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Meet Kareen Onyeaju - Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Practitioner

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

By: Allison Colin-Thome, Drift Employer Brand Coordinator

Kareen Onyeaju is a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion practitioner, most recently focused in the Tech industry in Toronto, and will be a panelist at the forthcoming Drift event Conversations with Impact: Intersectionality at Work. I had the chance to sit down with Kareen and discuss her background, and her thoughts around the current state of diversity and inclusion work in the corporate space.

Showing up for my team meant speaking honestly about how I was feeling, and listening attentively to our company objectives to fight against oppression. (...) For those who haven’t done these things, let this be a reminder that working in black skin means working alongside insurmountable pressure." - Kareen Onyeaju, "Working While Black - How Our Black Struggle Affects Mental Health"

Can you share with me a little bit about your professional career journey to date?

My professional journey into becoming a D&I practitioner began when I was a student. During my time at Carleton University I worked as a Programming Coordinator of Race, Ethnicity and Culture., where my role was to manage a lounge on campus that was primarily for racialized folks and plan events that celebrated culture and diversity. Once I entered the Tech industry my passion for D&I grew, as I was lucky enough to have a manager that really embraced my ideas and goals. Together we created a sustainable D&I strategy as well as programming during what ended up being really turbulent times. Currently I'm in the process of completing my Inclusion Professional Certification with the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, which has allowed me to dedicate the last two years to deep D&I education and study while I was working.

Your role as a Program Coordinator is intriguing. What was it like managing a space for racialized students when you were a racialized student yourself?

It was awesome. We'd have deep conversations from subjects such as the politics of Black love, to our very similar and different experiences with racism and discrimination.

In sharing stories about what folks are experiencing as students, I found that we were able to learn from one another and relate to each other. It could be hard, not all of those conversations went well, not everyone had the same ideas and sometimes you were that person with the dissenting opinion. But I was able to expand my thinking and it shaped my future behavior and experiences.

You mentioned co-creating a D&I strategy and programming once you entered the Tech industry. Can you tell me more about the projects and initiatives that you've worked on in the D&I space?

Absolutely. During my time in tech, I was able to build with my team our first ever D&I strategy for an organization. We also worked on creating our first employee resource group and affinity groups, and I created and facilitated workshops on varying topics including unconscious bias in the workplace. A lot of my work also involved analyzing feedback and demographic surveys that we would launch biannually and identifying where we could make improvements for employees.

Of all your work in the D&I space so far, what has been some of the most enjoyable aspects?

My favorite part of this work is actually engaging one-on-one with folks. It could be either trying to tackle a specific D&I problem, or just supporting employees in their role where perhaps they're not being heard by their managers. I love having open and honest conversations with people and identifying ways to further support them. I learn a lot from people by just having a regular conversation. It’s not necessarily always specific to D&I , conversations in the past could have been related to their role for instance, but I love those moments where I get to connect with people and hear what they have to say.

Conversely, what’s been the most challenging aspect of your work?

I think there's two parts here. First, I think it's developing an understanding that you have to be patient as a D&I practitioner, since not everyone is at the same level of understanding with these issues. That’s a very important piece to keep in mind.

The other part is just taking time for yourself. Some of this work feels heavy, it can take a toll on your emotional and mental health. The work that D&I practitioners engage in makes it important to ensure you are taking care of yourself and taking the breaks when you need it. It's incredibly important.

In regards to issues of diversity, inclusion and intersectionality specifically, do you think there has been a change in recent years in regards to how receptive the corporate world is to these conversations?

I think on paper there has been a barrage of statements supporting D&I in the corporate world and that is great But it's difficult when you see these statements being made and they aren’t reflected in the diversity reports. In my opinion, it's not commonplace that intersectionality is a part of these conversations. I think a lot of businesses perhaps rushed to make a statement but it was a bit performative. I'm interested to see a study in a few years from now about what actually happened. There were a lot of businesses who formed coalition's and stood behind strong statements. I am interested in seeing what has occurred since these conversations have reemerged. We're in a middle ground right now waiting to see if all the movement will result in a change.

Do you think that there is hesitation or resistance at all from people to engage in these conversations?

I think on some level, there always will be some resistance or hesitation to engage in conversations about D&I . We're asking people to change how they think and behave. There's a lot of unlearning that needs to happen, but I also think that sometimes fear will hinder someone from that unlearning. For example you can have an individual contributor working in an organization who raises their D&I concerns. Yet they might receive forms of backlash or retaliation from their peers or manager, even be labeled a disrupter for simply caring about D&I and intersectionality. If the culture is not supportive of raising concerns it can be difficult to have folks engage in the conversation through their own volition.

What do you see as some of the advantages to ensuring corporate strategies are inclusive and created with diversity and intersectionality at the forefront?

There's endless advantages. What would be a disadvantage in trying to make sure your workplace is built to reflect all possible people? This is essentially all about building a people first culture and thinking about how you can scale successfully - you can't scale successfully as a business without thinking about inclusion and intersectionality. You can't be innovative if everyone's thinking the same.

In talking about having these conversations around D&I how can we make these conversations more accessible and less intimidating? And whose responsibility is that?

Leadership is key in making sure that conversations about D&I are accessible and less intimidating.

I think within a business if there is consistent guidance and messaging coming from managers and the leadership team, employees will understand the importance of the message and will understand that the mission and vision is not separate from their work. They're going to understand that this is what we do, this is who we are as an organization, and they'll feel more comfortable sharing their concerns with their team. So I think it really does start with leadership and I think often that is a major missing piece. In a lot of organizations, leadership may say that they want to get involved but aren't thinking about how to incorporate their participation with the rest of the organization. Leaders are not always engaging with folks over these issues. They may not attend any of the events. So when you start to see that, that's when you start to feel a lot of apathy from their direct reports and peers because they believe their own managers don’t care.

Many companies are now requiring employees back to the office, which will reignite conversations about equity, inclusion and respect for intersectionality in the workplace. What, in your opinion, are some of the most important things organizations can do right now to ensure employees are reentering a safe and equitable environment?

This is such an important conversation. Seeing that companies are demanding rather than navigating a plan to return to the office is tricky because they're not really protecting their employees.. For example we’re in a climate right now where things are ridiculously expensive. Rent for one bedroom in the city is $3,000 a month. There are folks who have since moved far from the office, who have begun routines that are better for themselves and their family. There are folks like myself who are neurodivergent, who have never really fared well in busy office environments, because perhaps they're easily distracted or more introverted. I think when we're discussing reentering the office and trying to create a safe and equitable environment, it's important that we're considering these things as well. Is it worth losing talent by mandating that folks return?

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