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Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2021 Features

Panelists Share Experiences of Thriving Authentically as Persons of Color in the Corporate World

By Becky Kramer • Image courtesy of Tyson Livingston

Jesse Quintanilla (‘06 Busi. Admin. & Accounting) was interviewing for an entry-level accounting job at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories when the recruiter realized he spoke Spanish.

Instead of the job he’d applied for, Quintanilla was offered an accounting position supporting the company’s Latin American operations.

“Because I spoke Spanish and I’m Mexican American, it opened up huge opportunities for me. It launched my career into what I’m doing today,” says Quintanilla, international finance director for Schweitzer Engineering, a Pullman-based company that sells products in more than 160 countries.

In April, the Carson College of Business, the WSU Martin Luther King Program, and the University’s Office of Outreach and Education hosted four multicultural panelists who shared their experiences in the corporate world with WSU students across majors.

The event—“Thriving Authentically: Ascending Industry While Identifying as a Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color”—raised awareness of the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace while giving students and the larger WSU community a window into the professional experiences of people in underrepresented groups.

Companies that are expanding outside their local footprint need and value diversity, panelists said.

With Gary Barquet (’15 Human Dev.) moderating, the panelists discussed being trailblazers in their industries, the importance of mentors, and finding a corporate culture that aligns with their values.

“One Face Can Result in Change”

Julie Wilson works for Wine Warehouse in San Francisco, where she is the distributor’s regional manager on premise. The modern wine and beer industry’s European origins still carry over in a lack of diversity, she said—just 1 percent of winery and spirit brand owners are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

“I don’t think it’s an intentional exclusion,” Wilson said. “When the beverage industry came to the United States, it was already very homogenous and that has continued.”

“Seeing a face like mine—which maybe the industry is not used to—helps people realize there is a place for everyone in the wine and spirits industry,” she said. “You don’t think that one face can result in change, but as you get farther along in your career, the more you have an impact.”

Wilson credited professional mentors and belonging to an employee resource group for helping her grow her skills, be heard, and advance in her career. She encouraged students to seek out employers who value innovation. As a result, they’ll value diverse ideas from a diverse workforce, she said.

Diversity enhances a company’s competitiveness, said DJ Bridges, university relationship manager for Rocket Mortgage in Detroit. “If you have a more diverse population of team members, your business moves forward at a more rapid clip,” he said.

Joshua Hibbitt (’18 Hist.), a business consultant for Cintas Corporation, said he appreciates working for a company that invests in his professional growth and makes diversity an ongoing priority.

“Every year, you have to reevaluate and ask, ‘Are we doing everything we need to do to be diverse?’” he said. “The conversations have to keep rising. If we settle, we aren’t going to be diverse.”

Creating a Diverse Workforce

Companies can be proactive about increasing diversity by expanding their recruiting efforts, panelists said.

“Look at different places instead of just your typical job conferences and recruiting events,” Wilson said. “Recruit people who didn’t take a traditional path. Look at students who didn’t go straight from high school to college, who have a gap year, or who went to community college before transferring to a four-year school.”

In addition, diversity among the company’s leadership is critical, Quintanilla said. “Having that representation among managers, vice presidents, and the C-suite is very important,” he said. “They can push that culture.”

Panelists also emphasized the value of diversity training to increase awareness and build an inclusive workplace.

“Providing training helps employees understand what challenges are faced by people of color,” Bridges said. “You may never be able to walk in those shoes, but if you can understand, you can become a really good ally.”

Panelists encouraged students to go after the jobs they aspire to, even if representation by people of color is limited in that industry.

“Being the only person of color in a room can be challenging,” Bridges said. “But when you speak up, you are helping the people coming after you. Don’t be afraid to be a trailblazer.”