Leveraging a Data-Driven Approach for DE&I

A Conversation with Janessa Cox-Irvin of AllianceBernstein

In the next episode of our SIFMA DE&I Podcast series, SIFMA’s EVP and Head of DE&I Cheryl Crispen sits down with AllianceBernstein Global Head of D&I, Janessa Cox-Irvin, as they discuss how the firm has defined and tracked success of its diversity strategy by instituting a listening tour coupled with a data-driven approach.

They spotlight how others in the financial services industry can sustain their efforts by ensuring the groundwork is laid, clearly communicating how they define DE&I and adapting as necessary on this ongoing journey. They explore opportunities for ways to be more expansive in how DE&I is measured including a focus on neurodiversity and socioeconomic status.

For more information on fostering and expanding workforce, client, and supplier diversity equity and inclusion, please visit www.sifma.org/diversity.



Edited for clarity

Cheryl Crispen: Thanks for joining us for the latest episode in SIFMA’s DEI podcast series. I’m Cheryl Crispen, Executive Vice President and Head of DEI at SIFMA. Today I’m speaking with Janessa Cox-Irvin, Global Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Corporate Citizenship at AllianceBernstein. We’ll talk about the firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and its efforts to recruit and retain diverse colleagues in the financial services industry. Welcome Janessa, thanks so much for joining us.

Janessa Cox-Irvin: Hi, Cheryl. Thanks so much for having me.

Cheryl Crispen: Before we dive into our discussion, could you just share a little with us and the audience about your career path as well as how you got involved in the DE&I space?

Janessa Cox-Irvin: I didn’t know that I saw myself here. My goal was to be a lawyer, I always thought I’d be a lawyer. My entire family thought I’d be a lawyer. It comes from an early story of a young Janessa in the fifth grade. The day before graduation and the day before my valedictorian speech in fifth grade, our teachers went on strike. I remember this story now and I think about how it informed who I am as a person, leader, and professional. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these teachers are on strike,’ finding out what a strike really was and asking why and being told that they weren’t getting paid fairly.

I was outraged- young Janessa was outraged. I decided to join the picket line with my teachers who I thought deserved to be paid more the day before graduation and the day before a big speech. I lost my voice, so I gave my speech with a very hoarse voice the next day and my principal says to me, I think you’re a lawyer in the making. And I didn’t know what that meant. As I went through school and my career, I realized what really was important to me was advocacy. I think that’s what my teachers saw in the young me at that time, my willingness to just advocate for whatever I thought was right. At the time, it was supporting my teachers on the picket line.

I went to school and I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I started taking political science courses and realized I don’t know that I love this as much as I thought that I would, but it helped me to really think deeply about what it is that I did love. For me, it was about finding this career that’s this perfect marriage of two things that I really loved- people and advocacy work. I started my career early on at Deutsche Bank and I worked in the talent development space for some time and then moved over to the recruiting space. I was recruiting specifically campus students. I recognized I wasn’t seeing a lot of students who looked like me, so I raised my hand to my manager and said I think I could actually do something really interesting here and really kick off what we then call just this diversity recruiting effort, and they let me do that. They gave me some resources and sent me on my way.

I started recruiting at a lot of our HBCUs and targeting our focus on diverse talent. From there, I realized recruiting folks was just step one. Getting them to stay, and having them create some stickiness and some affinity to the organization was where I really wanted to focus my time. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I joined AB about eight years ago and we’ve spent a tremendous time doing exactly that: creating that stickiness, creating an affinity to the organization, and encouraging all of our employees, but of course, specifically our diverse employees to want to stay here.

Cheryl Crispen: Thank you so much. That’s really interesting and such a great vision into your DE&I journey, and I think will be relevant to some of our listeners, so thanks for sharing that. You sort of touched a little bit on the importance of not only recruiting, but culture, and creating an environment where folks feel comfortable. So I wanted to just maybe segue into when Alliance Bernstein really started to form your diversity strategy. How did you start to develop that plan? And once you established your DE&I strategy, how did you define success and sort of track and keep it moving forward?

