

Something else you said about that I love is that this is data-driven but people-centric. When we start looking at the data and using technology in this space, what kind of data points are you looking at? What systems are you pulling from to get that data quantitative or qualitatively?

That's something that comes up a lot when we talk to our clients and other organizations as well. It is, “We have a lot of information on these different systems. How do we consolidate this data and analyze it?” Every organization is a little bit different. Within our organization, we have a recruitment system that collects data. Primarily, a lot of our data diversity and demographic data goes into our HRIS or Human Resource Information System. We also have an LMS or a Learning Management System that collects data as well. We have a variety of different bodies and systems that collect information.

We're looking at how many underrepresented people are within our organization. We are looking at the overall makeup of employees within the organization. When I say underrepresented, I say that intentionally because 1) It focuses on where you're at in the world and 2) We're not trying to say that certain groups are marginalized or minorities. They might be a very large part of the population, but they're not represented in a specific industry or organization. When we talk about them, I'm referring to women, racial or ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and veterans. We look at all of that information, primarily which is being collected through our HRIS. We're looking at that not as a whole but also the breakdowns.

“Which areas? What does our administrative rules? What does that percentage look like? How many people, women, racial or ethnic minorities are these different groups? What does that look like for middle management? What does that look like for the executive space? We look at it across different leadership levels and states, then we figure out what the populations look like in those states. We're trying to figure out, “Where are our pain points? Are they in specific departments, levels or spaces?”

We look at our attrition reports to see which people are leaving the most. That helps paint a better picture overall. When we're looking at these attrition rates and exit interviews, what are people mostly saying? Who are we recruiting? Who are we giving the opportunity to be recruited? All of these numbers help you paint that holistic understanding of what is going on and where are the main issues.

I love that you guys are segmenting the data, not just looking at it as one lump sum. As more and more organizations are going to be geographically dispersed with work from home and different opportunities to not necessarily have to work in an office in a single location, that's segmenting some of that data from geographic to leadership levels and then also the exit interviews of like, “Who's leaving? Who's coming? Where are they coming from? What is the reason?” It's impressive the data you guys are using to make those human connections and have a holistic view of what the organizations are doing regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. That's impressive.

Otherwise, what we can get into is something that I call DE&I Data Storytelling. It's easy for us as organizations to paint our best numbers. Especially if we're thinking about the insurance industry, we have a large percentage of women in the workforce. We can easily bring up a strong presentation and say, “Seventy-five percent of our organization are women.” You break that down and you're like, “In that percentage of women, how many of those are administrative rules and executive rules?” That's where that story starts to reveal itself a little bit more.

It's so easy for big organization to paint their best numbers.

I think it goes beyond just checking the box and saying, “We did this study. We have the data. We're making plans. We check the box. Let's move on.”

It's more than a compliance approach to a growth mindset.

With that in mind, thinking about a growth mindset and bringing these communities, whether in person, online, digitally, and using that data, let's say an organization has the data they've dug in, they see where those pain points are. What are some of the challenges that they might have to overcome to implement some new initiatives to overcome those pain points?

The number one thing is making sure that everyone understands and is bought in. Not just at the highest levels, but across different departments, they understand that. Because depending on your organizational makeup, you may have communication silos. You may have departments that may or may not be interacting a lot with each other, and they're used to doing things a certain way. You want to make sure that everything is tied together because that's the one thing about the diversity department. Every department has its own function. Diversity hits everything. When you look at a comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion strategy plan, it hits every part of the organization.

It can get very overwhelming for some people, is one thing. The other thing is to make sure that everyone is involved and that they all understand that they have a part to play that it's not just a small diversity function of 2 or 3 people, or it's not a diversity council depending on what organizations have in place to do the diversity work. The burden should not all be on them to do it. Having the people power and resources to be able to accomplish something like this. You have to be realistic about it. I think sometimes, people are not very realistic about what can and can't be accomplished when we think about the resources allocated for these efforts, the bandwidth and the amount of people involved in this. Those are some of the initial challenges that people can have.

