Inside DoorDash’s Leadership Accelerator for Women of Color

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It’s clear that companies must address the systemic race and gender issues that contribute to the problem of women of color’s advancement in organizations, but those women shouldn’t have to wait until they do. A genuine commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion for women of color will require a variety of initiatives. These should affect every aspect of the employee experience from recruitment to exit. While no single program is a silver bullet, a well-designed career accelerator can ensure women of color advance in your company. The authors explain how DoorDash created a career accelerator for women of color — and how you can implement a similar program at your own organization.

Hiring women of color is just one piece of a company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Another is advancement in the organization, and that’s still a challenge. In 2020, women of color held only 12% of managerial positions, 9% of senior manager/director roles, and 3% of C-suite titles. For Black women, these percentages were even lower. Frustratingly, the numbers have remained unchanged for the past six years.

It’s clear that companies must address the systemic race and gender issues that contribute to the problem, but women of color shouldn’t have to wait until they do. Launching programs that focus on inclusion, especially career advancement, can make a big difference in the interim, especially if they combine coaching and sponsoring women of color with manager training.

Here’s how one company created a career accelerator for women of color — and how you can implement a similar program at your own organization.

DoorDash’s Elevate Program

DoorDash, Bie’s employer and a client of Gayle’s company, is a logistics platform headquartered in San Francisco. (You may know it as the company that delivers your favorite takeout.) Committed to increasing the number of women, people of color, and nonbinary employees at all levels of the organization, the company developed a program it named Elevate. As Lisa Lee, the company’s VP of global culture and belonging, shared, “We will miss out on innovation and growth if these important perspectives are not incorporated in key business decisions.”

Elevate is a career accelerator designed specifically for women of color who hold or aspire to hold leadership roles in the company. Participants, known as “fellows,” engage in a six-month cohort experience, which includes the following monthly activities:

  • One-on-one coaching sessions with an external executive coach
  • Executive sponsor meetings with company directors and C-suite members
  • Career workshops
  • Attendance at leadership team meetings

Toward the end of the program, fellows create a career plan in collaboration with their manager, sponsor, coach, and program manager. They also reflect on their three most important takeaways and share these during a graduation ceremony, which is attended by their managers and members of the company’s senior management team, including C-suite executives. “The speeches and the collective celebrations of the Elevate members at the conclusion of the program are some of the most heartwarming I’ve ever experienced in a corporate setting,” shared Ryan Sokol, VP of engineering and a sponsor in the program. “This program builds confidence and raises the leaders of DoorDash’s tomorrow.”

Elevate is now in its third cohort, and participant data confirms it’s had a significant impact in three areas:

  1. Career progression: Within six months of completing the program, 38% of fellows earned promotions, a significant increase compared to their non-Elevate peers.
  2. Hiring and retention: There’s been a marked increase in managers recommending fellows to others. This is good news for hiring and retaining women of color.
  3. Career navigation: Fellows learned to position themselves more strategically for new roles and promotions. They also addressed skill gaps that might hinder advancement.

How to Launch Your Own Career Accelerator

Launching a successful program requires three actions. Bear in mind that if the program doesn’t create real change, it won’t be around very long.

Identify the right leader. Find a “passionate builder,” an advocate for women of color who’s eager to create the program. If possible, target someone at the senior manager or director level who has influence throughout the organization. Other traits to look for include:

  • Invested: They want women of color to advance, know why it’s important that they do, and recognize how systemic racism holds them back. They’re also willing to educate others to help them understand.
  • Persuasive: They listen well, answer questions effectively, and speak with confidence. They anticipate resistance and tailor their message to different audiences.
  • Adaptable: They work with the resources they have and find ways to get what they need to accomplish their goals.
  • Data driven: They know what data will help measure success and plan how and when to gather it.

Generate buy-in. To ensure the program’s success, it’s essential to get buy-in from key stakeholder groups. Here’s what’s needed from each:

  • Leaders: Their buy-in includes budget approval for the program. They should also serve as sponsors and give participants access to team meetings.
  • Managers: Their buy-in assures they’ll promote the program. If one of their direct reports participates, they’ll attend manager training sessions and meetings.
  • Participants: Their buy-in means they’ll attend all program meetings and activities. They’ll also serve as a resource to their colleagues in the program and will consider serving as a mentor to future participants.

To get buy-in more quickly, start with a pilot. A smaller group means less money. It also helps you gather data to measure impact. Finally, it lets you work out any kinks in the program before it’s rolled out to a wider audience with a bigger spotlight.

Ensure results for participants. Ultimately, the program’s success hinges on whether women of color get promoted. The tricky thing is that each participant will need something different to ensure they get ahead.

For example, some might want help navigating the promotion process or expanding their network. Others might need to connect with a sponsor who will advocate on their behalf. Still others may benefit from watching strategic thinking and decision making in action in leadership meetings. All may benefit from the increased confidence that comes from interacting with leaders across the company.

That’s why a diverse set of program elements is so important. Providing coaching, offering skill-building workshops, connecting each participant to a sponsor and a network of leaders, and giving them access to leadership meetings can ensure they each get what they need to accelerate their career.

Finally, gathering data is key. In addition to looking at promotion numbers, gather data on changes in participants’ confidence levels before and after the program. Find out how their network changed, whether they gained a mentor, how they now think about their career, and what they learned from attending leadership meetings. Ultimately, you want to discover which elements of the program had the biggest impact and why. 

A genuine commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion for women of color will require a variety of initiatives. These should affect every aspect of the employee experience from recruitment to exit. While no single program is a silver bullet, a well-designed career accelerator can ensure women of color advance in your organization.

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