Janessa Cox-Irvin: When I started at AB, it was evident to me that everything that we had done at my previous firm was not going to be sort of a plug-and-play into my current firm. It was important for me to understand the culture and where the firm was on our D&I journey. That started with a good old listening tour, this idea of letting me just get as many voices in the room as possible. I didn’t just want to hear from senior leaders. I wanted to hear from folks who were running ERGs. I wanted to hear from folks who were on the ground with this work. After the listening tour, I coupled that with data.

Data drives a lot of what we do as an organization, so it had to drive a lot of what I did when building the strategy. Having a data-driven approach when it comes to DE&I really helps to narrow focus and to determine areas to prioritize. It’s very easy to boil the ocean. There are so many areas in the DE&I space that need attention and need work. And so having the data-driven approach helps us to narrow our focus. If the data happens to point to high attrition within a certain population, you focus there. If it points to a decrease in the hiring of a certain population, then you focus there.

We leverage the data from the listening tour to really help us put together our strategy and focus on one area of recruiting. Making sure there’s more effective access to diverse talent at the college level and at the pre-college level, and of course at the professional level. What we call accountability at all levels, so this idea of ensuring that we’re building this cadre of leaders who understand the importance of exhibiting inclusive leadership behaviors, defining that, and encouraging them to showcase that.

Then finally investing in our diverse talent, making sure that we’re building some tailored programming based on the needs of our diverse talent, we started our strategy there. When we think about defining success, it is a couple of things. I think everyone tends to think success is purely data-driven. Having a data-driven approach is important. Data isn’t the only important element. Looking at attrition rates, hiring rates, promotion rates, or general representation rates are important, but not sufficient. We look at everything from our employee engagement data. That’s the closest you get to measuring how your employees feel about what you’re doing. I measured success by just the quality of the conversations that employees were having now, and the willingness to go there. The willingness to have some of the difficult conversations. I saw that as success and the fact that our clients were noticing what we were doing. Our clients are people too, many of them institutional clients especially. They’re institutions, they’re businesses, they’re looking to how they can leverage some of what AB has done and actually bring it in-house for themselves, so I also saw that as success- more inquiries from clients, more willingness to engage on this topic of DE&I from clients was also a success for us.

Cheryl Crispen: That’s terrific. You also touched on in that discussion some of the efforts to create a very inclusive environment. So maybe we’ll move on to another topic, which is the reality that some of our leaders within financial services really do want to prioritize DE&I and make it a priority of their firm. but maybe feel unqualified or uncomfortable discussing it, or honestly, you just don’t really know where to start. How can we, as DE&I professionals, really help these individuals and maybe nudge them out of their comfort zones and empower them to utilize tools such as research and data, as you mentioned, and internal resources to really spark change?

Janessa Cox-Irvin:
For a lot of folks, a lot of apprehension comes from fear, and a lot of fear comes from a lack of information. For example, if we think about any of us at the start of the pandemic fear engulfed all of us, and a lot of the fear came from a lack of information. We did not understand what was happening, and because we didn’t understand what was happening, we went into preservation mode- hoarding things like toilet paper and tissues. We did not have information. I share that example because I think a lot of that happens in businesses. We must combat the fear factor and how we do that by over-indexing on as much information as humanly possible by having that data-driven approach, strong regular communication with people, and over-communicating if you need to.

I would encourage any leader to acknowledge that you’re not the only one that has this fear, that the fear can be debilitating, it can be overwhelming, fear of being public with data, fear of charged conversations, and fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. We all have those fears, but you have to over-index the information. We found that when you are being much more proactive with sharing data or having uncomfortable conversations, it tends to lead to increased trust and psychological safety from your people because you’re taking a lot of the guesswork out for them. You’re taking a lot of the uncertainty out for them and it also helps you to debunk some myths. For example, we started to publicly share our diverse demographic information around two or so years ago. It was not something that the firm did before and the data was held by the DE&I team. We weren’t sharing it more publicly with our people internally or publicly externally with clients and anyone who may visit our web page.

Our team made the decision to shift that because if we could shift the narrative around the data and the collection of data and the gatekeeping of data, we could engender more trust from our people and we saw exactly that happen.

As we were publishing the data internally and talking to people about it, I helped with the trust aspect, but also with debunking the myths. When folks are left to their own devices and they don’t have the information, they form their own opinions and sometimes those opinions can be incorrect. The data helps support the thinking on a lot of things and debunk a lot of those myths. So being more public with your information, while of course having a narrative that makes sense for your organization can be incredibly helpful. Information and over-communication go a long way to combating the fear.

