Strengthening Diversity: Two CDOs talk about their companies’ strategies

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Essie CalhounEssie Calhoun • Chief Diversity Officer/Director of Community Affairs • Eastman Kodak Co.

In 2003, Eastman Kodak Co. chose Essie Calhoun to help it strengthen its diversity and inclusion initiatives among employees, customers, and suppliers. The role of chief diversity officer and director of community affairs keeps Calhoun up close and personal with the chairman and president, Antonio Perez, and makes her a “partner and adviser” in the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. Those initiatives include the Global Diversity and Inclusion Council, where Calhoun helps craft and implement strategies to maintain an environment that fosters inclusion and understanding wherever Eastman Kodak does business. They also include the Senior Executive Diversity and Inclusion Council, where Calhoun joins top management to champion what the company calls a “winning and inclusive culture.” 

Eastman Kodak’s supplier diversity program started in 1989 and has grown each year since, says Calhoun. The company does not disclose how much money it spends with minority suppliers, but Calhoun is forthcoming about its annual spending goals with such suppliers. “In 2006 we had a goal of at least 11 percent of our domestic spend [to be spent] with minority-owned businesses and we exceeded that goal. Our performance was 11.8 percent. This 11.8 percent is our highest,” she says.

The fallout from workforce reduction as the industry transforms from film imaging to digital imaging is particularly challenging, Calhoun says. “Our company over the last three years has reduced our worldwide work force by more than 21,000 people. That creates some uncertainty and some distractions. It also makes a challenge for us to make sure we set reasonable and achievable goals because our baseline continues to change,” she says.

Still, under her watch, the company has been placed among the country’s top companies for diversity. That’s “something that we are proud of,” she says.   

John R. KirkseyJohn R. Kirksey • Senior Vice President/Chief Diversity Officer • AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co.

In 2005, AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co. named John R. Kirksey senior vice president and chief diversity officer. Diversity strategies have long been a passion of Kirksey, and his current responsibilities—implementing the company’s diversity program and fostering an inclusive environment consistent with corporate goals—are right up his alley.

“Formally, AXA has had a diversity program for the last three years.  But…they have a long history of working with diversity. They just did not have an officer of diversity,” Kirksey says. “The formal office was created to make sure that we could leverage the success that we have and even greater success and social responsibility.”

Instead of setting numerical goals for supplier diversity, Kirksey says, AXA’s strategy is “to drive quality and service by promoting supplier competition. That means lending more opportunities to diverse businesses, including minorities and women-owned businesses.”

Finding diverse vendors for a company the size of AXA is challenging, Kirksey says. “What we look for are those opportunities with minority- or female-owned firms that have the experience dealing with large organizations, or, in some instances, the knowledge base that compensates for the lack of scale,” he says. “We have an African-American fund manager, Ariel Capital Management L.L.C., out of Chicago, that we have been doing business with for two years. Ariel Capital does have the experience from a scale standpoint that fits very well with an organization like ours, so they can be very competitive with any other fund manager.”

In 2006, AXA increased its spending with minority- and women-owned vendors by about 20 percent from 2005, Kirksey says. “That’s in the millions of dollars, so it’s not insignificant. We have percentages that we are shooting for. What we would like to do in the next two years is to double that percentage,” he says.