How Small Businesses Can Make Long-Lasting DEI Improvements

Sujan Patel
Aug 24, 2021
3 min read

Making profound and enduring improvements in DEI may seem challenging, especially for smaller businesses with restrictive budgets. Leadership can struggle to answer questions such as what issues to tackle first, how to get team members on board, and how to ensure that changes aren’t superficial.

However, by breaking DEI goals down into more manageable tasks, even small companies can make strong DEI progress. And that’s something Vivian Acquah, an Inclusive Workplace Wellness Advocate, specializes in.

Acquah provides audits, develops in-company programs, and gives online and in-person training on topics including amplifying DEI, cultural awareness, deactivating microaggressions, allyship, and more. 

Recently, she spoke to Kickstart Careers about how companies can identify DEI areas to work on, kindle intrinsic motivation in their team members, and work toward long-term improvements. 

Small Steps for Small Businesses

Acquah knows that small businesses can feel unable to enact costly DEI initiatives, but she encourages them to focus on what they can achieve rather than what they can’t. When she works with companies, she acts as a mirror to ask, “what can you do that’s in your budget and is also effective amongst your people?”

“Not every company needs the same initiative,” she says. “A lot of companies are looking towards the benchmarks. But you don’t have to compare yourself with a Google if you don’t have the budget of a Google… You can start with small steps.”

Small steps don’t have to mean small impact. When implemented well, they can be transformative. 

Effective DEI Initiatives for Companies of All Sizes

While every company is different, Acquah suggests a few simple initiatives that any company can do:

1. Book Clubs 

“Read a book together,” she recommends, but also “share the best practices, the lessons learned, and the actions that [everybody] can implement within the company.” 

2. Accountability Partners 

Acquah explains that in her workshops, she provides companies with actionable steps but also encourages them as individuals to find accountability partners. “This journey that you’re on, it’s best to support yourself by having an accountability partner. That can be a coworker, that can be a close friend, that could maybe even be a partner.”

3. Themed Resource Groups and Learning Events

“Create an employee resource group or host a Lunch and Learn, where [staff] can learn more about some kind of theme,” Acquah says. 

She cautions against boxing off diversity themes, however. “June is very popular for Pride themes, but what I wish to see is a company spending other months to pay attention to Pride, other months [than February] to pay attention to their Black employees, other months to pay attention to Latinx employees.”

While June may be a good time to focus on Pride and LGBTQ+ inclusion, learning events should spark changes that extend beyond the end of the month.

Collaborative Approaches to Selecting DEI Initiatives 

Acquah cautions that DEI initiatives won’t be successful without the support of the leadership team. “Help support your leaders, educate them, or send them to coaches or training so that they understand,” she recommends.

That doesn’t mean only leadership should have a say in the actions taken. “Another thing that companies can do, if they are small, is ask their people what it is that they want to work on.” 

Staff participation should be voluntary. “Ask your people if they want to be involved, and if they don’t want to be involved, also respect that,” Acquah says, explaining that people from underrepresented groups may not want to participate due to past trauma.

She also encourages companies to seek professional support. “When it comes to strategy, companies hire people. When it comes to creating a new product, there’s always a coach or somebody who’s being hired… DEI is tied towards the culture. It’s tied towards the people. It’s also tied towards their performance. So, if you want a better performance, invest in a coach.”

Motivating the Entire Company to Improve DEI

While team participation at a decision-making level should be voluntary, Acquah stresses the importance of motivating staff to improve DEI.

“[DEI] is not an HR job,” she says. “It’s not a CEO job, or a C-level job. It’s an everybody job, and everybody needs to be aware of that responsibility.”

She tries to tap into people’s intrinsic motivations “by sharing [her] story and asking them: ‘for whom do you want to change the world and make it better?’”

She explains, “There is always a hook and intrinsic motivations for people to connect with the necessity of advocating for social justice… Most of the time, we want to change for other people. And some people might say, ‘I want to change for myself,’ but most of the time, we want to do it for somebody else, we want to make them proud, or we want to make it easier for them so that they don’t have to suffer the way you might have suffered.”

Being Transparent About Your DEI Progress

Acquah understands that DEI takes hard work and time, and that companies may need to make slow but steady progress. She advises that while companies work on DEI, they should also strive to be transparent. 

“If you are working on your DEI goals or your DEI initiatives, communicate them,” she says. “Not every day, not every week, but maybe every other month, let the people know where you’re at. Let the people know the challenges you’re facing, and also let them know where you are heading.

“Instead of just saying your five-year commitment, which I noticed a lot of companies doing last year, explain: what are you doing that will make you go further towards that five-year commitment? What are you doing today? What are you going to be doing in three months’ time? What will you be doing within a year?”

Small steps, transparent communications, and helping staff members find their intrinsic motivations — taken together, these three elements can empower companies with even the most limited of budgets to make continual DEI progress.