Cheryl Crispen: That’s terrific. And you’ve mentioned data a couple of times now, and just for the benefit of our listeners, and you’re aware, obviously, SIFMA conducts on behalf of our members a diversity survey every other year for the exact reasons, Janessa, that you outlined to be able to have data industry-wide to sort of tell the story of the commitment and the progress that the industry is making. And to your point, when our executives have that information within their firms, they are empowered to say, “Hey, we’ve made some great progress here, but we still need to make progress there,” and it becomes more actual of an analytical as well as emotional and strategic opportunity for folks.

We completely agree with you and are happy that we can do that on behalf of our members. You’ve mentioned starting your strategy, and I know a lot of our member firms have been engaged in improving diversity and inclusion within their firms for many years, but some of the difficulties that firms may encounter are the motivation to sustain a diversity and inclusion strategy and really make sure that there’s not fatigue around it within the firm. What tips do you have to mitigate some of those challenges and help firms really sustain their efforts?

Janessa Cox-Irvin: I would say sustainability will start with just making sure that you’re laying the groundwork, to begin with. And I think first it’s being clear about what the D, the E, and the I really mean.

D: We look at it as diversity is the presence of difference. Any difference that you can think of that makes a difference is diversity. So it’s some of the things that we think of first: gender or race, that sort of thing. It’s other things as well, it’s a disability, it is political belief, religious belief, any difference that makes a difference.

I: Inclusion is of course a bit different, it’s the extent to which people feel as though their presence and their contributions actually matter. So if you look at diversity as diversity is data, diversity is a fact, and inclusion is a choice. And then you have equity, which for us is really providing resources based on need. So we’ve all heard the old adage, diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance by Bernie Myers.

E: equity for us is providing differentiated access to the dance floor. I need to make my way to the dance floor to be able to dance, so that’s how we’re looking at it. A key element of our ongoing learning journey has always been to adapt as necessary, and I would encourage any other firm to do the same. This year, our team introduced the concept of equity into our strategy and into our team name. We were initially the diversity and inclusion team. But we recognized we were already doing a lot of equity work anyway. It wasn’t really a departure from the work that we were doing when you think about things like employee resource groups. If you think about companies like ours that have nursing mothers’ rooms or prayer rooms, that’s equity in action. Any tailored development offerings or training that you have for specific populations, is equity. We were already doing the work but just wanted to be much more explicit about naming it. For us, working to achieve equity starts with acknowledging unequal starting places and it’s already consistent with our commitment to promoting a meritocratic culture. Meritocracy without equity often results in only rewarding those who are already set up for success and have adequate tools, resources, and support.

Starting with being very clear with people as to what the D, the E, and the I really mean. And then bringing people on a journey. So I think it’s very easy for many of us to revert to our factory settings. That’s how our brains are wired. We don’t have infinite time or resources, so most times we just really focus on a lot of the quick hits and it’s easy to revert to those factory settings, especially when you’re under stress, especially when you’re under pressure, market pressure, so getting buy-in from middle managers early on will be really important.

The role of the manager has evolved over time. Acknowledging those middle managers that you recognize, puts a lot more pressure put on them. They’re getting pressure from the top and pressure from the bottom, and they’re feeling a little bit squeezed in the middle, so bringing them on a journey, helping them feel accountable for some of the outcomes, but for there to be accountability, trust has to be established. We have to agree that the cause is worthy and that there’s a mutually agreed-upon definition of success.

Making sure your middle managers and your line managers are included from the very beginning, helping them understand how a lot of this work to diversify the firm, benefits them as well. Show them how the role that we think they can play, the incredibly meaningful role that they play in terms of developing talent and acquiring talent. It would be thinking about clear definitions of what we’re talking about at your organization, and then really getting buy-in from everyone, but specifically your middle managers.

Cheryl Crispen: That’s terrific. Your comments on equity really segue nicely into one of the topics that I’d like to cover next, because the whole discussion around equity has been something that’s evolved over the last several years, and many firms have experienced a similar decision as yours in terms of diversity and inclusion, but then also embracing equity as well as their journeys have evolved and moved forward. What I’d like to do now is just touch on where you think in the future, and what are some of the next opportunities in the diversity, equity, and inclusion area that the industry may be able to look to and look forward and engage upon.

