CHANGEMAKER: This Accidental Activist Now Leads Diversity Efforts at a Global Enterprise Software Firm. Q&A with Dionn Schaffner….
By Patrick DeLaney
Over the last couple of years, the world’s workforce was thrown an unanticipated obstacle from the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, which forced companies of all sizes to re-evaluate how they conduct business. The adjustment process was apparent as companies began to experiment with alternate work modes, including remote work and virtual workplaces that enable work teams to be comprised of employees working on different continents.
These new paradigms prompted a recalibration of overall business models. And, companies can now find and hire talent from a much larger and diverse talent pool.
Take Aurea, with HQ in Austin, for example. Dionn Schaffner is the chief diversity officer at this enterprise software provider. She’s an executive and an activist, with a passion for the principles of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).
In fact, it was her activism that attracted Aurea to her, not the other way around. She was so involved with local charities and community outreach in Austin that Aurea noticed her and gave her an opportunity to amplify what she was already doing.
Here’s a Q&A with this dynamic Changemaker:
Can you please explain your role with Aurea? In general, how involved are you with the other executives in the organization in terms of charting a more equitable and inclusive future for the company as a whole?
Schaffner: My role within Aurea is two-fold. First, I am leading our internal DEI journey. At Aurea, our vision is to enable a diverse and equitable work environment — free of biases — where all employees feel seen, heard and valued as integral members of the organization.
We are focused on improving our ability to recruit and retain the best and the brightest regardless of who or where they are. This includes hiring across diversity dimensions including ethnicity, gender/gender identity, native-speaking language, socioeconomic background/status and identification as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Second, my role is to support our customers on their DEI journeys by educating, evaluating, creating and using best practices. I empower our customers to use the full breadth and depth of our products and services to support their DEI efforts and initiatives.
I continue to be encouraged and supported by the other executives within our company. Leadership understands the importance of DEI both from a business perspective as well as a people perspective. I report directly to our CEO Scott Brighton and have access to all levels of the organization. One of my favorite quotes from Chief Revenue Officer Ben Cohen is, “We want to be better humans.”
Now, as the world’s workforce rebounds from the uncertainty of COVID, the rise of alternative workplaces has allowed companies to re-make their corporate structures, which has encouraged the influx of new ideas and strategies. How would you say this environment has allowed diversity to become an even higher priority?
Schaffner: Alternative workplaces have helped organizations realize some of their diversity goals. They remove structural barriers and create opportunities for underrepresented talent to gain access in ways they haven’t previously. What excites me most about what’s happening right now is the opportunity to not just rebound “back to normal,” because “normal” was designed by, and held together mostly for, cis-gendered—those whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex— white men…but to use this disruption to intentionally redesign how we work in ways that are equitable and inclusive for everyone.
Does Sococo, Aurea’s proprietary online workplace software, incorporate elements of your vision in this regard?
Schaffner: Sococo is a virtual office tool that works with existing communication tools, like Zoom video conferencing, to bring the connectedness of a real life office environment to employees, using a virtual interface. Teams using Sococo can set up virtual floor plans that mimic the layout of real office cubicles and conference rooms. So even though the workers in a particular unit may be physically on different sides of the country or world, with Sococo they are able to interact and collaborate as if they are sharing the same break room at a physical office.
The software has the ability to facilitate many of the life-like interactions that we’ve lost from co-located work, resulting in more frequent and spontaneous interactions throughout the organization.
The key result of this sense of “presence” is establishing broader and deeper connections among team members. Connection is a key tenet of inclusion. Teams using Sococo make 2.5 times more extra-team connections (not directly linked to their work) than intra-team connections. Establishing these kinds of connections matter because that creates employees who are more engaged and less likely to leave.
As O.C. Tanner (an institute that researches and examines the trends, statistics, and perceptions that are shaping workplace cultures) described in its 2022 Global Culture Report, employees who feel connected to their team, leaders and organization are 11 times more likely to stay at that organization for the next three years.
