During Women’s History Month, we’ve been raising awareness of some incredible causes like The Global Fund for Women and The Girls Network. We are also inviting inspiring women to talk about topics that need more attention.
This interview features Danita Oliver, Senior Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leader at RingCentral.
You recently changed careers, can you describe what drove you in this direction?
When George Floyd was killed, the world witnessed it. Something happened that day (at least for me, and I think for many others) that sparked a convergence of my life experiences. Good and bad. I became keenly aware of my purpose from then on. And I wanted these last few chapters that I write in the book of Danita to be impactful. I wanted them to have significance through my role at work.
Not that the other chapters didn’t have an impact. But, throughout my career, I spent a lot of time focused on myself, my family, my desires, and I wanted to give back to the community. But I wanted my career to do what I was already doing in my personal life. Personally, I was already mentoring, coaching and volunteering. But everything culminated into this moment of clarity and I needed to use my career to give back.
I said, “I need to do something here; I can do something about this and contribute in a way that would be impactful.” And so I started there in 2020. I’ve been doing things like leading the employee resource group here for the Black employees. I’ve been involved in community events, mentoring and coaching women, and all kinds of things.
At that moment, I knew that I could help change the landscape, the understanding of people, for people, when it came to the areas of diversity, when it came to inclusion because all of my life had been in those directions. Everything that happened in my life led me to that moment of wanting to make a change and knowing it was what I had to do.
Are there any initiatives from that you think will make a substantive difference in addressing the workplace imbalance between men and women?
Some specific hiring and opportunity programmes focus on marginalised groups or people who are significantly underrepresented in the tech and corporate sectors. So there’s a programme aligned with the Ringtern programme for HBCU students , which are historically Black colleges and universities in the US. It’s called the HBCUs LEAD academy and is a programme that invests in students, bringing them in in their junior year instead of senior or grad school years.
Additionally, I created the ‘Transition N2 Tech’ programme to look at people who wanted to make a mid-career change. They’ve been in the workforce, so we know they’re reliable, consistent, and understand work ethic. Like me, they also decided to go in a different direction.
Which is a risk, you know, you’re 10-15 years into your career. You decide, “Hey, I no longer want to be a school teacher; I no longer want to be a registered nurse. I want to be a product designer or work on user experience, or I want to be in cybersecurity doing pin testing, or I want to be a coder.”
Whatever it is, it takes a lot of courage to make that transition, and then hope someone will consider you for a role. We aim to make inroads for people who made those decisions mid-career or mid-life. This was a pilot, and we successfully executed it in a product and technology organisation with three apprentices that we hired for four months. We invested in them, trained them. They learned our systems, one in UX and UI, two in cybersecurity. They went through the programme, and we’ve hired all three. It was a tremendous success. And all three now have full-time roles with RingCentral and are thriving. They’re excited about being a part of our culture, our company. They’re ready to give back and be productive. It was a programme for underrepresented minorities.
What advice would you pass on to other women to help them push past stereotypes and reach their full potential?
Don’t take your eyes off the prize!
First, you have to know what direction you want to go in and be open to changing, evolving, morphing, and maybe getting sidetracked. That’s because life happens. I never saw myself being a widow at 50. I also didn’t know that I would start a family in my thirties.
Being agile and flexible makes it easier in pursuing your career aspirations. When I was young, I wish I would have understood that because I had such a rigid view of how I wanted to get somewhere and whenever things didn’t go the way I wanted, I took it as personal rejection. What I’ve learned in my life is not to take it personally as all of it was necessary for me to get to where I had to be.
What I’m saying is, when unexpected things happen, shake off the dust, brush yourself off and keep on moving. Or, as my mother used to say to us, “Suck it up, buttercup. That’s life, and you gotta keep moving forward.”
I would also say to advocate for yourself. Let’s also talk about why it’s different for women of colour. One of the things that I have learned over the years is the importance of women supporting women and really building their brand. But I would tell you that advocating wasn’t common as a woman of colour, as a Black woman or African American woman, and it still isn’t comfortable.
I think it is for younger generations, I’m talking about Millennials; they may be a little bit more comfortable. I know Gen Z will feel much more comfortable advocating for themselves. But my generation, you just didn’t go around celebrating yourself. Not commonly.
Some may have learned how to do it, but there’s a cultural aspect to that, where we all have struggled in white cultures anyway. And because we have struggled, we have a tendency not to be as verbal and vocal. And when I was young, my being vocal was always perceived as aggressive. So it started to shut me down.
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share on the topics we’ve discussed?
All of these efforts, initiatives, events, webinars are about imparting an awareness of something you just didn’t previously know. And guess what, there’s a whole bunch I don’t know, I don’t begin to think I know it all. One of the reasons I do the work that I do is because we’re in a day and age where we can’t get away with not taking the time to learn about different cultures, genders and backgrounds anymore. Companies and their leadership teams need to focus on this because there’s a generation coming that will demand it.
Diversity of people, diversity of thought, diversity of experience makes businesses better, and inclusion of diverse people groups and their perspectives in building the business makes companies great.
Originally published Mar 31, 2022