Intro Karen Blog

We Must Link Arms: DEI&B and What Comes Next with Karen Jones

We Must Link Arms: DEI&B and What Comes Next

In conversation with Karen Jones, DEI&B Expert and VP of Learning and Partner Solutions, NextUp

Karen Jones came to NextUp with 25 years of experience and endless testimonials to her insight and grace. She was a DEI&B expert before ‘diversity’ was a buzzword – before many companies cared what the world thought about, for example, how many women and people of color sat on their boards.

Karen now leads NextUp’s Learning and Development team, and personally leads dozens of DEI&B workshops every year with Fortune 500 companies throughout North America. In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss the searingly honest conversations she has led inside some of the largest corporations in the world, the work we all still must do to reach equity, and what’s on the horizon in the DEI&B conversation. 


Angie: Let’s start by talking about what led you here. What prompted you to want to come to work with NextUp? 

Karen: I was in pursuit of something mission-oriented. Honestly, I have been in the corporate sector for more than 25 years. This is my first stretch in the nonprofit world. And I can tell you, from my own personal lived experience, and that of innumerable women like me that I’ve worked with and known, that the corporate sector is highly challenging for a woman of color. It adds another level of depth to the challenges women face. 

So when I met with my friend and former colleague Karianne [Former NextUp head of Learning and Development], and I heard her talk about the vision of NextUp and the strategic emphasis on advancing all women, that was highly appealing to me. 

It’s what I’ve been passionate about all along. And now I found a place to realize that passion. 

Angie: Have you always done DEI&B work in your career? We all know that the subject hasn’t always been a priority in the last 20 years for all corporations. 

Karen: Yes, I have. I was the Vice President of talent management for Ulta beauty, and my role was to advise the CEO and the C-level team on all things talent and succession management, but I was also responsible for driving their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategy. 

Prior to that, I was Global Head of Talent Management for Havi and I was responsible for, for DEI&B there as well, which gave me a good grounding on the difference of how people see inclusion across the world. All the way back to my roots, I was in the outplacement side, helping people as a career coach for senior executives who had been downsized. I pride myself greatly in being a person that people can trust to be authentic and to say the things that need to be said and have the conversations that need to be had so that real change can happen in their organization.  

I’m pretty astute at listening to people and what they need and want, and then trying to work with them to create a plan by which they can realize that vision. That might be an individual person’s vision for their career, a large corporation’s vision for their future, or just creating a strategic plan.  

If you were to ask me “What’s your superpower?” I would say that it’s being able to listen to people and interpret their vision, the dreams they have for themselves, and build a roadmap for them or their company to get there. To be trusted as adviser, to keep confidences, and allow the people I work with to show their true, authentic self in service to their goals and vision. 

People are assessing what’s going to fill their cup. COVID did that to all of us.  

Angie: So how did you get involved in this space initially? 

Karen: I was working for American Express before I went from Operations Leadership to the HR space I operate in now. My boss, who I love to this day, came to me and she said, “you don’t really do you love sales, do you?” I hemmed and hawed. She said, “You know why? Cause you’re really not good at it.” [Laughs]. She said, “But I know what you are really great at.” Which was essentially everything I do today, and here I am. 

In my last year with American Express, I actually created a proposal to downsize my position. Because the senior executives had done such a great job. 

Angie: That is a bold play.  

Karen: I didn’t know if they would take me up on it, but I had just had my daughter, and the organization was doing great. And it took a while, but they took me up on it. It gave me this great severance package and that was how I ended up leaving American Express. That’s where I cut my teeth on employee engagement and employee satisfaction, understanding the origins of change management and how to get people through transitions. 

I’m so happy that I found this whole world of trying to help people to be the best iteration of themselves, and to see them realize the vision that they have for their career. That is what I live to do. 

Angie: Having worked with you, I know that who you are as a human being is just someone who wants to see people succeed. 

Karen: I really do. I want to see people succeed particularly now. My new passion is for the young people that are coming for the next generation. It’s my heart’s joy to watch [Kristin Lee, NextUp Virtual Learning Manager] and [Kat Ortiz, NextUp Learning and Development Program Manager] soar and to enable their success and to have them advise me on how I can evolve myself to be responsive to this new market.  

And what we’re seeing in the job market is unprecedented. People are assessing what’s going to fill their cup. COVID did that to all of us.  

We’re all going to succeed or fail together at creating inclusion, equity, and a sense of belonging, societally and in corporations.

Angie: With that in mind, knowing how much the market has changed and continues to rapidly evolve, what do you think makes NextUp’s approach to supporting women with DEI&B education unique? 

Karen: I firmly believe that the level of our discourse is distinctive. Many other organizations take on similar topics – like unconscious bias for example, or understanding the history of this country and how it contributes to the way our society functions today. But our workshops take it to a level where we can ask everyone present to see themselves within the context of our curriculum. And then it asks for a call to action from everyone.  

Contrast that to most other workshops from other organizations. They may have good information, but you don’t really see yourself in it. At NextUp, we want everyone to see that they have a role in moving us forward to a bright future. So that’s what I like about our path.