The second piece is making sure that people are engaged like employee resource groups don't run themselves and even when you have employees that are volunteering to take this on, you want to make sure that they're supported and that these ERGs all have a budget that they can use. It's thinking about some of the nuances when you are executing your strategy to make sure that you're being very realistic, you're measuring it, and that there are feedback loops and you're pivoting when you need to because it can be a great idea, but if it's producing the same kinds of results that realizing that you the humbleness to go back and realize you need to pivot. Those are things that can be set back initially for people.

BIDC 12 | Inclusion
Inclusion: Make sure that people are engaged. Employee resource groups don't run themselves. When you have volunteers who are supporting these ERGs, make sure there's a budget they can use.

When thinking about community and how it plays into DE&I initiatives and projects, it goes across the organization. We see that a lot when talking about communities. Community as a tool to address some DE&I pain points that might be happening in an organization. It's not a siloed thing. It's not one person pushing this out there and hoping that other departments are going to adapt to this new way, new thinking and being more inclusive. It takes a lot of people.

I love that you talk about the employee resource groups having to have the right resources because I've worked for a number of organizations in my past that said, “We have a pain point here. We need to address it. We're going to create these employee resource groups.” The next thing I know I have a Slack channel or a Facebook group to go to. I'm like, “That's great, but what am I supposed to do with this now?” The organizers are trying their best, but they're not enabled. Middle and upper management essentially just checked a box and moved on. It never went anywhere.

Those kinds of programs or initiatives always fizzle out. If you don't have someone that's managing it and you're not supporting it, inevitably, that's what's going to end up happening. It's going to fall apart.

It can't be a siloed type of outreach. It takes the whole village to have a very inclusive and productive community.

Something for us to think about, especially as 1) When we moved into this remote world, and now I think when we're starting to integrate into these hybrid environments where some people are working from home, some aren't. You have mixtures of teams and people. How do you make sure that you're connecting everyone when not everyone is in the same place? It's continuing to happen. It's things that we have to think about.

One final question. If there would be one main point you wanted to make about inclusive communities, whether that's how to approach them or what they should look like? If you had one piece of advice for someone wanting to step into this world, what would it be?

One piece of advice that I would want people to consider is that when you're thinking about inclusive communities and engaging people, think about the distance bias and how the environment we're in will impact everyone and realize there's a nuanced approach. Whenever you're thinking about anything about engaging people, consider how it's going to impact everyone. That's always going to give you a better understanding and provide you with insights on what tools you need to use, and what considerations you need to make because if you only consider yourself, or a few people that are close to your affinity group, you're not going to get the whole picture and you're not going to be able to include and make everyone feel like they belong.

That's a great place to land for our episode. I want to thank you for joining us. This has been such an incredible conversation with lots of great takeaways. The biggest one for me is taking the approach of data-driven but people-centric. So much of the world now is human-to-human connection. We've missed that from the last few years now that we're coming out of this pandemic. We have to stay diligent in our plans, thoughts and how we relate to each other in that human-to-human connection. How we can leverage technology and data to do that is leaps and bounds from where we were a few years ago.

Thank you much again for inviting me to this conversation. I love what you know is doing as well.

Thank you and safe travels on the rest of your ventures. Feel free to tune in for our next episode. Thank you, everyone, for joining us.

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About Aaisha Hamid

Aaisha Hamid is a global diversity professional with over seven years of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) program management experience in some of the largest and most financially successful legal and financial services firms in the nation, in academic institutions, and in community boards.

She currently serves as the Assistant Vice President and DE&I Manager at Alliant Insurance, a US-ranked top ten brokerage firm where she designed and helps execute the company's six-pillar diversity strategy, is the day-to-day DE&I contact, and acts as a thought leader for Alliant leadership. Her former roles as Global DE&I Plan Project Manager and Diversity & Inclusion Senior Coordinator allowed her to be a part of a law firm function that executes diversity efforts across 55 offices in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific.

She serves as the DE&I lead with her state United Nations Association board, is the author of two grant-funded books, and has traveled locally, nationally and internationally to speak about a wide range of DE&I-related topics