We continue our Around the World in 20 Years journey with Kamillah Knight, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Ferrero North America. Yes, Nutella, Kinder…that Ferrero! At Ferrero, Kamillah is responsible for advancing the company’s global efforts on diversity in North America and helping to shape its inclusion strategy across the region.
Prior to this, we worked closely with Kamillah and her colleagues when she was at Unilever. She began her Unilever career in Procurement before eventually becoming the Diversity and Inclusion Lead there. She was one of the many who worked hand-in-hand with us to develop and deliver inclusivity training, and she also managed events and partnerships that supported Unilever’s diversity plans. Her colleagues, family, friends, and fellow proud Cornell alumni know Kamillah as a change superhero with a passion to change the way that people look at and interact with the environment.
This conversation, which was conducted right before Kamillah began her new role at Ferrero, covers a lot of ground. We talk about Kamillah’s own experience and the impact of the Cultural Immersions training that exposed employees at Unilever to the Black, Latinx, Muslim, and LGBTQ experience. Kamillah also shares why relationships are so critical to our work in DEI.
Listen to the conversation below (Run time – 21:45) or scroll down for the full transcript.
Show Notes & Highlights
(2:10) Kamillah’s DEI journey from Cornell and then through supply chain and sales at Unilever
(5:27) Going beyond unconscious bias and into Cultural Immersion
(7:14) The personal impact of the Cultural Immersions
(13:45) Big shifts in DEI – going from “check the box” to a more embedded approach throughout the system
(15:16) Big expectations and big hopes for DEI in the next 5 (not 20!) years.
Tanya Stanfield: Well Kamillah, thank you so much for joining us today. How are you doing?
Kamillah Knight: I’m doing well. How about yourself?
Tanya Stanfield: I’m doing great. Thank you for being a part of LCW’s Around the World in 20 Years Series. You’ve been a partner to LCW for a few years now, and we’re thrilled to have you here to share some of your stories, and your insights and experience at a time when the DEI and cultural competence fields are really evolving at a fast pace. So to start things off, I think it would just be great to know a little bit more about you and your journey into the DEI space.
Kamillah Knight: Absolutely. First, let me just say thank you for having me. It has been quite a pleasure and an honor to work with LCW. I have learned a tremendous amount in my engagement with the different consultants and different folks over at LCW. So thank you.
As far as my D&I journey, this was not always the path for me. It’s something that I kind of figured out over time. I would even credit it all the way back to my undergraduate studies. Prior to starting my career at Unilever, I was an undergrad and then a grad student at Cornell University. As an undergrad, I studied sociology and economics and specifically focused on business networks and institutions. It was my goal to understand how people made the decisions that they made, what influenced those decisions, but then in turn, how do businesses play a role in influencing that?
I didn’t know it then, but it very much had everything to do with diversity and inclusion. Even in my Master’s, I took the same approach from more of a sustainability perspective because I started to look at corporate social responsibility and how businesses were starting to formulate that message and those ideals. And again, not realizing how much that had to do with diversity and inclusion. Today I understand that you can’t solve anything that has to do with sustainability or understand anything about what influences anybody’s decisions or how they got there without thinking about it from a D&I, or diversity and inclusion lens.
So I came to Unilever really and truly for the sustainability aspect of it. I started in supply chain procurement, and then moved to sales before making the transition into HR and D&I. Completely different than the diversity and inclusion space, but I still did a lot of work that had to do with it, whether it was being on the leadership team for different business resource groups, or starting a new business resource group. At one point, I even started a program called the Leadership Development Institute at Unilever, which really looked at how could we engage and start to build a pipeline for minority students who are in high school? How can we prepare and equip them with tools and help them understand the different roles that they could take on within a business? So over a six week period, over 24 students from six different high schools would come into our office during the summer and meet with different EVPs and VPs, take on different trainings about developing their purpose or how to have proper business etiquette at dinners and things like that, as well as work on a real case study.
And of course, again, with the idea of equipping them with the tools to apply to our internships, apply to the UFLP Program and so much more. And it was with all of this that I started to realize that what really drove me was centered on diversity and inclusion. I even started to hone in on what my purpose was as an individual. I believe my purpose is to be what I call a change superhero, which means I want to change the way that people interact with their environment, whether that’s their physical environment or with other people. And so it was with that that I started to really lean into the diversity and inclusion team that much more at Unilever, and offering help when it came to attending different conferences and understanding how we could benchmark ourselves against other corporations or to learn from what other corporations were doing and bring those insights back to the company. Also just becoming again, more involved with our business resource groups and making sure that certain employee’s voices were being heard and advocated for. And more or less, I ended up coming on to the D&I team.
Tanya Stanfield: Amazing, thank you for sharing that story. That journey is not what I expected to hear, coming from that sustainability viewpoint, and sort of seeing how it all sort of blended together and hearing about that program that you helped really put spark at Unilever. And that’s really encouraging, so thank you for sharing that. In your work at Unilever, when did your work start to overlap with the work that LCW was doing with the organization?