Angie:  So it’s actionable. And also allows you to really embed yourself in the narrative wherever you may fit in that conversation.  

Karen: Absolutely. Because we don’t stand on the premise that anyone is just a horrible person for having bias, or not knowing they have privilege. 

For those of us who are born, raised, and educated in the US, bias against marginalized groups is a huge part of our shared history.  That is a sobering truth.  I do feel, however, that all people of all races must “link arms” and work together toward a brighter future.  We’re all going to succeed or fail together at creating inclusion, equity, and a sense of belonging, societally and in corporations. 

Angie: I think that dovetails nicely into my next question. Knowing the sheer number of workshops that you have hosted at this point, what kind of reactions that you’ve gotten to some of these difficult conversations? 

Karen: Oh, I recently took a count and realized I facilitated over 57 workshops last year on our behalf. 57, and there are clear themes. One, it’s sad how little we understand about how we got here as a society. There’s a lot of misinformation about our historical past, and about how pervasive inequity truly is.  

Let me give you a specific example. When we talk about this notion of the founding of the United States democracy, many people don’t realize that most of the founders owned other people. Pervasively. And that there is this great dichotomy in the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,” being said by people who actually owned human souls. But we don’t realize that so overtly because of the way the education system approached these topics when we were young. 

The other theme is that, when we talk about this notion of how women of color particularly engage within the corporate workforce, there’s this catharsis that happens when people hear our workshops. And what I mean by that is I have literally seen women start to cry. When they go through our ‘Transform: Removing Barriers for Women of Color’ workshop, the tears come from a place of, “I thought this was just me.” And I see that this is the story of the journey of many women of color as they navigate corporate America. 

Angie: That’s encouraging and heartbreaking, I suppose. It’s good to know that these opportunities are bringing them the chance to connect and see that they’re having an experience that many other women of color have gone through, but of course terrible that so many have. 

Karen: Absolutely. I’ve talked to so many women of color who have gone through our workshops and they say there was a relief to know that “it’s not just me.” Because oftentimes, sadly, in tandem with the notion of feeling like you’re having this experience, you’re made to believe that something is deficient about you too. 

All of that, I feel it is in our DEI&B workshop series, as well as ‘Transform.’ There’s a uniqueness in that again. It’s a way for everybody to be able to see their role in the solution as we go through this work. All of our workshops have a clear action orientation. And I love that, because we can ready an organization for change. 

The workplaces that are going to become more appealing are those that do create a sense of belonging and are values-based.  

Angie: So, on the topic of change, let’s shift a little bit. What’s in the air right now in DEI&B? What’s bubbling up in the DEI&B education community and the wider conversation about women going back to work?  

Karen: Gosh right now, it’s that. It’s how we re-engage women, or what the engagement of women in the workforce is going to look like moving forward. And I have to say, the reality is that we’re never going to fully go back to the way we were before COVID-19 hit. It caused people to self-reflect about what would be meaningful to them when it comes to work. It caused people to become intolerant to mistreatment. We must ensure that we do not try to bring people back to into the traditional forms of work, which clearly weren’t serving all women. 

The workplaces that are going to become more appealing are those that do create a sense of belonging and are values-based.  

As we talk about our approach and what we can do for our partner companies, we can help you through leadership development, as well as through understanding more about inclusion and getting those values in place. Building a principle-centered workplace creates high engagement. 

The glacial pace of change must accelerate.

Angie: Absolutely. Anything else that just jumps to mind that’s a growing trend? 

Karen: I can tell you, the biggest thing from talking to other DEI and our practitioners is what I see as a healthy restlessness and a healthy impatience. Prior to the murder of George Floyd, I feel like the DEI&B conversation was more methodical, more “We’ll get there eventually.” Now, people are tired of waiting. 

So the glacial pace of change must accelerate. We have to have equity and inclusion. So what’s stopping us? Nothing. We’re hearing from employees that it’s time to make equity happen, or that employees have options outside of the corporate sector. They’re more willing than ever to just go start their own company or do something else if they can’t be fulfilled inside their organization. 

My prediction is that those organizations who don’t evolve over time to meet their employees needs and deliver equity will see themselves with less and less employee engagement – and failure, honestly. 

Angie: On the heels of the many employee walkouts that have happened over the last couple of years, as well as the ‘Great Resignation,’ it seems that people are really losing patience with corporate culture and are less tolerant than ever for behavior they feel violates their values. Do you think there’s a likelihood that that’s going to get more intense? 

Karen: I think it’s highly probable, and I believe we’ll see it crescendo over the course of the next five years. For those people who have been working from home for the last two years and are being summoned back to their workplace for five days in a row, they’re counting all their chips and trying to figure out their next move.  

The old way of just working all the time, living to work, that’s over. Who wants to keel over dead in front of their desk? It’s driving innovation to have people work offsite, to crowdsource – and I’m old [Laughs]. But I can’t wait to work for millennials and gen Z. I feel like you all are leading the way to where we should be. It’s creating more opportunity for us and new ideas, and it’s creating a brighter future for everyone. 


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