Nelnet has been recognized by Forbes as a Best Workplace in most of the organization’s major markets for several consecutive years. How do you take an award-winning organizational culture and make it even better? That was the question when Nelnet launched its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program at the height of a world pandemic in 2020.
How do you start a diversity, equity, and inclusion program?
When Director of Training and Development Nycci Jones was asked to co-chair Nelnet’s efforts to create a diversity, equity, and inclusion program in the second quarter of 2020, she had a vision: “For me, the program needs to be impactful, bring value, and be sustainable.”
Jones had never been in the conversation of DEI – especially at Nelnet “where the culture was already amazing based off a strong commitment to our purpose of serving others.” She decided to get educated about it and got certified in diversity and inclusion at Cornell University. She’s 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 in spring 2020 with everyone safely working from home was a challenge. Jones summed it up: “So the initiative is ‘How do we bring people together and get people engaged? How do we get them to feel like they belong and there’s some inclusivity there?’ People felt disconnected and isolated, so the framework for DEI was created through division.” 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 Matters, #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 all about?
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.
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,” Jones said 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 SharePoint site, 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. The group also meets in Lincoln each October, bringing their plans for upcoming initiatives and, together, they create the DEI calendar for the next year. There’s also a monthly Better Together council meeting that provides updates and gets more information from the larger committee.
Where do you start with acceptance for your DEI program – is it education?
“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.
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 will focus on different religions, interspersed with promotion of the ARGs and eLearning modules that connect to DEI topics.
Existing DEI training includes e-learning modules on topics such as deadnaming and pronouns. New for 2023, the team is adding trainings on code switching, covering, microaggressions, and how to be an ally, as well as master classes on different diversity topics. 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. “We’re going to be talking about these topics. I want people to have a place where they can go to investigate and have things defined.”
Jones noted that she doesn’t believe in book club learning – where you read a book, talk about it, and go on to the next book. “When we are trying to make sustainable change, learning needs to be revisited, reminded, done in iterations – and it needs to be a part of the culture.