AmpEquity Speaker Series with Michelle Gadsden-Williams, BlackRock

On April 28, 2021, Michelle Gadsden-Williams joined the Berkeley Haas Dean’s Speaker Series and the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL) AmpEquity Series in a fireside chat with Kellie McElhaney, Founding Director of EGAL, discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the financial industry and corporations more broadly. In her current role as Managing Director and Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at BlackRock, Michelle oversees the company’s global DEI strategy and is responsible for further strengthening and accelerating the company’s efforts to foster an inclusive culture. BlackRock is a corporate partner of EGAL.

Michelle is a seasoned diversity practitioner and prior to her work in financial services, she worked in the consumer goods and pharmaceutical industries. When she first started DEI work over 25 years ago, she described the conversations as always more focused on representation. While now, she said, she was happy to see that it has expanded to how DEI is also good for business. Michelle added that she hasn’t seen this level of rigor, attention and “constructive disruption” towards DEI initiatives that we’re seeing now across corporate America before. She sees these changes more as a “movement than a moment” but emphasized that it is more important now than ever to hold these companies accountable moving forward.

DEI at BlackRock

Michelle started by discussing her current work at BlackRock. Like many corporations, BlackRock has evolved over time to include equity in their culture and vernacular, Michelle stated. They have worked hard at reexamining policies, practices and programming to ensure that there is fair access to opportunities internally, creating a holistic and strategic approach around DEI.

Larry Fink, BlackRock’s CEO, was one of the earlier CEOs to speak out around climate change and more recently around diversity. Michelle explained BlackRock’s DEI Strategy which incorporates all dimensions of diversity (gender, race, ethnicity, disability, veterans, LGBTQ communities, age, etc.) There are three main pillars:

  1. Talent & Culture
  2. Fiduciary Responsibility on Behalf of Clients
  3. Policy & Social Impact in Underserved Communities

In the discussion, Michelle particularly touched on BlackRock’s strategy around talent and culture. BlackRock is focused on sourcing, developing, advancing and retaining diverse talent. Their long-term goals are to double representation of Black & Latinx senior leaders, increase overall Black & Latinx representation by 30% and increase senior women’s representation in the mid 30% range. This includes everything from expanding diverse pipelines with new partnerships, eliminating bias from the talent acquisition processes, enhancing people management training to also support retaining talent. Part of BlackRock’s internal performance reviews for senior leaders and people managers include measuring how they are holding themselves accountable to DEI, asking questions such as, “What have you done specifically to support a diverse and inclusive environment?” Overall, Williams said, by designing these targeted programs, BlackRock is demonstrating their commitment , investment, and talent to improve their DEI goals.

With her extensive experience as an advocate for DEI within corporate America, Michelle shared her “3 C’s” to her DEI work and what she looks for in her conversations with CEOs & other leaders:

  1. Courage to act
  2. Commitment to lead
  3. Conviction to change

She shared that when choosing to join BlackRock, she heard these key areas addressed by the company’s leadership team and was convinced that they really wanted to lead in this area.

Equity Fluent Journey

When asked by Kellie what keeps her motivated in this work, particularly during these tough times, Michelle responded that she feels motivated by helping to cultivate a culture in an organization that gives access to everyone, where everyone can win. She is always seeking to leave a place in a better state than when she entered. Michelle noted that she is particularly inspired right now as DEI is looked at as important for the business in totality not just an HR issue.

She described the importance of focusing on intersectionality — -a term coined by law professor Kimberley Crenshaw in 1989. She described intersectionality as defined by two dimensions of diversity that tend to overlap which causes an individual’s lived experience to become complex and compounded by bias and/or discrimination. For example, gender and race as two dimensions of diversity (women of color) or gender and being part of the LGBTQ community.

In her own experience as a Black woman, she shared that she has always been very aware that the places and spaces where she has worked have not been designed for women of color or people of color. She emphasized the importance for companies to really acknowledge and integrate intersectionality into their DEI strategies.

Outside of her recent work with BlackRock, Michelle also reflected on how becoming her own boss with her consultancy company has been refreshing to really be her own true authentic self and doing the work she loves. She enjoys lending her expertise across a variety of industries, such as investing in and advocating for more diverse actors on Broadway, serving as a consulting producer to movies, presenting to Congress on issues around women in the workplace and becoming an author. She wrote her first book “Climb” in 2017 and has become a bestseller on Amazon and won the African American Literary Award. Michelle also just finished writing her second book, “Driven by Intention” where she interviewed people about their successful careers and how they utilized intentionality as the foundation for their success .

As the Q&A wrapped up, Michelle gave some advice on responding to any resistance you may encounter from any majority group when doing DEI work.

  1. Stick to the business case of DEI. Companies need to embrace DEI in some form to be relevant in modern business. There are many business implications if they do not, such as losing customers and market share and not being positioned as a place where people want to work.
  2. Have one-on-one conversations with people who may not fully grasp the concept to have them relate to the issue in some other way by tying it closer to their own experience. It is more effective when you start turning these conversations on their heads and have a more philosophical conversation about the human experience.

Michelle ended by saying, “This is not a zero sum game at all. It’s about all of us, not some of us.”

We all were inspired by Michelle’s story, vision and advice for navigating DEI in the workplace and we’re looking forward to continuing to follow her journey.

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.