Wolfe discusses corporate diversity

The strategy of diversification can help companies with more than just their investments, American Express’ Melinda Wolfe told Yalies Wednesday night.

Employee diversity is essential to corporate success, said Wolfe, who addressed 20 students in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. The senior vice president of executive talent and chief diversity officer of one of the largest credit-card companies in the world, Wolfe analyzed the importance of employee heterogeneity in a rapidly globalizing world during her presentation “How to make diversity work for you in the corporate world.”

Minority consumers make up a large portion of the market, she explained, and large corporations are increasingly realizing that they need employees who will understand these demographics.

“Minorities are the majority in six of the eight largest U.S. cities,” Wolfe said, emphasizing the increasing market share and purchasing power of ethnic minorities as well as gays and lesbians.

The presentation, which was organized by the Asian American Cultural Center at Yale, also focused on the emergence of new global markets. Wolfe described the explosive economic growth of BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — and said U.S. corporations competing with local businesses in the global market should have a strong understanding of world cultures. Companies achieve this familiarity through hiring a diverse group of employees, she said.

There are unprecedented employment opportunities for the historically underrepresented in today’s global market, Wolfe pointed out.

“It is really hard to compete for diverse talent,” she said. “Scarcity breeds opportunity.”

Corporate life presents constant struggles for minorities, Wolfe said. She said that employees of diverse backgrounds should avoid being pigeonholed based on demographics, which often has negative effects. Being treated as “poster children” may limit their possibilities for success in corporate life, she said.

Julie Yang ’09, the alumni outreach coordinator of the AACC, said she agrees with Wolfe on the rising importance of diversity in the corporate landscape.

“The world is transitioning to a more diverse workforce,” Yang said, “and diversity is a controversial topic that is worth discussing.”

Yang also mentioned that the debate over diversity recruitment policies is in many ways similar to the controversy over affirmative action.

But Esen Sefik ’09 expressed her skepticism that a multicultural corporation would be able to retain a sense of unity.

“I do not understand how employees from different minority groups can work harmoniously in a corporation where differences are emphasized,” Sefik said.

In the second half of her presentation, Wolfe shared pieces from her own experiences with the Yalies in the audience and suggested some tips that would help them climb the corporate ladder.

Learning about various companies and leveraging the Yale alumni network are among the most useful strategies every Yalie should employ, she said.

Rui Bao ’11 said she found Wolfe’s tips informative.

“I interned at a corporation last summer,” Bao said, “and this presentation made me question what I could have done better.”

After receiving a B.S. from Washington University and graduating from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Wolfe has worked on Wall Street for more than 25 years. She has held positions at Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch.

Comments

  • Roger Clegg

    I wonder what is meant by "strategy of diversification." There is nothing wrong with diversity, and it is perfectly fine for companies to be vigilant and aggressive in ensuring that their workplaces seek and welcome the best people available. But, by precisely the same token, there is everything wrong with using racial, ethnic, and sex discrimination to achieve a politically correct mix of employees. See my recent op-ed: http://pajamasmedia.com/2008/03/the_downside_of_celebrating_di.php

  • D. Holmes

    You hit the nail on the head with the example of diversity based on superficial face value of color and other labeling which is precisely where the corporate chiefs and diversity officers should not go (and I suspect they are smarter than you give them credit for). However, does this mean throwing the baby out with the bath water and reject embracing diversity because of the overriding majority of the society have only skin-deep understanding of the variety of cultural and ethnical backgrounds that make up the mosaic society we call America? Or should we reject embracing differences in opinions and perspectives simply because we have a poor system of discerning these gems in the pile of stones? Achieving diversity is an evolving process. It fosters inclusion, open-mindedness, learning and appreciate differences in people and culture. No question it helps to improve productivity and business performance and intensify US competitiveness in the global market place. It is only when the uneducated placing labels such as a preference, quota to the true spirit of diversity that it becomes not worthy of celebrating.