Kamillah Knight: Immediately. It was one of the first things that I got involved with, and really looking at how could we better serve black employees at Unilever. So looking at bringing LCW in, at the time we were really just kind of jump-starting the journey with the Cultural Immersions, for instance. So being a part of that journey and making sure that employees were taking part in it, getting what they needed to get from it, and also making sure that LCW had the real insights and understanding of what the corporate landscape within Unilever really looks like so that they could actually build those components into the training and really help people to lean in more. Also, another big initiative that I took part in that I worked closely with LCW was, when we conducted interviews, anonymous interviews with black employees across the business to really just gain some insights on what was their experience?
Kamillah Knight: And if they had worked at another company, what was that experience like? To really help us understand internally, what could we do differently to make sure that we were not only recruiting the best black talent, but also retaining that talent? And with that, I was able to build out so many things as a result of the insights LCW provided, whether that was things like building a sponsorship program for our black employees, or really starting to lean in more with professional development, whether it was coaching, which I’ve used LCW for quite a bit, or really looking at functional, specific programming, whether that’s having conversations around race or managing inclusively. All types of things. I think that alone, when I started on the team helped to jumpstart many things.
Tanya Stanfield: Can you talk a little bit about the Cultural Emergence Program, because it’s such a huge part of the partnership that LCW and Unilever had together? Unilever co-created that with LCW. So do you want to just share with the audience a little bit more about that, for those who don’t know what it is or what that experience is like?
Kamillah Knight: Absolutely. So we developed four Cultural Immersions: One is the Black Experience, one is Latinx, one is the LGBTQ Experience, and the fourth is the Muslim Experience. And each of them walk you through the historical context associated with someone who identifies with that group, and then takes it to the next step or level to then look at, what are some of the biases that exist that are associated with this group, and especially with regards to the historical context? And it helps people to actually do some sort of introspective look at how are you contributing towards those biases? What can you do a little bit differently to help make a shift away from that, despite what has happened in history? And then even further, which I think helped a lot with just the type of company that Unilever is, especially being very marketing forward in a sense, is really looking at how marketers market to those specific groups, looking at companies that have done it well versus companies that have not done it well.
And I can tell you, being a black woman and sitting through the black Cultural Immersion, it was very powerful in the sense that I felt like it definitely highlighted some very key things that people needed to understand, while at the same time, it also kind of brought some things full circle to me to help make it click, if you will, for myself. And then I know that when talking to other employees throughout the business, they felt the same when attending those that they identify with the group. And then just attending those that I did not identify with, again, a huge learning curve, even as a quote unquote D&I expert, if you will. It was so impactful and really changed how I approached people, how I thought about things, the questions that I asked and how I developed relationships.
Tanya Stanfield: Yeah. And I think it might be helpful to understand … And thank you for sharing that, that’s such a great encapsulation. And immersions wasn’t the beginning of your D&I training journey. Unilever had done some unconscious bias training. How did you determine that this was the next step? Because I think a lot of people, a lot of organizations start unconscious bias, and unfortunately some organizations stop there. How did you determine that this was the next step and that Unilever as an organization was ready for that next step?
Kamillah Knight: Yeah. So I’ll be very honest with you. I came in when we were already transitioning over into the Cultural Immersions. But my understanding about it, and especially being there for quite some time, is it was all about this idea of going beyond unconscious bias. Unconscious bias to myself means that’s the starting point. That’s where you’re establishing a common language, if you will. A way for everybody to have the same key terms and know how to talk about it, know what someone else means when they’re approaching you with the conversation versus going beyond that. Now that you’ve been equipped with this language, now let’s put it into action. Let’s actually start associating that language with some key things, especially that you see going around you. Because otherwise, what do you do with it? How do you actually change what’s happening? How do you change the culture?
Kamillah Knight: And to me, that’s what the Cultural Immersions do or did. Versus the second part of your question, how it was determined that that was the next step. I think that the company Unilever is very, very good at being at the forefront and challenging the norms for things. So taking some risks when it comes to, okay, nobody else is doing this in this way. Let’s try it. Or maybe one or two other companies that we know are doing this, but let’s try it because we know that this is important. Let’s take the risk, let’s see how it works and then we’ll bounce back from it. So I think it was also one of those types of things that we were looking for, okay, how do we really push this conversation forward? How do we continue to lead in this space? And this was definitely a way to do that, and LCW was an amazing partner to make that happen.
Tanya Stanfield: And what was the impact? I know impact can’t be really measured when it comes to something like this, but what’s the impact that you saw or felt after teams or groups go through this training.
Kamillah Knight: So, I think the impact is still being had. I’m not there anymore, but I know even over two years ago, almost three years ago when it really started, the impact was had in that people were like, wow, first off, I didn’t know these things existed in this capacity. I definitely didn’t know this historical context, but I now can connect it to things that I actually do that might be wrong. And now I know that I need to change that. That was one of the biggest impacts that it had. It brought people closer. It helped people understand some of the people that they interact with every day. It also brought people closer to the consumers that we were serving, which you can’t truly expect to connect with consumers and have them buy our products if we, as the people making the products and marketing the products to them are not actually connecting and understanding what it is that they’re experiencing.
