Coursera employees reflect on the impact of diversity and inclusion efforts within our workplace and share some key learnings around culture and engagement.
The United States has been experiencing a transformation in the way people recognize diversity and inclusion. In recent years, many have prioritized engaging with and correcting the cultural barriers maintained across multiple areas of their daily lives.
Millennial and Gen Z workers—who make up a growing percentage of the workforce—increasingly look for a diverse and inclusive work environment with ethical leadership practices, according to a Gallup survey . In response, many companies, Coursera included, have aligned their cultural priorities accordingly.
Here, we’ll take a look at the path Coursera has taken to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive workplace and share our learnings so far. You’ll hear from our community members who are actively promoting the company’s progress, including leadership on our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team, Employee Resource Group (ERG) chairs, and departmental leads.
Every company is going to have different needs and priorities when it comes to promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. In sharing our learnings, our hope is to encourage others to begin, join, and continue these crucial conversations as we collectively move forward together.
In order to influence your workplace culture, it’s important to understand what the term means. Our DEI team likes Deloitte’s definition of workplace culture: the way work gets done. Alongside workplace culture, the team also considers engagement, defined as how people feel about the way work gets done .
“To me, that distinguishing factor is important because how they feel can tell you whether or not your work is resonating with folks, but it doesn't change it, per se,” says Jena Burgess, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “You have to understand why the culture is impacting engagement.”
In order to get where you’re going, it’s important to recognize where you are. “You have to build what makes sense for your organization,” says Burgess. Although the grounding principles of diversity and inclusion remain generally consistent, how you achieve your company goals will depend on your organization’s needs. “What varies from company to company is not so much methodology, but the business imperative and driving engagement factors,” she adds.
Coursera is a mission-driven organization guided by the key value, “Learn, change, grow.” These three ideas align nicely with the tenants of building a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture: a receptiveness to learning, willingness to implement those learnings, and a desire to move toward growth.
“DEI is a continuous improvement effort. You're always reevaluating what you're doing, paying attention to whose voices are included, and how you're solving problems,” Burgess says. “Just like with innovation: you wouldn't stop innovating if you came up with something great.”
To determine our place on the DEI journey, the DEI team conducts an analysis and, at times, impact assessments to reflect on current policies and workflows and their influence on employee experience and engagement. Some questions to consider include:
Have we developed an internal organization that's dedicated to diversity and inclusion?
Do we dedicate any resources?
Do we have a philosophy and approach?
Does it impact the way that we make decisions?
Do we talk about it externally in the way that we build programs, processes, and policy?
What does that mean for our larger footprint?
Coursera’s movement toward increased diversity and inclusivity benefited from the fact that we were already in our growth process before it became a dominant part of the cultural conversation. By the time we hit a cultural turning point in 2020, we already had some structures in place, like ERGs, that enabled us to process large-scale circumstances together.
However, the company recognized room for growth and, since then, has invested in building out the DEI team to nurture further development.
“My job is to make the concepts of DEI easily understood and globally accessible. Our team partners to create accountability, frameworks, processes, and programs that support us in building an inclusive, high-performing culture,” Burgess explains. The team takes a data-driven approach, using regular company pulse surveys in order to measure the state of Coursera’s culture and engagement.
Employee engagement is valuable in promoting a diverse and inclusive work culture because “it creates a platform for your voice,” Burgess says. At Coursera, ERGs were among the first organized efforts to improve diversity and inclusion at the company through employee engagement.
ERGs are employee-run organizations that enable people who align with a given identity or set of values to come together and share experiences, knowledge, wisdom, and resources with one another in order to better their experience in the workplace. At Coursera, the current roster of active ERGs includes:
Asian Identities (AI)
Black Opportunity, Leadership, Development (BOLD)
HOLA (centering the Latinx community)
Mental Health Allies
Even before the formation of the DEI team, ERGs offered a space for Courserians of similar backgrounds, experiences, and values to come together. Stephanie Hernandez, HOLA’s Retention and Engagement Lead, recalls sharing weekly lunches when she first joined the company, where she was able to talk about showing up authentically and explore what it means to be a Latina in tech. “It was a good sign of an investment in not only diversity, but an investment in people themselves,” she says. Now, as a lead, she’s able to pass that sense of belonging on to new community members.
ERGs provide more than just cultural benefits—they also create social opportunities. “It's definitely a highlight in my working week and working day and I think part of that is because I get to work with people who are excited about furthering women's goals and happiness in the workplace, which is great,” says Jade Wang, Women@Coursera chair. “It provides good exposure to a lot of people in the company that I wouldn't otherwise work with, which is especially valuable to me now that we're remote.”
ERGs at Coursera faced some logistical challenges during the global COVID-19 pandemic, however employees benefited from already having a process to bring people of similar identities together. This benefit was particularly pronounced within the Asian Identities (AI) ERG.
“We chartered the group in December 2020, which was prior to the awareness and awakening for the anti-Asian events, especially in the US,” recalls Cheri Kau, AI ERG chair. The initial aim was to foster conversations around identity and culture, however they couldn’t have anticipated the depth of the conversations they’d soon be facilitating. In response to the grave news stories, the ERG, together with the DEI team, initiated the first Brave Spaces conversations at Coursera, a space to talk openly and without judgment about the way current events were impacting people’s lives—including their lives at work.
