During this week's CFO Live virtual conference, the topics of diversity, inclusion, discrimination and representation within the finance role have been at the forefront. Tuesday afternoon, Steve Wolff, CFO of AllCell Technologies, led a panel discussion addressing the immediate importance of diversity in finance. Wolff asked panelists how their companies define diversity, how it can be prioritized, regardless of size or industry.
"We're a relatively small company, based on headcount, so diversity and inclusion is something we want to focus on, and get better at," Jabree Brooks, CFO of real estate private equity investment firm Six Peak Capital, said. "Diversity is getting together a group of people with different backgrounds, and supporting a creative environment for them."
Brooks said Six Peak focuses on providing affordable housing in the spaces it is creating, extending its commitment to diversity and inclusion outward into the products it provides. "We always want to understand what our target market is, and the individuals who live in the homes we’re building," he said. "It's something very important to us. When all the voices at the table are being heard and accounted for, that results in an increase in revenue, and better decision-making."
The CFO's role
"We all have to work at this; we're all a part of it," Alonso Ramos, CFO of Viscofan USA Operations, said. Ramos said the CFO can make a clear point that diversity is important both internally and externally.
"Not only does the company need to become a magnet to attract people, it also must retain people. That's where inclusion becomes paramount for companies; it can make a quite big financial impact," Ramos said.
For hiring practices, the panelists urged attendees not to reject someone who, at passing glance, may not fit in with the company's culture. But rather, encouraged attendees to think critically about their culture and what it stands for, and if it needs to evolve.
"The whole point of diversity is to constantly expand what our company culture is," Arjun Mahalingam, chief accounting officer of net lease REIT company W. P. Carey, said. "And minorities don't have a get out of jail free card for this. We all hold unconscious bias."
Internal growth should be paired with external progress, panelests said. "Having a diverse workforce gives us the insight and understanding of how to better serve our customers, and that impacts the top line," Ramos said.
Brooks believes Six Peak needs to focus on diversity within their partners, suppliers, customers and investors.
"As CFO of a smaller company, I definitely need to play a major role in [making] sure we have diverse vendors and suppliers on our job sites, and making sure we give companies owned by women and people of color an opportunity to be involved," Brooks said. "As we grow and scale, we want to continue diversifying. We want to open up the field to more suppliers, which will elevate us and make our products and services that much better."
Brooks said the the lifeline of Six Peak's business is bringing in investors to participate and invest in its projects. Expanding to work with people of color- and woman-owned private equity firms, he said, gives Six Peak "a leg up on the competition."
Anna Gomez, CFO of global advertising agency Leo Burnett Group, shared her larger corporate world perspective on the CFO's role in advancing diversity, particularly by holding her fellow executives accountable for making fair changes.
"In a large corporation, the CFO's job is to partner closely with executive leadership on diversity initiatives," Gomez said. "Everything is in our hands, in terms of money and budgets, and how we can make better progress. One of the big things, to me, is being a support and a partner to make sure these initiatives are carried out the way they should be."
Unconscious bias and self-initiative
In a Wednesday panel on women in financial leadership positions, panelists further delved into the idea of unconscious bias.
"You can't let someone's unconscious bias towards you determine your worth; if you start to internalize that, it can get in the way of your own career progression," Tiffany Harper, first deputy treasurer & chief of staff for the City of Chicago, said. "You have to be your own advocate, number one fan, and strategist, and move forward despite all of that."
Ann Anthony, CFO of energy storage company Key Capture Energy, shared her several memories of being the only woman on all-male finance teams throughout her career, and the ways in which she often felt unheard.
The key to initiating a discussion about diversity and gender parity in a company is to avoid being labeled as complaining, or centering yourself in the discussion, Anthony said. "Explain that this is a situation, and we need to overcome it for the greater good. It's not about me, it's about doing the best thing for the company," she said. "If it becomes a 'female issue,' people don't want to get involved. But as long as we remember to frame it positively, we can be successful."
Asked for examples of the positive benefits a strong diversity and inclusion focus can bring to an organization’s performance, Gomez mentioned a new initiative at Leo Burnett.
"In order to measure our diversity and inclusion impact, we’ve developed a program to empower people to develop specific communities," she said. "Each executive sponsors a group or community, such as the Black community or the over-50 community. Each person will actively engage that community, and make sure they're supported."
Ramos partners extensively with HR, which he recommends all CFOs take the time to do.
"Inclusion means creating opportunities," he said. "Things like, 'who do you bring to a meeting?' 'How do you recruit?' These are HR discussions," Ramos said.