Kamillah Knight: Whereas the Cultural Immersions kind of helps to bridge some of that gap. I’m not going to say that it bridged the gap completely because there’s definitely a lot of work to be done, but it helped to really put at least the pillars in place that hold the bridge up. So I think that that was one of the greatest impacts, and it’s still being had. I know people who have taken all four of the Cultural Immersions because they’re like, I want to know more. And once they did one, they couldn’t stop. And even building off the cultural emergence to do other things, people can’t get enough because it really does help you to kind of put yourself in check, if you will, and be a better person.
Tanya Stanfield: That’s great. Excellent. I know that’s probably a huge highlight or story that you have working with LCW. Are there any other stories, or highlights, or themes in your work with LCW? You talked a little bit about some of the other projects, but is there anything that really comes to mind, anything from more mundane interactions with the team to any of the bigger projects?
Kamillah Knight: Absolutely. I don’t say this lightly. I really do think that by far LCW was amongst the greatest partners that I worked with in my time at Unilever. And I’m talking about across all my functions that I worked in, as well as all of the external partners that I had. By far one of the greatest, because it wasn’t just like we were a client, it was really like a family. They cared not just about making money and getting their content out there and making LCW look good, it was about what was best for us, what was best for the people, what was actually going to make a difference? I actually looked forward to the conversations that we would have. Towards the end of my Unilever career we would have weekly conversations. I looked forward to connecting with them, just to hear some of the pushback, hear what’s going on, provide some new suggestions, because it really was like a family. That’s one of the things that I would highlight, is I truly do feel like LCW cares about the content that they’re delivering and how it’s impacting the people that they’re delivering it to.
Tanya Stanfield: How do you think the DI world has shifted or changed since you entered the fields? And what are some of these big themes or these big shifts that you’re feeling and seeing right now?
Kamillah Knight: I think that’s a big question. But what I will say is I’ve always clearly thought that this work was very important, but I’m not sure that everybody else has always thought that this work was important. And it’s unfortunate, but it’s also fortunate that some of the things have transpired, especially in our country, that has truly shown a light on diversity and inclusion and just how important that really is to make sure that your employees and people in general feel safe, feel supported, feel protected and can actually bring their full selves to whatever the situation is. And so, as a result, so much more value is placed in it now than when I first joined the team. It’s not just this thing to check the box. It’s something that needs to be ingrained across the business, and I think more people are actually getting that.
Kamillah Knight: People are seeing how things big and small can actually make all that much more of a difference, not just in the people and the qualitative side, but also on the quantitative side, the numbers. How when you bring that diversity and inclusion and truly put it at the center of your business, how you can hit the bottom line and create more innovation across the business as well. So to me, that is one of the biggest shifts that I have seen and how it’s just so much more valued.
Tanya Stanfield: We’re speaking to people who in the past 20 years have been such a big part of LCW’s growth, and we’re absolutely looking towards the next 20 years and who knows what can happen. But in your mind, how do you hope this field changes and grows in the next 20 years?
Kamillah Knight: In the next 20 years, I hope that … I’m not going to say I hope that it’s not even a topic of discussion anymore, I hope that it’s the topic of discussion. To me, the head of D&I should be working hand in hand with the CEO of all organizations. That’s what I’m hoping when I say that how ingrained it needs to be in the business. D&I teams need to be just as big as some of these supply chain teams. You need to have a D&I person that’s dedicated to all of the things to make sure you’re doing all of them right. You’re complying by all standards, you’re meeting the needs of people, and that people really do feel like it’s an equitable and inclusive environment. To me, that’s what I’m looking for. Not even over the next 20 years, I want to see it in five years.
Tanya Stanfield: I think that’s reasonable. I think when you get there, and I think just speaking to the changes that you talked about, how this industry has really transformed just in the past year or two alone, I think that’s a reasonable expectation. So thank you for sharing that and putting that out there. Any advice for any practitioners who are new or thinking of entering this field?
Kamillah Knight: So my one piece of advice, and I don’t even know if I would call it advice, it’s just a way of thinking about it. People want to call me a D&I expert all the time, and I am the first to say, no I’m not, because I think that D&I is a journey. We are all on this journey together. Nobody has the answer correct, and we’re not all wrong. It’s based on your own experience, and it’s just about unlocking different doors and helping people to connect and see things a little bit differently. And it’s about building relationships. So I think that if you’re looking to enter this space or you’re new to this space, as long as you keep that in mind, you will be successful in the things that you do.
Tanya Stanfield: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Kamillah, for sharing. You shared a lot with us in such a short period of time with the stories, and your experience and your advice. And we really appreciate you taking the time to do that. And thank you for being an LCW partner. And I know that you’re moving on to other things, but I’m certain this is not goodbye and that we’ll be partners for a long time.
Kamillah Knight: Absolutely. I’m looking forward to it.