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Senior Vice President of Environmental, Social & Governance, Indeed
As the Senior Vice President of Environmental, Social & Governance at Indeed, LaFawn Davis is not only revered for the impact she’s made on her own internal team, but also how her work allows for the success of countless people outside of her organization. Davis, the first Black queer woman in the C-suite at the hiring platform, tells us that her work sits in the middle of ESG at Indeed—which includes overseeing environmental sustainability; social impact; diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB+); responsible AI; and strategy and operations teams—and takes a holistic view of how potential employers and employees find the best workers and work opportunities.
With around two decades of experience advocating for more diverse and inclusive work environments, Davis’ career is marked by her commitment to breaking down barriers to employment (including increasing employment among those who’ve been formerly incarcerated) and helping push forth work environments where all individuals feel valued, heard, and psychologically safe.
For Davis, whose role is inherently so personal, Office Hours may be a very typical occurrence. And this month, she joined Argent for a candid conversation about the challenges and goals of her work, to share a better understanding for those who may seek to follow in her professional footsteps, and to offer important advice for all job seekers.
YOU'VE BEEN WORKING FOR NEARLY 20 YEARS IN DEI, PERHAPS BEFORE MANY PEOPLE KNEW WHAT THAT MEANT OR APPLIED IT TO THEIR WORKPLACE. WHAT DID THE SPACE LOOK LIKE AT THE TIME YOU STARTED?
“There's definitely been a bit of an evolution. In the very beginning of doing this work, companies were very focused on diversity—just counting heads and making sure that there was a particular percentage of people with certain backgrounds. And that has evolved. There's still a focus on having a more diverse workforce, but inclusion is really important. Belonging is really important. I think what we all have learned along the way is that you can spend millions of dollars bringing in more diverse talent, but if you do not have an environment in which they can thrive, they will leave.
“Companies hadn't really taken time to focus within to look at the entire employee life cycle. Who are you giving opportunities to? Do you have a place where differences are celebrated and you're learning from each other? Psychological safety has been something that has come up in recent years and has become a focus within the DEIB+ spectrum of work.
“Equity has taken center stage, as well. We are all equal but, of course, we know that societal issues don't really lend to that equality. So equality is an end state—the society we would like to have—but until then we have to have equity. And the fact that everyone isn't starting from an equal playing field is part of some discomfort right now, but it is through that discomfort that I think we will be able to make the most progress.”
HOW DID YOU COME TO THE FIELD OF SOCIAL GOVERNANCE AND DEIB+? HOW DID YOU BUILD THE SKILLS YOU NEEDED TO BE SUCCESSFUL AND LEAD?
“I got into this role by happenstance. When I was at Google, I was one of the founding members of the Black Googler Network, which was the second or third ERG [Employee Resource Group] at Google. We went from a mailing list to a strategy within 60 days around attracting, recruiting, retaining, and developing more Black talent within Google.
“At the time, Google had what was called an 80/20. So 80% was your core role, and then 20% would be a passion project or something else across the company. So my role was 80% operations and 20% a leader of this ERG. And it flipped and I joined the very first diversity team at Google.
“Initially, the focus was external: How do we recruit, how do we focus on HBCUs—historically Black colleges and universities—and other MSIs—minority-serving institutions? We built the first faculty summit, bringing in faculty from the schools so they could see what kind of industry Google was and what tech was looking for. Then my role changed to focus internally, and that was the first foray into looking at the programs, policies, processes—the HR stuff. It wasn't until I started to move throughout other companies and over time that that has evolved past that core recruiting and diversity focus.”
WHAT SKILLS OR QUALITIES DO YOU THINK THAT YOU POSSESS THAT HAVE SERVED YOU WELL AS YOU WERE BUILDING THIS CAREER?
“I do get questions like, ‘What degree do I need to get? What field do I need to go to get the skillset?’ And I always talk about the fact that I don't have a college degree. I didn't go to school for this. This was a very hands-on experience and being in a place where I wanted to make sure, as a personal need, that there were more people that looked like me. There were more people that didn't look like me. There were more people with different backgrounds than I had. And being in a space where there's a lot of on-the-job learning, the skillset is that intellectual curiosity. It is understanding historical context and the bias and barriers that we all have to endure in some form or fashion.
“Having the spirit of fighting for everyone, honestly, served me really well along my career. That is just inherent in me. So I often will say there's no core degree. There are certification programs that are great, but to be honest with you, it really starts from this core belief that everyone has something great to bring to the table, and how we fight for an environment and a society ultimately that values and cherishes those things.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR FOLKS WHO SEEK OUT A SIMILAR ROLE AS YOURS?
