Understand your organization’s goals and objectives. Equally important, know how they align with and contribute to a more just society. Make the connections to how D&I can help you actualize your business objectives. Diversity has an impact and is proven to drive employee engagement, innovation and profitability — all of which have very real bottom-line impacts. For us, inclusion is not only the right thing to do, it’s also a business imperative.
Aspart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Karina DeLaCruz.
As vice president of Community for CSAA Insurance Group, Karina leads Employee Communication; Corporate Change Management; Inclusion & Belonging; Corporate Responsibility; Community Relations; Meeting, Events & Travel; and Knowledge Management. She and her teams are responsible for shaping company culture and driving an inclusive community throughout the organization.
Since joining CSAA Insurance Group in 2003, Karina has nurtured her passion for growing company culture through a series of HR roles with escalating responsibilities, including senior HR manager, HR strategic business partner, and Culture & Inclusion executive.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I’m an only child of Puerto Rican parents. My father was in the US Air Force, so I spent my first 10 years as a military brat, traveling across the world and living in places like Izmir, Turkey. But when my parents divorced when I was 10, my mother and I moved to Sacramento. As a single mom, she struggled to make ends meet and was rarely around, so I had to grow up fast. I learned early on the importance of a strong work ethic, and I became extremely independent.
I started working at a friend’s dog-grooming salon when I was 11 so that I could earn money for school clothes and other necessities. I continued to work odd jobs until high school, when I joined a Regional Occupational Program (ROP). We could study a job trade in the classroom and then do internships to get on-the-job experience. I signed up to learn about computers because that seemed to be where everything was going at the time (I’m dating myself now — I’m a Gen Xer and grew up at the start of the computer age). I interned for a local Allstate insurance agent, which was my first exposure to the business world. While my classmates were involved in sports or other after-school curricular activities, I would go to school Monday through Friday dressed in my business-casual attire, attend class from 8:30 to 11:30, and then work from 12:30 to 5:00.
Ultimately, my sacrifices and hard work paid off. I was hired on full time during the summer months and ultimately was promoted to office manager. At the age of 16, I had an office assistant working for me and was responsible for the day-to-day operations, which included reconciling our daily cash payments and handling bank deposits. I appreciated being entrusted with such important responsibilities and experienced firsthand how hard work can pay off. This sparked a drive in me that continues today.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
At the recommendation of a colleague, I’m currently reading My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem. It’s a fascinating and very enlightening look at racism and systematic inequity from the perspective of how our bodies hold experiences and physically manifest trauma.
It’s a very specific lens that I think represents an evolution in how we’re thinking about racism. The book centers primarily on the Black experience, from an embodied standpoint, but I appreciate that it’s bringing up questions and thoughts about my own experience as a Latin woman — different from mine, but with threads that run through many people’s experiences. I appreciate anything that compels me to step away from my day-to-day, pause and self-reflect.
I’m still reading, but it’s helping shine a light on different perspectives and the intersections we’re seeing with mental and physical well-being.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I do: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It has a lot of meaning for me. I’ve never been the type of person to rely on someone else to solve a problem. I have always felt that I shouldn’t ask anyone to do anything I haven’t done myself. I believe we should all model the behavior we’d like to see — and if that inspires others, that’s great, but that shouldn’t be your motivation.
I also love “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eisley:
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking up and gently throwing things into the ocean.
Approaching the boy he asked: “Young man, what are you doing?”
The boy replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
The man laughed to himself and said, “Do you realize there are miles of miles of beach and hundreds of starfish?” “You can’t make a difference.”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, then smiling at the man, he said; “I made a difference to that one.”
With all that has transpired recently, and all the change we know that’s required to truly have an equitable society, it can feel overwhelming, and the path forward can be daunting. There are many things we can’t control, and I try to focus on those things that are within my sphere of influence and start to move toward them in action. When I find myself in that space, I remember the starfish story and try my best to make a difference where I can individually or at a systemic level.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I’m proud to work with a group of amazing and talented leaders who are experts in their fields. I try to have a flexible definition of leadership and allow their needs to inform my approach and show me the path forward.