“There were a lot of people following the news of the attacks who needed a safe, trusting space to say out loud, at work, that they weren't okay,” Kau says. “Rather than feeling like you have to go to your manager to ‘solve’ something, just being able to talk about it and be there for each other as peers. … It was a fantastic thing we could do for the company and to help people to start to process.”
As Coursera has continued investing in diversity and inclusion, the way ERGs operate has shifted. In their earliest forms, various ERG leads recall loose oversight, minimal administrative processes, and modest programming budgets and resources. As the DEI team made efforts to improve the ERG experience, oversight and administrative processes increased alongside budgets and resources.
“It felt like a lot of new requirements,” Eoin O’Hehir, Queersera chair, says of the shift. In O’Hehir’s case, it took some time for Queersera’s leadership to strike a balance between their demanding primary jobs and their ERG responsibilities. “The extra stuff on top of our day-to-day job, on top of a pandemic, when we were already doing a lot was a lot. I don't want to diminish how much effort that was.”
On the plus side, O’Hehir concedes, “there were people at the time who would support us in actually running the events, and we had a lot more budget to pay for things for Pride Month, which is actually super helpful.” Now, the group can afford to expand their event calendar well beyond Pride Month and throughout the year.
The employees who seem to feel the most empowered in their contributions to Coursera’s diversity and inclusion efforts are those who receive high-level support from their managers and executive sponsors. Support can mean escalating their concerns to changemakers, flexible scheduling policies to allow for time to work on their diversity and inclusion projects, or even incorporating their involvement in projects into their quarterly objectives and key results (OKRs).
“The reality is the people who set the measurements are our executive staff, and they need to build their approach to their organizations and into the business in a way that incorporates these efforts,” Burgess says. “A lot of the effort and passion comes from a bottom-up approach, but culture truly comes from the top.”
Without top leadership that recognizes diversity and inclusion as key business goals, it can be challenging to find the energy or the space to get the real work done. Fortunately, there are strong arguments that point to the value of building a diverse and inclusive workforce.
“If we at Coursera believe that the strongest teams are diverse and inclusive teams, it is actually my job to invest in building those,” says Nicole Premo, Director of Product Operations. She points to research from the Kellogg School of Management, which found that diverse teams report better outcomes than homogenous teams .
Premo considers the idea that diversity and inclusion efforts are in conflict with core business goals to be a false dichotomy. “Your targets, goals, OKRs, or whatever you call them can include—and, my perspective, should include—building diverse teams because of what we know about the boost to performance, the boost to outcomes, the boost to employee retention and longevity, the boost to belonging,” she offers. “There are real business impacts of including in your targets those outcomes or those goals.”
As a woman in a leadership position, Premo was approached by other women in the company who complimented the value she adds to her male-dominated field. She soon realized Coursera’s need for improved pathways for women in product.
She initiated conversations to start a Women of Product Accelerator two months into her tenure at Coursera. Her experience so far has been positive, finding collaborative support from the DEI team, a growing interest and openness from her male team members, and strong support from her manager, the Chief Product Officer.
Notably, her manager incorporated diverse and high-performing team-building into his quarterly OKRs, which trickle down to her responsibilities surrounding the Women of Product Accelerator launch. This way, her manager has a vested interest in the success of the program and Premo can seamlessly justify the time she spends building out the program.
Although Coursera now has a dedicated DEI team, no singular team owns diversity and inclusion at Coursera. Instead, there’s a strong sense of shared responsibility and productive collaboration across the organization. One example can be seen in BOLD ERG’s priority focus area, career promotion and retention for Black employees.
“We got a lot of support from HR Business Partners, we got support from the DEI team, and we were able to find outside speakers to come and talk to Black Courserians about ways to make yourself stand out and have conversations with your manager about promotion,” says Shantelle Williams, BOLD ERG chair. “And we got the support we needed in forms of budget and time from HRBPs to join meetings. Now, it's not done; we still have a lot of work to do, but I've seen willingness to help us.”
The willingness to collaborate seems grounded in the overarching focus on the bottom line: to nurture a welcoming work culture.
“At the end of the day, I just want my colleagues to feel good and feel psychologically safe and feel that their health is supported,” Alexandra Durbin, Mental Health ERG chair, says, “And so whether that means I'm leading it or someone else is, I don't really care, I just want it to happen.”
Courserians who have contributed to the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts do feel as though their efforts are yielding positive results—and they want to continue that growth trend. Dedicating more resources (notably time and humanpower) and expanding programs throughout Coursera’s global workforce were top-of-mind for many Courserians promoting diversity and inclusion.
“With the growth, there's challenges, and so I think that's where the iteration comes in and I’m hopeful that we'll stick with that iteration,” Durbin says, adding, “That's something that's always been a positive about Coursera is that we're not terribly precious about keeping things as they are. There's always an opportunity to change things or to pivot, so that leaves a nice openness.”
Learn more about incorporating diversity and inclusion practices in your workplace in Inclusive Leadership: The Power of Workplace Diversity from the University of Colorado on Coursera. Start learning today for free from anywhere with an internet connection.
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1. Gallup. “4 Things Gen Z and Millennials Expect From Their Workplace, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/336275/things-gen-millennials-expect-workplace.aspx.” Accessed May 20, 2022.
2. Deloitte. “Culture vs. employee engagement, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/human-capital/articles/culture-versus-employee-engagement-strategy.html.” Accessed May 20, 2022.
3. KelloggInsight. “Better Decisions Through Diversity, https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/better_decisions_through_diversity.” Accessed May 20, 2022.
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