“I normally say something kind of controversial. When people say, ‘How do I get into this field?’ I say, ‘Don't.’ The reason is that this is not something you should do if you're just passionate about diversity. A lot of times people will see maybe the fun aspect of it or some event-based focus aspect of it, not knowing that this is really, really hard work. You are not only taking on the strategic aspect of it, but you also have to be empathetic. You have to lead with both head and heart, and that can be heavy, especially with all of the things that are happening in the world around us.
“The other aspect is the company. There are companies that do care and will make change, and that drive has to come from the top. There are also companies that are very performative, who will say the things because you're supposed to say the things and do more check-the-box exercises. So I caution when people want to get into the space: Make sure that where you want to make change, that they're actually susceptible to creating change, that there's leadership accountability.
“Burnout is very real. There are a lot of DEI professionals who go company to company because they haven't been able to do, in essence, what has been promised, until they find that place where they're actually able to make change. I would say find that place where you can feel that there is a true commitment to diversity and then drive it. Start making that a part of your job and then you get a little bit more exposure with executives and building out plans. There's a lot that you can do, but just make sure that it's worth it.”
"...this is really, really hard work. You are not only taking on the strategic aspect of it, but you also have to be empathetic. You have to lead with both head and heart..."
AS YOU MENTIONED, THERE ARE SO MANY LAYERS TO YOUR WORK THAT MAKE IT HEAVY AND CHALLENGING. HOW DO YOU FIND SUSTAINABILITY WHEN IT IS QUITE HEAVY?
“Oh, I love that question. So this is why I know I'm successful now versus when I look back: My CEO at Indeed, who I report to, asked me a question in 2020, ‘As you're taking care of all of us, who is taking care of you?’ And I was just in full tears.
“He has often said, ‘Hey, I know that I'm asking a lot of you while you're also a part of this community that is dealing with all of this pain.’ Just that acknowledgment alone is beautiful. And I definitely haven't always had that. This work feels like a position of service. And often when you're in a position of service, you forget to pour into yourself. Sometimes I have to disconnect because it's too much, or I'm literally in the affected community and I want to be able to show up for everyone. So I do have to take that time for myself. And I've had amazing colleagues who have stepped up. Sometimes the thing that is best so that I can actually show up the way I need to is to rest. Rest is an act of resistance because we are in this hustle-and-grind culture.”
IS THERE ANY ADVICE FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE SEEKING JOBS ON HOW THEY CAN FIND ENVIRONMENTS THAT ARE GOING TO BE MOST FRUITFUL FOR THEM AND MOST SUPPORTIVE?
“Employers ask for references. So I would do the same. ‘Do you have a few employees that I could talk to?’ ‘Do you have some employees of color that I can talk to?’ ‘Do you have women in leadership?’ And I know it may feel weird because it's not the traditional kind of thing, but an employer isn't just interviewing you, you're interviewing an employer, as well. You want to make sure it's a place where you can thrive and where you will feel comfortable.
“And I know that can be hard, especially when you need the job. But quite honestly, if a company is not comfortable engaging in those conversations with you, that's not a place you want to work.”
WHAT IS A PIECE OF ADVICE THAT YOU WISH YOU HAD GOTTEN AT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR CAREER?
“There's advice that I gave this young Black woman in 2019. We were in the UK on a panel, and she asked a question that was always in my mind, but I never got the right advice for it when I was younger. She said, 'I'm the only one that looks like me on my team in my company. How do I make sure I fit in the box that is set out for me so that I can be successful?' And I said, ‘F that box. That box was put in place by other people for you. You don't fit in there. Think about an octagon. Think about fluidity. You are boundaryless. You are shapeless. And what your career is going to be, and your experiences, are what you are going to make, not what they set out for you.’
“I, of course, grew up at a time when I was told, ‘You have to work twice as hard to go half as far,’ and that's a mechanism of survival in environments that aren't necessarily meant for you to be successful. But I wish I would've gotten that other advice, as well, because that changes perspective.
“I don't have to be what you think I should fit into. I should make this what I need it to be for me. And I don't think I found that out until I got to Indeed. I started off working in inclusion, but I was able to say, ‘No one's managing accessibility in the way that I think we need to, so I'm going to take that on.’ Then I was like, ‘Let's talk about equitable hiring.’ So that's what helped my role morph into ESG: taking on things that weren't necessarily in my wheelhouse because I saw the gaps across the company. If I hadn't learned that advice of making something your own and making an impact in a company that it needs, regardless of your job description, I think things could have been a little different over my career, especially when I was younger.”