In part one of this series, we talked about the successful launch of Better Together, our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program with a well-defined structure. Now we’ll focus on where our program is going, how we know it’s making a difference, and why DEI is so important to our culture at Nelnet.
The Evolution of Better Together
Like others on the committee, Training and Development Committee Chair for the Better Together Executive Committee Nycci Jones is a firm believer in the importance of making the programs sustainable. There’s careful research to identify how programs should evolve so that everything we launch will enjoy success that can be maintained.
As Jones mentioned, Nelnet’s Mentorship Program has successfully mentored over 500 associates. With research for other mentorship types in progress, the program is hoping to add additional opportunities.
Since people access information in different ways, the team provides micro-communications like the DEI Spotlight in the weekly newsletter, in addition to programs and opportunities for those who want to dive deeper. “Sometimes we link to a TED talk, movie, or book,” Jones pointed out. For example, last year’s DEI Spotlights focused on unsung heroes. This year, the Spotlights are focused on different religions, interspersed with promotion of the Associate Resource Groups (ARGs) and eLearning modules that connect to DEI topics.
Better Together will soon be adding a new feature: “The People of Nelnet” – a play on the famous “Humans of New York” photoblog that will spotlight one associate per month. These are stories that will connect associates across geographic and demographic gaps through shared experiences or inspire them through the strength and openness exhibited by the associates featured.
Training and Resources
Existing DEI training includes e-learning modules on topics such as deadnaming and pronouns. New this year, the team added master classes on diversity topics, as well as trainings on code switching, microaggressions, how to be an ally, and covering. The Better Together team also provides resources for people to learn more – such as a DEI glossary Jones found in her certification at Cornell University.
Associate Resource Groups (ARGs)
Each of Better Together’s ARGs is organically driven by associates and they retain their own identity, but now the ARGs are cross-collaborating. Jones noted that BEACON (Black Engaged Associates Connecting Nelnet) and Prism (for the LGBTQIA+ community) met and talked about the importance of voting and voting rights. EarthNet and the Young Associates Community got together to talk about saving money through sustainability. “You’re meeting people that you probably would have never met before this – and not only are you networking, but you’re learning, and you feel good because you’re in a safe space,” said Jones. Prime Time – a group for associates over age 40 – is coming soon and will be our eleventh ARG.
The Better Together team has rebranded what were previously called Small Group Conversations as Empower Hour. “This is a safe space where you can come and have conversations that matter, that open up the door for you to ask questions or to say, ‘I just didn’t know that.’ It’s so powerful.” Monthly conversations cover a wide range of topics related to work, and provide practical tips as well as networking opportunities. But it’s also a place for conversations to take place about issues outside of work – with no judgment. “[Empower Hour] engages and educates you at the same time – and that’s another aspect of where cultural competency can take place,” emphasized Jones.
Why Equity is Key in Programming
“While equality is the goal, equity is how we get there,” said Jones. “Equity says we’ve got to look at what we’re doing and make sure that everybody has access – whether that’s to being a leader, to learning, or to professional development. It means a call center rep can log off and take that class without feeling like they’re not completing their job or that they need to be on the phones all the time.”
Jones noted the success of a recent campaign encouraging our call center associates to participate in learning opportunities. “Our membership in ARGs increased by over 40%. Of those who joined the mentorship program, we retained 83.3% of those associates.”
Proof that DEI Matters
Adding DEI programming has only helped continue the trend of Nelnet’s award-winning culture, with recognition from several different sources over the past several years.
- Young Professionals Award for Diversity – Inclusive Workplace – 2020
- Forbes Best Workplace for Women – 2021
- Forbes Best in State in Nebraska – 2021
- Forbes Best Diversity in Workplace – 2021 and 2022
- America’s Best Large Employers – 2022 and 2023
According to Jones, “this reinforces our reputation as a company that provides excellent employment opportunities on a national level.” Jones is proud of these awards because “it’s the associates filling out these surveys and sending them back to Forbes, so we’re doing something right.”
Jones is a big fan of measuring internal impact. “We added some DEI questions for the 2022 Nelnet culture survey – and when you talk DEI, you’re talking inclusivity and belonging. Those numbers came back and now we can measure. We are well above benchmark – we’re blowing it out of the water,” Jones said.
What she values most is the collaboration and action: “When you speak through the Nelnet culture survey, we listen – and that’s what makes Nelnet an awesome place to work. Things happen when you give your opinion on those surveys.”
The Impact of Better Together on Our Associates and Culture
In addition to enhancing our internal corporate education program Nelnet University, Better Together’s programs and initiatives are changing our culture in other impactful ways too. As Jones noted, “When people know that they can, they do. When people engage, they stay. Better Together has increased belonging and inclusivity here. Better Together brings people together. They can be their authentic selves and just show up and feel good – and that makes us special.”
When asked what it feels like to be part of making an impact through Better Together, Jones paused to reflect. “Here’s the thing: If we can just touch one person, we’ve done our job. But the amazing thing is we’ve touched hundreds, thousands throughout the organization. Better Together is like the cherry on top of the cake to an already amazing culture. That’s the cherry.”