KU’s Destination Talent event explores the future of workplace inclusivity

The virtual event featured professionals from a variety of industries and backgrounds as they spoke about nuances of diversity, equity and inclusion.

From left, clockwise: Michael Gonzales, Tahir Atwater, Kayla Reed, Azani Fitten, Hoang-Anh Tran and Olivia Law-Delrosso

Through panels, presentations and professional development sessions, KU’s second annual Destination Talent event on April 29, 2021, tackled a variety of student, faculty and business professional topics including diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

According to Stuart Day, dean of the KU Edwards Campus and School of Professional Studies, Destination Talent “aligns closely to the KU Edwards Campus' value of having a diverse and inclusive environment for faculty, community members, and our students.”

The virtual event kicked off with a keynote panel on navigating the workplace as a person of color, comprised of professionals from across industries. The panelists discussed their experiences in the workplace, advice to recent graduates and the steps companies can take to be more inclusive.

Panel moderator Michael Gonzales is a diversity & inclusion consultant, co-founder of the Diversity & Inclusion Consortium, professor of D&I at Kansas University and the former leader of Hallmark’s corporate diversity & inclusion work.

Panelists included Tahir Atwater, director of donor and volunteer engagement at Jackson County CASA, Azani Fitten, recruiter at Polytainers, Olivia Law-DelRosso, assistant dean for diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging - College of Business Administration at Kansas State University, Kayla Reed, digital marketer at Burns & McDonnell and Hoang-Anh Tran, chief of staff – administrative pillar at UMB Financial Corporation.

Organizational benefits of DEI

For Kayla Reed, digital marketer at Burns & McDonnell, seeing people who looked like her within her organization was a turning point in embracing her identity.

“They're allies. They believe in the same thing that you do, and you're in it together,” she said. “It was really inspiring to even just be in a meeting and see all of the beautiful faces of those who look like me.”

Though DEI discussions typically connote race and ethnicity, other factors such as age and experience level contribute to the diversity of perspective and creativity in the workplace.

“It's good to remember those other people who have been in the workforce longer have an immense value to add,” said Azani Fitten, recruiter at Polytainers.

Research has proven that workplaces with generational diversity are often more profitable, innovative and resilient.

Even diversity of education and field of study can contribute to an organization’s success. For Hoang-Anh Tran, chief of staff – administrative pillar at UMB Financial Corporation, her master’s degree in poetry helped her think outside the box in the financial space.

“What some people saw as a lack of experience allowed me to bring new ideas into the work that I do,” said Tran. “I would say it has transformed my work and my career path tremendously.”

How companies can be more proactive

Companies must approach DEI with holistic strategy before the recruiting process even begins, says Tahir Atwater, director of donor and volunteer engagement at Jackson County CASA. Without a strategy, he said, you risk tokenizing the very people you send out to recruit on your behalf.

“There should be a shared language that that recruiter is bringing forth,” said Atwater. “So when that person does go through an interview or even gets hired, they're going to hear the same stories and same ideas.”

Furthermore, interviewers and recruiters who have genuine enthusiasm for and knowledge about DEI at an organization can go a long way toward making a good impression for prospective employees.

“If that recruiter is actually passionate and able to advocate for our values and commitments, it makes a whole bunch of difference for the person that they're interviewing,” said Tran.

The next step is ensuring that your company’s internal DEI strategy is communicated on the website or through social media so that candidates who do their research can access that information. For people of color or people in the LGBTQ community, one of the first places they look is your website, says Olivia Law-DelRosso, assistant dean for diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging - College of Business Administration at Kansas State University.

“Knowing that we have support from others within the organization goes a long way in the workplace,” added Reed.

She went on to say that organizations need to create safe spaces for employees by offering outlets, like diversity committee events or employee resource groups.

Importance of mentors

Whether you’re a new graduate or just new to the industry, having a mentor can offer indispensable guidance and perspective. These more experienced professionals often want to share their knowledge, putting new hires in the perfect position to receive mentorship.

When selecting a mentor, it can be particularly beneficial to choose someone who comes from a similar marginalized perspective.

“I do really think that it's important to find a mentor who identifies similarly, because our navigation of the workplace is quite different from somebody else,” said Law-DelRosso. She notes that having a mentor who can relate to your experience leads to more “open, authentic conversations” about professional challenges and occurrences.

However, as Tran pointed out, simply seeking someone who looks like you and works in the same field will not necessarily make for a good mentor/mentee relationship.

“Broaden your definition of identification and how you identify,” advised Tran. “Just because they look like you, doesn’t mean they necessarily echo your own passions, values and commitments.”

Mentees have knowledge to offer their mentors, too. Michael Gonzales, diversity & inclusion consultant, suggests employing “reverse mentoring” to share your background and perspectives with your mentor.

“As you're being mentored, make sure that you take the time to mentor the mentor and teach them a little bit more about who you are and what your community is all about,” said Gonzales.

Likewise, stay curious throughout the process. Ask questions, advises Fitten, because new hires have the flexibility to make mistakes and offer new ideas.

Advice for recent grads

Many of the keynote panelists emphasized the increasing importance of soft skills, like being a good communicator and relationship builder.

“Anyone can learn technical skills,” said Fitten. “Anyone can learn how to dribble a basketball, but you can't really teach them not to get in a fight when they're on the court. Work on your soft skills and the technical skills will follow.”

A deeper understanding of the cultural and behavioral differences between you and your colleagues will also facilitate more effective communication with others, says Law-DelRosso. Thinking about the integration of diversity within our various job duties helps us develop the soft skills to connect with people who identify differently.

Other panelist advice included cultivating your character and your emotional health, being able to advocate for yourself and your point of view, developing interesting talking points to relate to others, and continuing to work toward your ideal self.

Top photo: (From top-left, clockwise) Michael Gonzales, Tahir Atwater, Kayla Reed, Azani Fitten, Hoang-Anh Tran and Olivia Law-Delrosso

Stay in the know about events like this when you sign up for our newsletter.


cover of the Alumni Survey results

Get Insights from KU Graduates

Download this report filled with statistical and qualitative feedback from more than 500 alumni to help you decide if the KU Edwards Campus is right for you.

Cover to the Tips for a Successful Start PDF

Get started at the KU Edwards Campus

Download your guide for a successful start on your KU Edwards Campus undergraduate or graduate program, including information on financial aid, academic advising and more.

alumni report

Maximize Your Financial Aid

Download your guide for making the most of financial aid at KU Edwards Campus.

Cover to the The Adult Learner's Guide PDF

An Adult Learner’s Guide to Choosing the Right KC University

Helpful tips to choosing the right university in Kansas City.

Cover to the The Adult Learner's Guide PDF

Putting off your academic pursuits?

Download our eBook that addresses and debunks 7 of the biggest concerns adult learners have about returning to school.

Cover to the The Online Learner's guide

Find the right online program for you

Download your guide for tips and questions to ask when researching online learning options.