Janessa Cox-Irvin: When we’re defining equity, it’s this effort to provide different levels of support based on an individual’s need or a group’s need to achieve that fairness and outcomes which we all are looking for. One of the areas that I think that we’re starting to see now really take off is this concept of neurodiversity and how you’re looking at neurodiverse talent in the workplace.

One of the things that we’ve done recently is launch a neurodiversity hub or library internally where employees who may be neurodiverse and managers managing teams of neurodiverse individuals have resources, so things like thinking about how to manage work and how to manage performance. If you’re a manager, you have to provide clear expectations, and avoid ambiguity where possible. You may think about providing written materials for a meeting in advance because everyone processes information differently. I think neurodiversity is really going to be, especially in the financial services area, to be candid. I think will really be an area of focus in the DE&I space.

I think socioeconomic status, again, starting to see a bit more conversation about that now, even geographic diversity, thinking about how to expand data collection, I think will be another area that we’re starting to see expand as well. What I mean by that is one of the things we’re looking at, is many companies have an internal HR system that you use to capture all your demographic information for your employees.

We use Workday at AllianceBernstein, as I know many companies do. What we’re doing right now is looking to expand the categories that we capture in Workday. So, most of us will capture race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. We want to be more expansive and capture things like languages spoken and professional certifications that are held. And we’re looking into whether adding socioeconomic status can be additive to the work that we do, recognizing that diversity is beyond race and just gender, but understanding if someone is a first-generation college student. Thinking about being more expansive in how we measure DE&I, I think we’re going to start to see a lot more organizations look at that as well.

Cheryl Crispen: That’s terrific. That’s very helpful, and hopefully, some folks can incorporate that into their thinking as well. I try and keep up to date with everything that AB is doing and working on. You’ve covered a wide breadth of initiatives during our conversation today, but is there anything else that you’d like to share regarding any of your initiatives or programs with our audience?

Janessa Cox-Irvin: The equitable approach and ensuring that we’re providing what our employees want. We are launching our first disabilities ERG called AB Adapt. Later this month, we have some programming. I mentioned the Neurodiversity Resource Hub. I mentioned the expansion of data collection. We have our Career Catalyst Program, which is now in its fifth cohort. And Career Catalyst is a six-month program designed to connect successful, ambitious female and or underrepresented ethnic minority vice presidents with high-performing senior vice presidents for one-to-one coaching, networking and development, and we’ve seen a lot of really great success with that program, so we’re excited that we’re in the fifth cohort of that now.

Finally, I mentioned pre-college and early college engagement. We recognize it as an industry. I think there’s work to do to bring the industry front of mind for talent. I think sometimes if we’re waiting until college, we might be a little too late, so we’re doing some work at the high school level to introduce basic financial concepts to students at the high school level with organizations like Rock the Street, Wall Street and Crystal Ray, but also looking at early college. We have an HBCU scholars program geared to introduce students to the financial services industry, to investment management, but specifically to AllianceBernstein to help them understand how their dynamic backgrounds could really be very meaningful, very additive, and that we want them here. We want them to be part of our industry, so we hope to continue to do that.

Cheryl Crispen: That’s terrific. Well, on your last point, Janessa, I have to be opportunistic on behalf of SIFMA and mention that we, first of all, totally agree with you. And on behalf of the industry, we’ve launched a SIFMA Invest program that is designed to go into diverse colleges and universities, sort of explain the breadth and depth of the capital markets, and illustrate the career opportunities across financial services. So we would also encourage any of our listeners to find out more information about that.

We’ve partnered with you and a number of our other member firms. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to mention that. I also want to just thank you so much, Janessa, for joining me today. It was a robust and very informative conversation. So thank you for that. And for the listeners, if you’d like to learn more about SIFMA’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, please visit sifma.org/diversity. You’ll also find information about SIFMA Invest there as well. So thank you, Janessa, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in, and we hope that you’ll join us for a future podcast.

Janessa Cox-Irvin: Thank you so much, Cheryl.

Janessa Cox-Irvin is Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion and Corporate Citizenship for AllianceBernstein.

Cheryl Crispen is Executive Vice President and Head of DE&I for SIFMA.