My role is to help my team understand our company’s goals and objectives, provide them with high-level direction that aligns with our company strategy, and then give them the resources and authority to do their magic. I’m there to support them and ensure they have what they need to succeed, including resources, tools, and guidance, as needed — and then get out of their way.
I believe that to be an effective leader, you need to invest in getting to know your team members — both personally and professionally. I have a very diverse team, not only in representation but also in their needs. For example, I have a direct report on my team that will reach out to me multiple times a day to check in or just connect, and others I speak with only once a week during our regularly scheduled one-on-one check-ins. It’s about knowing what your people need and adjusting your style to meet them where they are. You can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. You have to tailor your approach based on the person, circumstances and situation.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m always on the go. I usually have three or four things going on at once. When I get anxious before a big meeting or presentation, I try to take a few minutes beforehand to find my center. I find a quiet place where I can try to remove all the noise (both outside and in my head) and just take two or three minutes to concentrate on my breathing. It helps me calm my nerves, quiet that inner critic that can creep in from time to time, and feel more focused.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Racial injustice and inequity is nothing new — as a society, we have a long history of systemic division and exclusion. And there has also been a long line of brave and heroic people who have raised their voices against such unjust and hateful practices.
The recent and obvious disparities in how the pandemic is affecting black and brown communities — both from a health and a financial perspective — started to shine a spotlight on the systemic racism that exists in our county. And then the George Floyd killing happened, shortly on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing … and I think we’ve just reached a tipping point when the voices that will no longer stand for such discrimination have grown beyond the flawed systems that perpetuate it.
But this is only the beginning of a long path toward making things right and correcting the racial disparities in our communities. While we have made progress, there is significant work to be done to achieve equity and justice. I believe that we all need to take an honest look at our own biases, as well as the inequitable systems, policies and practices that we participate in sustaining.
As our CEO, Tom Troy, said in a recent LinkedIn blog post: “By facing the discomforts around race and racial inequity, we may be in a better position to make changes in our own lives and affect social change in the world around us… [we] are committed to supporting and advancing equity in our organization and in our communities. We are all committed to make a positive difference.”
I feel fortunate to be part of a company that continuously commits to challenging itself to change. Our focus on inclusion and belonging is important to me personally and to the short- and long-term success of our company.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
Coming from an HR background, my experience was already aligned with D&I work. However, it required a shift in my thinking. A lot of HR work is about mitigating risk; the D&I space is often concerned with topics that were considered taboo not very long ago, such as race and religion. Taking a stance as a company was uncomfortable.
However, today more and more employees and customers are expecting companies to take a public stand on social causes. We all have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and having difficult conversations. I’ve had to lean into it, both personally and professionally.
At its core, D&I work is about doing the right thing — for employees, business, and society overall. Consumers are demanding that organizations play a larger role in society as a whole, so we have to consider our responsibility to meet that expectation. And that responsibility will continue to evolve, and we must evolve with it.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
A company’s executive team is often the first people that employees and the public see, and they can signal an organization’s values to the greater community. We’ve known for a while now that focusing on inclusion and belonging has bottom-line impacts, and representation on the executive team is important. If diversity matters, it has to matter everywhere. Research by McKinsey & Company has shown:
- Companies with leadership in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns above their industry median.
- Companies with leadership in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry median.
We have challenges, and we know we have work to do. There isn’t a perfect formula — we continue to try different ways to ensure racial equity. We are diligently working on that by analyzing where the gaps are and creating a plan where we address the entire system and not just disparate parts. Looking at our talent pipeline, both internally and externally, has become a really important component in addressing the representation gap — and something that needs to be done across the insurance industry as a whole. Any time we have an opening, it’s an opportunity to affect change. We continue to challenge ourselves to rise to the occasion.
