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allego diversity, equity, and inclusion
August 25, 2022

How Chief People Officer Amy Cohn Is Helping Allego on its DE&I Journey

allego diversity, equity, and inclusion

For Allego Chief People Officer Amy Cohn, DE&I is an ongoing journey. It’s a long-term commitment supported by everyone in the company—from the CEO down to the interns.

And it can be a challenge if leadership and all departments don’t embrace it—don’t see the need to learn and improve. Fortunately, that isn’t the case at Allego, Cohn said. In fact, it was CEO and co-founder Yuchun Lee’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) that compelled Cohn to take the CPO position.

Since joining the company in January, Cohn has helped Allego make strides on DE&I. She’s played a key role in developing a workplace environment that celebrates employees’ differences, empowers employees to be allies, encourages people to learn about different cultures and life experiences, and provides opportunities for engagement.

It’s all about creating “environments where people of all differences can thrive and have success at work,” she said.

In this Q&A, Cohn discusses how she helps to create that type of environment at Allego, why DE&I is important, DE&I programs she has implemented, how Allego’s workplace culture has shifted, and what inspires her to keep doing the work

Allego: What made you want to join Allego?

Amy Cohn: “I had been aware of Allego for a long time because I have two prior colleagues who are executives at the company. I had kept in touch with them, learning what Allego does, and when the chief people officer role became available, they reached out.

“My interest to join came after I did more research into what Allego’s mission is, which is that success at work is fundamental to human happiness, and that just truly resonates with me. I feel like my role is to create environments where people of all different backgrounds can thrive and have success at work.

I feel like my role is to create environments where people of all different backgrounds can thrive and have success at work.

“Some of the other things that attracted me to the position is there was a commitment to DE&I. Allego’s CEO and co-founder, Yuchun Lee, had been playing the lead around the DE&I efforts. When the CEO plays that role, it says a lot about the commitment from the company.

“Yuchun is very thoughtful about his approach to DE&I, what it means at Allego, and how you bring people along. He recognizes that it’s a learning journey where everyone is at a different point in that journey—and that’s OK as long as people are committed to making progress.”

Allego: What career path did you take that led you to Allego? Who or what has influenced you?

Cohn: “A lot of things and people have influenced me along the way. Prior to joining Allego, I had been with a company called Quickbase. I worked there for six years as the chief people officer. I joined that organization at a time when they were being divested from Intuit to become a standalone company.

“I led the HR, talent, culture, organizational, and development initiatives for them to become a standalone company and then helped them gear up for the next phase of growth. I saw myself as the champion of culture: what that meant for us, how we became a growth company, and our commitment to DE&I.”

Allego: Since joining Allego, how has the workplace culture shifted?

Cohn: “Two shifts have happened that I’ve helped the company with.

“One is becoming a hybrid organization, what that means, and what it looks like. Employees had been remote for so long. And during that time, the company hired over a 100 people, distributed across the organization, as well as the globe, and we acquired a company. So, we’ve been working on the best way to bring our employees along into this new world of hybrid work. Our approach to that has been to empower the managers to work with their teams on what works best for them.

“It’s hugely important that what we do does not disrupt people’s lives. People found a lot of joy in being remote and created different ways of working, and we don’t want people to think they will lose anything in this future phase. That means for people who want to come into the office, we need to create moments that matter—give them a reason to come in. At the same time, we need to recognize we have some people who have really embraced remote work and feel they are more productive working from home.

“The other shift has been with our efforts around DE&I. The areas we’ve focused on this year are equity and inclusion. We’ve done three different trainings, two primarily focused on managers. We wanted to bring our managers in first with training on how to build an inclusive environment, which focused a lot on unconscious bias. The idea being they could start emulating the right behaviors. Then all employees participated in a similar training.

“I’ve been incredibly impressed by how our employees have shown up for those. In each, we created breakout rooms for people to have more intimate discussions, share a little bit more about themselves, and understand what it means to have different aspects of your identity. The question we’re asking is, how can we create spaces where people feel comfortable bringing their identities forward?

“Recently, we conducted an employee engagement survey that included questions about hybrid work and DE&I, and the responses showed employees believe we’re doing well and making progress on both.”

Allego: Why are DE&I initiatives important in general and why are they important to Allego?

