As a 19-year-old, Kaye Foster came to the United States with $50 in her pocket. Today, after a career that has included senior HR positions at Onyx Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, is a sought-after advisor and executive coach for The Boston Consulting Group.
In September 2020, Foster met virtually with Spencer Stuart’s biopharma team for a conversation about her unique career path, corporate diversity and inclusion efforts. Below is the interview, edited for clarity and length.
Spencer Stuart: When describing your life story, you say it’s titled “From the Toilet to the Tower.” Can you explain why?
Kaye Foster: I grew up in Barbados and came to the United States when I was 19 with only $50 in my pocket. I was confident I would find the American Dream, but instead I faced the immigrant reality. I couldn’t find a job, so I worked scrubbing toilets, cooking and as a nanny. But I got an education and eventually had a successful corporate career, including as the CHRO of Johnson & Johnson, where my office was literally in the Tower, a white building — ergo, my story “From the Toilet to the Tower.”
Could you tell us about your approach to your career after leaving the traditional CHRO role? How have recent events have shifted your focus?
After Onyx was acquired by Amgen, I decided to create a portfolio for my career and life across consulting, philanthropy and academia. I work as a senior advisor with The Boston Consulting Group, I serve on several public, private and NGO boards, and I’m a guest lecturer at Stanford Business School and Columbia University Graduate School of Business.
The context of recent racial injustices like George Floyd marks a critical juncture, but I’ve always been committed to social and racial justice. My plan was always to amplify the NGO area of the portfolio at this stage of my life, so although my increased role as a “social justice warrior” didn’t happen because of George Floyd, my commitment to social and racial justice is more relevant now than any time in my life story.
It’s been said that increasing diversity is hard. What do you say to that?
I don’t accept that language. It’s critical for leaders to understand that words matter, because language creates your reality. If you say something is difficult, you will approach it like it’s a challenge. Recruiting diverse talent is not difficult; recruiting diverse talent is different. It requires innovation, and an effort to cultivate genuine relationships.
For example, every academic institution has an alumni association comprised of their minority alumni; for example, at Columbia University, that association is the Black Alumni Council. Reach out to these groups and get to know the members. I’ve heard people say that their minority coworkers are “unicorns,” but this is not true. Diverse talent is exceptional, but they are not the exception. Creating these barriers in your language regarding diversity is too frequently used to let leaders off the hook.
How do you gauge diversity awareness within an organization?
The evolution of today’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion is rooted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment based on certain protected classes. Many companies are focused solely on the employment dimension of diversity, but the crux of DE&I work must be at the system level. It must be integrated internally on talent, externally with suppliers and other stakeholder networks, and with social impact initiatives. How active is the organization and ecosystem in engaging diverse communities? Where’s most of your giving focused and what is the impact? Where do your employees volunteer, where do they spend their time? Do your employees have the day off to vote? Do they have floating holidays?
For me, I’m unapologetically focused on race with respect to diversity. I think it’s the most challenging to address, but I believe that as a company, and as a nation, if we crack that code, it will accelerate progress in the other dimensions of diversity. The last few decades of diversity efforts have absolutely moved the needle on gender in corporate America, specifically for white women. But looking objectively, by any measure (such as economic and social mobility or academic achievement), we haven’t seen parity gains for racial minorities.
Is there a priority among diversity, equity and inclusion? For organizations that want to increase DEI, what comes first?
It’s not diversity, equity, and then inclusion — the hard part is addressing them all at the same time. And equity is more important than equality. Equality assumes that we are all starting from the same place, which we know is not the case. Equity considers the systems in place and recognizes that everyone is not approaching a situation or role with the same context. People come from different backgrounds and need access to different tools and resources. For a more tangible example, I say that equality is like spreading peanut butter around to everyone. Someone might have enough bread to make two sandwiches with the peanut butter, but I may not have any bread!
What advice do you have for Black and Brown colleagues that want to support the advancement of diversity, equity, and inclusion but are overwhelmed?
It’s called “Black fatigue.” Sometimes it happens to me as well. A colleague will ask me a question and I am inclined to say, “400 years of slavery, and now we have Google, just look it up!”
It’s important for white colleagues to say that you don’t expect Black colleagues to shoulder this diversity load. Don’t just be consumers of content; be willing to get educated and engaged. This goes back to the holistic look at diversity and a consideration for the things that are relevant outside of the office as well. As a Black woman, I could work in a high-profile position, but still be terrified by the prospect of being stopped by police. This is another situation where language is important. We have additional stress, not burdens. It’s important to not diminish the contributions of Black colleagues, and not engage with them from a stance of pity.
That’s actually one thing I’m worried about currently. The impact of this attention shouldn’t be a lens that black colleagues are fragile or need to be protected. Reframe your language and thinking to understand and accept that your black colleagues are resilient. Despite all that they face, they still show up every day and produce.
One additional note for white colleagues: I can’t represent the totality of my race. The question I hate the most is, “What do black people think about [insert here]?” Allyship and education is another example where reframing language can be powerful: this is not a problem to be solved, it’s an opportunity to create value.
How can organizations accelerate their DEI journey?
Some of the biggest leverage we have right now is in the board room. When I was a senior officer at one of my previous companies, our board was not actively engaged in discussions on diversity. We were a firm that had a long history of diversity, with a diversity officer and a fair amount of investment. What became clear, though, following a 10-year review of our talent, was that we had created a revolving door of diversity because we hadn’t worked on inclusion or considered what the environment was like for diverse employees. Diverse candidates were leaving because they weren’t advancing
We reflected and asked ourselves what commitments we needed to make. We hadn’t invested adequately in helping our middle management and supervisors learn how to coach across race, gender, sexual orientation and other diversity dimensions. Supervisors felt ill equipped to give feedback to minority employees because they were afraid to make a mistake, so they just didn’t provide any. The organization wasn’t helping Black colleagues progress and develop, so the employees got stuck. It was only when we started to understand the pathology that we were able to make progress. This is why the assessment and diagnosis of the current state of diversity within the company is so critical.
Another note: we also conducted extensive training, but it was clear that training wasn’t the solution. While it changes mindsets and opens people’s eyes to the implicit system-level bias, it doesn’t actually equip leaders with the skills they need in performance management and coaching.
Which organizations do this work well?
There are parts of the work that companies are doing well, but there’s not one company that I believe has nailed it. Part of the challenge is that we are in a dynamic environment, considering the COVID-19 pandemic and societal unrest. Last year, I’d have answered a company like Google, which invests employee benefits and creates a product that brings community together. You could say that they’re deploying their platform in a way that’s making progress. However, if you looked at their workforce demographic, you’d say it’s not enough. I take the holistic lens of diversity across employees and suppliers, etc. While some companies excel in some of these dimensions, I can’t think of a particular one that’s delivering on all of them.