Nelnet has been recognized by Forbes as a Best Workplace in most of the organization’s major markets for several consecutive years. Then Nelnet launched its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program at the height of a world pandemic in 2020 – and we got even better together. Let’s take a stroll back to see how Better Together got started and what it is.
Introducing Better Together – our diversity, equity, and inclusion program.
When Director of Training and Development Nycci Jones was asked to co-chair Nelnet’s efforts to create a DEI program in the second quarter of 2020, “Our culture was already amazing based off a strong commitment to our purpose of serving others,” said Jones.
Jones received certification in diversity and inclusion at Cornell University and is now Nelnet’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as well as the Training and Development Committee Chair for Better Together Executive Committee, the organization’s DEI program.
Launching Better Together – an initiative designed to engage people and create inclusion – with everyone safely working from home in spring 2020 was a challenge. According to Jones, “COVID was a blessing and a curse: The blessing of the situation was that it opened the organization up to be more geographically and demographically diverse, and it created opportunities for innovation and creativity. From a DEI perspective, we can be better together, even in a remote or hybrid situation. We have to utilize the technology we have in place in order to keep people connected.”
Timing was pivotal in other ways, too. As Jones pointed out, “Our culture was so amazing before all of this happened, but when Better Together launched in 2020, the George Floyd murder, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo – all of these movements made the conversation so relevant. I think that was the spark that started the need to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion within our organization.”
What is Better Together?
Better Together’s mission is to provide opportunities for all Nelnet associates and help them develop cultural competence in all areas of business and personal interactions. To serve that mission, Better Together celebrates diversity, promotes inclusivity, ensures equity, and believes in the power of unity.
Better Together’s Guiding Principles
- Genuine and authentic, all are welcome here.
- Evidence of leadership commitment to diversity.
- Diversity education and training.
- Fair treatment, everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
- Equal opportunity for all, equal access to opportunities.
- Representation of diversity at all levels of the organization.
While that looks great on paper, how did Nelnet put those ideas into practice? Supported and led by six associates who have day jobs within the organization and a passion for the purpose of DEI, Better Together was built on five divisions:
- Mentorship Program – A traditional six-month program that has served over 500 people to date; currently 156 mentees are seeking a mentor, and the group is researching other mentorship types.
- Training and Development – Team shares information in DEI Spotlights in the weekly newsletter, articles on the Nelnet portal, e-learning modules available to associates through Nelnet University, and more.
- Empower Hour – Monthly conversations open to all Nelnet associates, providing a safe space for associates to learn, grow, and share by discussing topics that impact us on a personal and professional level. With 100% participation, the team adds sessions to meet waitlist demands.
- Associate Resource Groups (ARG) – Voluntary, associate-led groups that provide associates with an opportunity to not only meet others with the same commonalities, but also support each other through allyship. There are currently ten groups, with 998 associates participating.
- Communication – Better Together uses as many different access points as possible, with micro-communications, portal articles, and DEI e-learning modules suggested to associates through Workday’s “Recommended Trainings” area.
Meeting monthly to touch base on progress toward goals, the Better Together Executive Committee consists of the chairs of each of these five divisions plus the committee’s chair for equity. Together, they create the DEI calendar. There’s also a monthly Better Together council meeting that provides updates and gets more information from the larger committee.
Getting People on Board with our DEI Program
How did we introduce Better Together? “Here’s the thing: Leaders create the culture,” said Jones. “All of us – leaders included – are unaware of our unconscious bias,” Jones noted. “Our thinking was, we’ve got to start with unconscious bias because you’re not responsible for your first thought, but you are responsible for your first action.” Nelnet educated all current leaders on unconscious bias and now every new leader undergoes this training. When it comes to associates, “It starts with being curious and open. Then you can educate, because we want to meet people where they are,” said Jones.
Between when the first unconscious bias training started three years ago and now, Better Together’s programs have been introduced, embraced, and grown in popularity. Associates are constantly learning and growing with Better Together’s programs – and an already great culture has provided new opportunities for people to learn, connect, and engage in different ways. As Jones said of today’s environment, “With Nelnet’s inclusiveness and sense of belonging, you can come be your authentic self. Learn, develop, grow, broaden your network, and learn cultural competency at the same time. That’s what we do. We just want to make sure that Nelnet remains an awesome place to work, to connect to our core values.”
Watch for part two, where we’ll talk about why DEI matters, how our programs are evolving, and specific impacts Better Together has had on our associates and organization.