Andrés Tapia: Elevating a Buzzword

Andrés Tapia, global leader in the diversity and inclusion space, is pushing for corporate America to make D&I about meeting business goals

Photo by Sheila Barabad.

The first time Andrés Tapia can remember hearing the phrase “diversity and inclusion” was 15 years ago, as he was developing his corporate career. He innately gravitated toward the concept, though he was uncertain if others would embrace it. He has since become the go-to expert for corporations on the ins and outs of D&I.

We all know that in corporate America, change has to come from the top. If those running the company don’t embrace an initiative and espouse its importance, progress will not be made. As it relates to diversity and inclusion (D&I), progress becomes trickier, because those who fall under the “diverse” umbrella are often relying on a population of people who don’t experience racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia to discuss the ways in which these populations can be attracted, retained, and promoted.

As Fortune magazine stated last year, “For all the diversity initiatives at major corporations these days, C-suites are overwhelmingly white.” Fortune reports that of all the Fortune 500 CEOs, only 23, or just over 4 percent, are minorities: a classification that includes African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos. Corporate boards have made more progress, but the numbers are still pretty dismal. According to a report from the Alliance for Board Diversity, white people make up 86.7 percent of total board seats, African Americans constitute 7.4 percent, and Hispanics/Latinos and Asians/Pacific Islanders form a measly 3.3 percent and 2.6 percent of board memberships, respectively. Considering this, on top of the fact that recent research from Catalyst—a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive workplaces for women—has found that diversity and inclusion initiatives primarily benefit white women, and a pretty bleak picture emerges.

Tapia, senior partner and global leader of the workforce performance, inclusion, and diversity practice at leadership and talent consultancy Korn Ferry, has become one of the most recognized voices in the diversity and inclusion space. He was chief diversity officer and emerging workforce solutions leader at Hewitt Associates, responsible for shaping and leading its internal diversity transformation and diversity consultancy; he is the author of The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity; and he is the former president of the think tank Diversity Best Practices.

With over 25 years of experience as a C-suite management consultant, diversity executive, and organizational development and training professional, Tapia knows how elusive real diversity and inclusion seems—that is to say, efforts that go beyond treating the topic as something that can be checked off of a to-do list, efforts that go beyond a couple of affinity groups or a CEO who simply pays lip service to attracting, retaining, and promoting people of color, LGBTQ people, and women while their workforce continues to look as homogeneous as ever.

The senior partner is Peruvian American. Growing up, he split his time between Peru with his parents and Washington with his grandparents. He had one foot firmly planted in each country, straddling two cultures, and as a young journalist, he touched on this intersection of identities in his stories. But journalism was restrictive.

“As writers, we’re limited. We don’t get to lead. I was a writer with leadership skills, and at the end of the day, I was more interested in influencing, mobilizing, and strategizing,” he says.

Once Tapia entered the diversity and inclusion space in an official capacity, first as cofounder of the Latino/Hispanic affinity group, then as a chief diversity officer at Hewitt, he took off like a rocket. His focus today is pushing for more and better, or what he calls “next-generation diversity.” Too many companies, for too long, have been resting on their laurels. Affinity groups are great, Tapia says—they’re where he got his start after all—but they’re not enough.

“Internal systems have codified exclusion. There are high-potential candidates who are diverse, they exist, but that’s not being reflected in companies. Affinity groups only scratch the surface; they’re like the scaffolding around a building, and the progress gets made inside the building,” the senior partner says.

So what does next-generation diversity look like? The short answer: intersectionality. A theory developed in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a professor and American scholar in the field of critical race theory, intersectionality is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression. This way of thinking about diversity and identity has been embraced by feminist communities as a way of addressing the multiple forms of oppression that women of color experience, for example, or LGBTQ women of color. As it turns out, this approach is in direct opposition to how corporate America has been viewing marginalized people.

