The Surprising First Steps for Building Diverse Teams

It’s a cool evening in early April. People are hurrying around Downtown Crossing trying to catch the T or get some shopping done. Amidst the bustle, nestled in between Primark and Caffe Nero is the entrance to the prolific ad agency Arnold Worldwide. Inside the building, old artifacts of what used to be Filene’s Basement adorn the walls of the office. The furniture nods to the mid-century modern style but everything about the office feels very contemporary. Attendees make their way to the fifth floor toward Burnham Café where rows of chairs face the front windows, a microphone and a screen. Chatter soon subsides and the talk begins.

At Arnold Worldwide, we kicked off our newest event series Design For Hire. These events are specifically tailored to help companies and designers navigate the challenges of the hiring process. The inaugural event, Demystifying Diverse Hiring, highlighted the challenges and offered a framework to recruit diverse talent led by AIGA Boston’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Melissa Hines and speaker Julianna Akuamoah.

Julianna Akuamoah is a rockstar. She’s the SVP of Human Resources for Arnold Worldwide. She has over ten years of experience in human resources and holds a degree in Neuroscience with a focus in Psychobiology from Wellesley College. Julianna knows her stuff when it comes to diverse hiring. Her first experience in a leadership role was at Hertz in LA in the early 2000s but after moving to Boston she soon realized a diverse pool of candidates like she saw in LA wasn’t a given everywhere in the country and since then, she’s developed some strategies for getting the right people into her organization.

Know Your Why

One of the first things Julianna mentioned was knowing why you want to hire for diversity. “It isn’t about quotas,” she said, “Yes, you want more diverse people in the organization, but how do the candidates [who come in for interviews] build cultural depth and dimension?”

Hiring goes beyond the technical skills required for the job and it also goes beyond hiring the person you would want to grab a drink with after work. Julianna encouraged hiring managers to have that conversation with the team and leadership long before a candidate comes in for an interview. After establishing the “why,” develop an intentional interview experience for candidates. Determine what kinds of questions will be asked during the interview and who on the team is going to ask them. These questions should be informed by the “why.”

Planning the questions ahead of the interview accomplishes two things. First, it ensures that everyone involved in the hiring process will capture information that speaks to how a candidate could contribute to the team and second, the interviewee doesn’t have to answer the same questions over and over again in the process.

Build a Community (and your Network)

Julianna also shared that many conversations about building diversity happen in off-the-cuff conversations around the office. A way to make changes within your company is to get organized. Some companies have affinity groups where employees with shared values can meet and talk about what they want to see grow and change within the company, however, if your company doesn’t have these kinds of groups–start one. Meeting with a few people who share the same values is the key to developing a culturally rich company from the inside. Affinity groups can be centered around gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and/or ethnicity as well as art, news and culture. “Who would want to stop something like that?” Julianna said, “And if there is a group already doing that work, get out of their way.”

This led to talk of the infamous “pipeline problem” which refers to educational and socio-economic pathways that keep disadvantaged and minority populations from being qualified for jobs; the result being that “diverse talent isn’t applying.” This “pipeline problem” shifts the responsibility of hiring and retaining diverse talent from companies. The truth is that talent is out there. Finding that talent requires intention.

Julianna explained that when people source talent from their networks, often those networks look most like themselves, specifically white, able-bodied, and in the case of leadership, male. Building large diverse networks will increase the diversity of your hiring pool. Explore organic ways to be an advocate, build a community within your organization and explore events and meetups as a way to join a community outside of the office.

Put Pressure on Leadership

Ultimately, company leadership won’t make the effort to hire and retain diverse candidates unless they feel the pressure to do it. This pressure can come internally from anywhere at any level; from affinity groups within an organization or from one employee who is curious and bold enough to ask what steps leadership is taking to deliver on diversity and inclusion. Pressure can also come externally from candidates applying for jobs and from society in general as more and more companies commit to hiring more diverse talent.

Just Ask

The key to starting this process is pretty simple, just ask. Julianna suggested employees ask their leadership what they’re actively doing to support diversity and inclusion efforts within the company. Ask the team what questions they’ll be asking during interviews and why those specific questions are being asked. Then be prepared to tell the cultural story of the company to candidates and beyond.

Candidates should ask what companies are doing to cultivate a diverse and inclusive community within the company as well. This will show the company how important an effort for diversity and inclusion is to attracting the right kind of people for a role. “Most barriers for not hiring diverse talent are just excuses.”

It never hurts to start a conversation.

AIGA Boston is committed to diversity in design education, discourse, and practice to strengthen and expand the relevance of design in all areas of society. Want to get involved? Please contact Melissa Hines, Director of Diversity & Inclusion, at melissa [at]

By Sarah Lincoln
Published May 15, 2019