Cohn: “I truly believe that for organizations to be the best they can be, they must have diverse perspectives. That means you need to have people of diverse backgrounds and differences, and it’s our job as an organization to create the environment where people are comfortable bringing their differences to light, to the table, and feeling as though they can contribute. It’s the only way to both attract diverse employees and retain them.

“In my role, I have the most opportunity to drive change. And at Allego, it’s about creating an environment where respect is at the core of everything you do and say, and people are open to and embrace different perspectives in every meeting and situation they’re involved in. That’s what makes the difference, and it takes time. You can’t flip these things on in people’s heads and say, ‘OK, now we’re going to approach these things differently.’”

Allego: What types of DE&I programs have been implemented at Allego so far this year? And how are employees benefiting from your efforts?

Cohn: “In addition to the inclusive training, we have created programs to help people learn about different cultures and life experiences and help them engage with their co-workers. For example, we celebrated Black History Month in February, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month in May, and Pride Month in June. For each, we shared content—books, movies, podcasts—and then had discussions around them.

“I’m incredibly impressed by how people have engaged in those programs. Because they can be difficult conversations. But many see it as an opportunity to learn and engage, and that is huge. People’s reactions to our DE&I programs have ranged from, ‘I’d never even thought about this before’ to ‘This is what I experience every day’ to ‘I’ve really put some thought into this and am now thinking about how it applies to my own behavior and the workplace.’

“We’ve also created a way for us to continue learning in the context of work by helping us recognize when bias might be cropping up, or when we have an opportunity to increase our cultural competence. We use the shared phrase ‘purple flag’ to normalize and gently help each other learn and break biases, in a way that we can all recognize, and so that we don’t have to search for language to use in the moment. It takes courage both to interrupt bias and to be receptive to hearing that you may have demonstrated it or said something that someone else may have found offensive.

“So, if you are in a meeting—whether it’s in person or virtual—and you experience or witness something that you believe is rooted in bias—you say ‘purple flag’ or type it in the chat window. The person flagging the comment may explain why they did so then or have a private conversation with the person after the meeting. It is never intended to be shameful, just a way to help people on their learning journey. So, we presume the person had good intentions, but we acknowledge the impact of what somebody might have said or done.

“That experience benefits everybody. You get to see, you get to experience, you get to learn. It’s also a great way to be an ally. It’s not just performative. It’s a way to take the power that you have and use it for good in ways that other people might not be comfortable.”

Allego: What is your vision for Allego’s journey on DE&I moving forward? How do you plan to achieve that vision?

Cohn: “DE&I is an ongoing journey. I don’t think there’s ever an end point; it is a long-term commitment. It isn’t like, “Hey, we held unconscious bias training, so we’re good.” It has to stay front and center.

“One of the things we will be working on at Allego—as part of our DE&I learning journey—is building safer spaces and an environment where people feel much more comfortable speaking up and being themselves. We’re also going to look at how we engage people from historically marginalized communities within our organization. That could be through employee resource groups, round-table discussions, or another format.

“We’re also working to attract more diverse talent. To help with that, we started building an inclusive hiring toolkit to reframe our hiring processes.”

Allego: What is the most challenging part of implementing a DE&I program?

Cohn: “One of the challenges I face  is how to develop programs that reach people where they are when employees engage from so many different places. It can often feel like the same group of people show up—the people who are already deeply engaged in DEI. Finding ways to bring everyone along is hard.

“Another challenge is people want to understand what they personally can do each day to make progress. So, giving people very clear, actionable things they can do on a day-to-day basis is hard.”

Allego: Creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace takes a lot of time and work. Where do you find inspiration to continue your efforts?

Cohn: “I have people I talk to—people who keep me energized, who challenge me, and help me to learn more. I also spend a lot of my personal time reading and learning. I absolutely love the book Plantation Theory by John Graham. The book Unleashed by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss is also incredible. The book goes deep into inclusion and how to build really positive environments by establishing trust so people feel cherished in their workplaces. Those are two books that I highly recommend.”

Allego: What’s your biggest piece of advice for others in HR who are trying to implement DE&I programs?

Cohn: “Make sure you get leadership support and buy-in. Because it can’t be just an HR initiative. It can’t be just the job of the chief diversity officer. It has to be an organizational commitment to change.”

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