On that same token, as tech evolves and increases the flexibility of future business practices, can you speak to the importance of how seemingly small changes in corporate practices — like the inclusion of pronoun identifiers and accessibility options (e.g. aids for visual- or hearing-impaired users) — can bolster a company’s reach to both employees and clients?
Schaffner: What I like about these seemingly small moves is that we are making changes at the systems level. This is where we start to create long-term, enduring changes. You hear the term “microaggressions” or phrases like “death by paper cuts” when you talk to populations that have been discriminated against in some way. It’s not the singular small aggression or the one paper cut that gets you; it’s the repeated injustice over-and-over that’s embedded into the systems.
When you do things like add live-captioning (the technology that automatically generates text of the spoken dialogue in a video/stream), pronouns, or name pronunciation to your systems and processes, you are embedding intentional inclusion into the fabric of the organization. It doesn’t go unnoticed.
With more than 25 years of experience fulfilling different roles in the corporate world, what would you say have been the key traits that have sustained you in your journey?
Schaffner: Don’t be afraid of small wins. Just like microaggressions, microWINS can build up over time into something extraordinary. Some folks like to swing a big bat and think it has to be a home run or nothing. My approach has been to get on base and then use your other skills — like speed and timing — to play smart and leverage your allies and teammates around you, who can show you how to get around the bases for a score.
Know the landscape. As a Black woman, I’m constantly battling biases against me. I’m a firm believer in speaking up and being passionate about what you believe in, but also recognize that I need to balance that passion against those biases in our existing climate.
Two ladies who deliver masterclasses in this daily? The soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and Vice President Kamala Harris. Watching these ladies do their work — while skating along the razor edge of being firm but not too assertive, passionate but not too emotional, and all the other things Black women must do to be heard — is both disappointing (that it has to be done this way) and inspiring.
Know Who You Are. I think it is also important to have some deep reflection and know who you are, what is important to you and how you define success for yourself.
I’m a marathoner and participate in Ironman competitions. I’m prepared to hunker down, settle in and take it step-by-step for the long haul. With that kind of mentality, I can usually weather the ups and downs, being exhausted while keeping the bigger picture in mind. That’s not to say that I don’t have my moments of despair, but knowing that I can make my way through it keeps me going.
I was intrigued by the fact that in addition to you having earned a BS in Computer Science and an MBA from Stanford University, you also got a Writing Certificate, with an emphasis in novel writing. Has this element of your educational background played into your professional career so far? Have you, or do you plan to publish, any novels/fiction in the future?
Schaffner: Yes! I actually had to put my novel writing on hold when I started with Aurea over a year ago. It turns out that storytelling as a method of delivering information, content, ideas, and even rallying people to your cause works professionally, as well as in entertainment! Even though my background has been in technology and business, there’s a creative side to me that is always seeking to get out and create! I do have the first 10,000 words of my first novel on paper and I look forward to eventually getting that done!
That’s great to hear. Outside of your professional work, you are also involved with several local organizations, including serving as a board member with Foster Place, which supports and advocates for under-served foster children. Would you say that your involvement with these types of local causes is an extension of your vision for a more equitable and inclusive future for all?
Schaffner: It was actually my involvement in these areas that led to my professional focus right now. I call myself an “accidental activist”. As a volunteer, I’m driven by the base notion of equity and inclusion. Just give people the chance to be amazing and most often, they will! And that’s good for not just them, but for the world. It was through this work that Aurea approached me. I recognized that by coming to Aurea, I could make a bigger impact — not just inside the company, but also because I get to work with all of our customers on DEI initiatives.
Previously, from my little spot in Northwest Austin, I didn’t have that kind of reach. I’m grateful to Aurea for the chance to amplify what I’m doing on a much larger scale. (That’s allyship right there!) And it’s all the same work: how can we remove barriers, provide resources, and create opportunities for people to be successful?
Is there anything else you would like to add, or any wisdom you would like to send out to future thought leaders in tech?
Schaffner: Be open. Be humble. Be kind. Use your superpowers, your unique combination of time, talent, treasure and spheres of influence to inspire and deliver in ways that allow any person to be who they are and to participate equitably in this world. It doesn’t have to be something big. Start small. Just start. You got this. I believe in you.