“Diversity has been one-dimensional,” Tapia says. “We put people in these tidy boxes: Black. Gay. Female. But we’re more than one thing: we’re multidimensional. If one is gay and Latino, where do they go, which affinity group do they choose, LGBTQ or the one for Latinos? Do they have to pick one identity over another?”

“Unless we start addressing diversity in these very real, hard, business-centered ways, diversity and inclusion is going to continue to be little more than the theme of a company cocktail party.”

Tapia says there are pathways to understanding these complexities, routes that historically, affinity groups haven’t addressed. The key, he says, is giving people the ability to tell their own stories. Some of this can be done in affinity groups—that is a way in which affinity groups can be a part of next generation diversity. A Latino affinity group, for example, can address intersectionality by addressing and discussing how “Latino” has become a convenient umbrella term expected to encompass very different experiences of very different people. Besides different nationalities—Dominican is not Mexican is not Cuban is not Guatemalan—there are also the unique experiences of Afro-Latinos, LGBTQ Latinos, millennial Latinos, mixed-race Latinos, Spanish, English, and Spanglish-dominant Latinos, et cetera.

Tapia is often asked to speak at corporate or networking events, and to illustrate his point, he shares his story and also invites those in the audience to tell their stories as well. It’s an experience participants have characterized as “liberating.” Many marginalized people who enter the business world have to learn a set of skills that the default—white, straight men—don’t have to learn. One example is something called “code-switching,” which, according to NPR, is the act of subtly, reflexively changing the way you express yourself to adapt to a corporate environment. For marginalized people, there is a great deal of tension related to learning to navigate business environments when who you are and how you grew up is fundamentally different than who your colleagues are and how they grew up.

Another skill that isn’t learned so much as thrust upon people of color in corporate America is assimilation, which is the slow, painful process of losing your language and culture in order to adopt the language and culture of mainstream culture. When Tapia invites Latinos in particular to tell their stories, the hard truths about assimilation emerge. Things were obtained—C-suite positions, pay raises, promotions—but at what personal cost?

Needless to say, there has been pushback against Tapia’s approach. Many companies are just beginning to wrap their minds around the necessity of diversity in order to compete on an increasingly global stage, so asking them to now also consider things like intersectionality and the cultural erasure that is assimilation can feel like asking for too much.

Speaking of competing on a global stage, the other issue Tapia routinely runs into is CEOs wanting to get the business strategies of diversity from him without first understanding the whole picture.

“There is limited understanding that diversity initiatives absolutely need to be tied to business strategies. Having this rounded conversation proves to be a very powerful concept,” Tapia says. “It’s a good start when company leadership realizes, ‘We’re not diverse! Let’s be diverse! Let’s reflect the world!’ That’s great— that passion and excitement is needed—but in our approach with clients, the key question is always, how are you going to grow profitability?

“Through these talks, CEOs come to understand that many more of their business strategies than they realized can be accomplished by having a truly diverse workforce, especially because it enables them to reach new markets. So many CEOs are well intentioned when it comes to diversity, but they’ve truly missed the boat by only tangentially tying diversity to business. We must go beyond diversity just being a talent issue; it’s truly a business issue.”

Neglecting to tie business and diversity together, or “not grounding diversity in a real way,” renders most initiatives superficial and, eventually, useless. When a CEO says, “Diversity is vital to our organization,” that’s great, but what will it look like put into action?

So much of how Latinos operate (Tapia is careful to rely on archetypes, not stereotypes)—being communal, being expressive, being celebratory—counters the default norms of corporate America, which is to say, white, professional culture. What has been happening for years is now is that these differences are being minimized, rather than embraced. These differences are not right or wrong; they simply are—and they are differences that can greatly benefit the business goals of every company.

“Unless we start addressing diversity in these very real, hard, business-centered ways, diversity and inclusion is going to continue to be little more than the theme of a company cocktail party,” Tapia says. “Don’t just say you’re a champion of diversity. You need cross-cultural agility. You need to be honest with yourself and have the self-awareness to understand that the system in place is actually averse to attracting diverse people. It’s really just time to change the system.”