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.

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,” 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.

That’s why Better Together is a part of our culture. The leaders, the C-suite, the board – they all support what we’re doing so that we can do these iterative learnings – with education, resources, the mentorship program. We’re looking for equity.

Nycci Jones

Director of Training and Development

Why is equity 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, learning, 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 Nelnet’s 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.”

What other new programming is in the works for Better Together?

Each of Better Together’s ARGs is an associate-led group. They’re organically driven by associates and they retain their own identity, but now the ARGs are cross-collaborating. Jones noted that BEACON 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 – will be coming soon and will be Nelnet’s eleventh ARG.

The Better Together team is rebranding 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, such as burnout in the workplace, 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.

Nycci Jones

Director of Training and Development

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.

Why does DEI matter in the workplace?

As Jones noted, “When people know that they can, they do. When people engage, they stay. So one of the strategic things that we look at is hiring top performers and engaging them. How do you do that? People look for professional development and learning opportunities.” By adding Better Together programs and initiatives, Nelnet has enhanced their internal corporate university, Nelnet University.

Hearing Jones talk about what’s happened with Better Together’s initiatives brings to life the program’s mission and guiding principles: “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.”

What proof is there that DEI matters?

Adding DEI programming has only helped continue the trend of Nelnet’s award-winning culture. Nelnet received the Young Professionals Award for Diversity – Inclusive Workplace in 2020, the year Better Together was introduced. The organization was recognized by Forbes three times in 2021: for Best Diversity in Workplace, Best Workplace for Women, and Best in State in Nebraska. Again in 2022, Nelnet was recognized by Forbes for Best Diversity in Workplace and – in 2022 and 2023 – America’s Best Large Employers. “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. Better Together has increased belonging and inclusivity here – in a time where this is our new normal.

Better Together brings people together where they can be their authentic selves and just show up and feel good to do that – and that makes us special.

Nycci Jones

Director of Training and Development

What’s been the impact of Better Together on Nelnet’s associates and culture?

“It opens up that lane for curiosity. Better Together also helps people feel included and brings a sense of belonging, like Nelnet’s their home – because of the culture and the environment, because we pay attention to making sure that there are equitable programming and ways to learn, develop, and grow offered here,” emphasized Jones.

“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.”


Susie McCormick

Senior Corporate Communications Writer