Inclusion, diversity help build stronger companies, says Cargill official

The leader of diversity efforts for one of the world’s largest food and agriculture companies told Kansas State University students on March 3 that differences in the workplace can help businesses better serve their communities.

Demetha Sanders spoke for nearly an hour on diversity in the workplace as part of the lecture series, Growing Your Mindset, hosted annually by K-State’s chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences.

Sanders is the global head of inclusion and talent management for Cargill, Inc., which has nearly 160,000 employees in 70 countries.

Diversity, she said, “is all about perspectives, right? If you have different perspectives, you can build better products, you can build better tools, you can better support the communities you’re in.”

“If you don’t have that perspective in the organization then you have a bigger blind spot than some of the others.”

The business world is full of examples in which companies put themselves in compromising situations because they failed to embrace inclusion, she said. Recently, a national bookseller planned a Black History Month celebration to include modified covers of popular books. The company came up with an idea to darken the faces of the people on the covers.

The promotion was stopped just short of full implementation when the company’s plans were made public ahead of time.

In another instance, an international coffee chain came under fire after two African American men were arrested without cause in one of its U.S. stores. It has since led to sensitivity training throughout the entire company.

“These are the kinds of things that happen when you don’t have diversity in the organization,” Sanders said. “Think about the people that try to fix all the things that happen, rather than doing the right thing in the first place. If you had just one person at the table that says, ‘No, you shouldn’t do that,’ those companies could have saved themselves a lot of energy.”

Raymond Thomas, a member of the K-State MANRRS organization and a senior master’s student in agricultural economics, said talks like the one Sanders gave “are really important.”

“This topic is relevant because often times we are told that the world and the state of our (cultural) environment has improved over the years,” he said. “I do think that is true, but just because it has improved, it doesn’t mean that improvement has to stop. You’d be surprised at how many instances a lack of diversity or lack of understanding of different cultures are relevant today.”

Thomas told his own story of how he had attended a historically black college as an undergraduate before coming to K-State. “Every environment I step into, I have the same sort of concern or worry: Will I be accepted and will I be able to perform?”

“It’s a feeling that because you aren’t the norm or because you don’t look like the average that you don’t have a place here. Steadily, as events like this and conversations like these continue to happen, I think we are finding less and less that the newer generations are feeling that. That’s important. That mindset is being diluted over time, and I think we’re heading in that direction rather quickly.”

Sanders said her message to college students is important because they are at a point in their lives where they will make important career choices.

“You have to think about the companies you are going to go work for,” she said. “If you’re looking at an organization that doesn’t have diversity, is that really where you want to go? Do you want to be the person that makes it diverse or do you want it to be diverse when you get there?”

“You want to make choices for companies that represent who you want to be and represent things you’re interested in.”

Sanders said that even a company like Cargill, which actively promotes inclusion in the workplace, “has a ways to go to be as diverse as we should be.”

The company has launched a program called Paradigm for Parity in which it aims to count 50 percent women and 20 percent minorities in its company by the year 2030.

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“I like to say that diversity is a fact, and inclusion is an act,” Sanders said. “For Cargill, it’s how do you start to think about all of the pieces of the pie that really make it a better place for everyone to come? You don’t fix diversity through recruitment; having qualified people is still the most important thing to us as an organization. We know that we have to create the practices in-house so that everyone can succeed.”

In addition to MANRRS, this year’s Growing Your Mindset lecture was co-sponsored by K-State’s Student Ag Council and Ag Ambassadors.