This year, we reached a milestone in our diversity and inclusion journey: We reached parity for people of color for management and above positions. While we are celebrating this success, we also know that we have work to do in increasing the representation of Black and LatinX employees in management and above positions. We were able to get to this point by engaging in race-explicit dialogue and analysis that allowed us to understand and name that Black and LatinX in our organization were having a different experience than their Asian and white counterparts. It’s important to look at systems from the perspective of various identities. Our approach in this space continues to evolve, and we’re moving toward creating more equitable systems.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Understand your organization’s goals and objectives. Equally important, know how they align with and contribute to a more just society. Make the connections to how D&I can help you actualize your business objectives. Diversity has an impact and is proven to drive employee engagement, innovation and profitability — all of which have very real bottom-line impacts. For us, inclusion is not only the right thing to do, it’s also a business imperative.
- Get senior leadership support, starting with the CEO. Commitment from them is necessary if you hope to evolve your D&I effort to become core operating principles that shape and help dictate everything your organization does. Embed your D&I success as part of your executives’ success, so they can lead by example. In my time with CSAA Insurance Group, I’ve had the privilege and benefit of working with two CEOs who understand the value of D&I, and who have committed to affecting change in our organization. It’s an ongoing commitment. On his second day, our CEO, Tom Troy — who joined the company last year — committed to a half day to our Executive Diversity Council meeting. Your executives’ actions set the tone for the rest of the organization.
- Set clear and measurable objectives and communicate them broadly. Make sure your leadership and employees go along with you on your D&I journey. You company is the sum of its parts, and every person is learning and growing. I’ve been with CSAA Insurance Group for 17 years, and I’ve witnessed my own growth as well as the company’s. We’ve matured significantly, as evidenced in the expansion of policies, practices and benefits that reflect what we’ve learned throughout our journey — and it’s never over.
- Hold yourself accountable. When establishing your objectives, be transparent and honest about where your organization is on the journey and about the work you need to do. We all have challenges that need to be faced. They require authentic — and sometimes difficult — conversations about what you want to achieve and how to go about it. We all need to get comfortable having difficult conversations.
- Engage at all levels across the organization. In order to truly embed D&I in a company culture, you have to create opportunities for engagement, such as employee resource groups and diversity councils. D&I has to be engrained as a key area of focus so that it becomes prioritized as part everyone’s work and connected to success. Partnering with other parts of the company is key to establishing and accomplishing objectives. In cultivating these relationships, leverage steps 1–4 above, and then continue to support them along the way via access to resources and counsel.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I have a lot of hope for the future. I’m encouraged by all the people who are standing up for equality and denouncing systemic racism. I’m encouraged that we are having open conversations about historic racism and by the depth of the conversations. We aren’t just talking about representation — we’re talking about racism as a systemic issue.
I’m also encouraged when I look into the faces of my children, who at 12 and 14, know kids who identify as nonbinary and truly don’t understand why we as a society are so fixated on the color of people’s skin. Last year, I was having a conversation with my then 13-year-old son. He was telling me about a friend of his who was dating someone. Because his friend is a girl, I immediately asked my son what her boyfriend’s name was. He corrected me as if it were nothing and told me that her partner identified as nonbinary.
I’m hopeful that they’re a sign of the progress we’re making, and that we’ll get beyond the challenges we’re facing today.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
At this moment, I would have to say Michelle Obama. As our first black First Lady, she was under a significant amount of pressure. Pressure to support her husband, pressure to be the best First Lady she could be, pressure to represent her community in a positive light, pressure to be the best parent she could be — and all under the biggest spotlight in the world.
I felt she handled herself with grace, and I love several of her quotes: “When they go low, we go high” and “Failure is a feeling first before it’s an action.”I appreciated her ability to hold that office and to do so in her own authentic way. She had to find her own voice and not allow the pressures of her position to change her values and beliefs.
In her book Becoming, I related to her story about self-doubt and having an inner critic, and not always being accepted by your own community. For her it was being told she was talking like a white girl; for me, being born and raised in the United States, I was never Puerto Rican enough for my PR family and friends (they often joked that I didn’t get them and that I was Americanized). Despite that, she persevered and found herself.
I think we should all strive to feel proud of the person we see looking back at us in the mirror.
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