From proven biases in early STEM education to a lack of women and people of color in coding, the tech industry has faced an uphill battle to improve diversity in its ranks. The ever-changing sector has perhaps the greatest need for such improvement, though, given its diverse and rapidly evolving consumer base. Yanika Smith-Bartley, vice president and special counsel for diversity and inclusion (D&I) at Asurion, agrees. “Research shows that more diverse perspectives lead to more innovation,” she says.
As an African-American woman who grew up in a predominantly Jewish suburb in Ohio, with friends of various backgrounds, Smith-Bartley gained an appreciation of the value of diversity early on. “And then, after recently completing my genetic testing, and learning that I’m African, Caucasian, Native American, and East Indian, I realized I am diversity,” she says.
She carried that foundational ethos into her early career at Baker Donelson, where, in addition to her role representing clients on employment issues, she was instrumental in developing the firm’s D&I program, even serving as a trainer on the topic. When she transitioned to an in-house counsel role for Asurion in 2009, she was keen to incorporate that passion at her new office, too. In 2014, the rest of Asurion caught up to her vision.
As a high-profile tech protection and support company, Asurion was facing some of the same challenges as others in the industry. “The majority of our tech employees were white, Asian, and Indian men, which is the typical demographic—but we don’t want to be the typical company.” Smith-Bartley explains. “If we wanted to maintain our position as the standard-bearer for customer support for our clients, we had to ensure that we were gaining diverse perspectives at the table.”
The company’s early efforts included those of a small group of women in leadership, who wanted to develop the careers of women throughout the organization and conduct town halls and panel discussions, including ones focused on diversity. But Smith-Bartley felt that education was only one key element of many that were needed. To further the company’s efforts, she set out to assess its current demographics, collecting data and identifying ways to clean up the statistics it had on hand. Then, she helped galvanize a grassroots effort to create employee resource groups (ERGs) to embrace its increasingly diverse employee population and advocate for underrepresented groups. Asurion established the group Pride for the LGBT community shortly thereafter, the small group of women leaders grew into an ERG that came to be known as WIN (the Women’s Initiative Network), and these were followed by Black Employees Supporting Talent and the Veterans Services Group, for veterans and those actively serving in the military. “Over the course of a year, we grew to four employee resource groups, with over a thousand employees opting in,” Bartley-Smith says. “We anticipate reaching ten ERGs in 2018.”
Smith-Bartley recognized that simply having ERGs was not enough; employees needed to understand the value of diversity and their roles in creating an inclusive environment at the company. So, in 2017, she led the creation of an internal D&I brand, dubbed “commUnity.” “We’re creating a culture of diversity and inclusion where you can bring your whole self to work and feel valued and respected for who you are,” Smith-Bartley explains. “We created the brand with an uppercase U to focus on you and to put unity in community.” Additionally, the company created consistent and cohesive logos and branding for the employee resource groups, to bring them together while celebrating their individuality.
This past November, Asurion hosted its first commUnity luncheon, which brought together three hundred employees at Nashville’s Music City Center. ERG members networked and learned about mitigating unconscious bias in the workplace, and several received leadership awards for their contributions to driving the program.
But that was just the beginning. In November, Smith-Bartley was asked to lead the D&I charge in a formal capacity after years of managing efforts off the side of her desk. She became the company’s first vice president of diversity and inclusion, and the opportunity will allow her to tackle the industry’s broader issues head on. She’s already seeing doors open to discuss tough topics that would not have been on the table several years ago. “Now, on a weekly basis, I get people reaching out to me, asking to get diversity and inclusion on the agenda for their meetings at their functions,” Smith-Bartley says. “People are seeing the effect of our work on Asurion’s employee culture and want to be a part of driving progress for their teams.”
The unification of Asurion’s HR and legal functions allows Smith-Bartley to ensure that diversity and inclusion is a priority throughout every step of each employee’s journey, from talent engagement to experience surveys. And, as the culture of inclusion has taken root, Asurion’s C-suite has bolstered progress with executive support and even pushed teams to “get comfortable with the uncomfortable topics.”
“It was a clear evolution,” Smith-Bartley says. “We weren’t always comfortable saying the word diversity, but now, any time there’s an opportunity, there are major conversations or presentations. Diversity is always on the agenda.”
“Nikki will bring her “whole self” and a wealth of talent, passion and relevant legal experience to her new job as Asurion’s VP and Special Counsel for Diversity and Inclusion. Nikki’s wisdom, pragmatism, creativity and great people skills will serve her well in this new role.”
—Leslie Dent, Shareholder