When Chemia Woods took over the internship program at Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. (AECC) eight years ago, she wondered why there were so few Black interns at the Little Rock-based G&T.

“It wasn’t a bad or good thing,” she recalls thinking. “It was just something to be discussed and understood.”

In Michigan, senior leaders and directors at Cherryland Electric Cooperative were similarly concerned about diversity during a recent search to nominate candidates for two open board seats.

“The board felt they weren’t getting as many younger applicants as they had hoped,” says Rachel Johnson, member relations manager at the Grawn-based co-op.

To fill the gaps, both co-ops took a “go where they are” approach.

AECC broadened its intern recruitment process to include the region’s rich network of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Cherryland began a program to develop “a bench of smart, talented younger members” who could someday serve on the board, Johnson says.

Such forward-thinking adaptations are examples of a burgeoning emphasis among co-ops and other businesses to prioritize DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion—in their workplaces and in their community outreach.

Industry experts see these efforts as a direct response to a broad, ongoing shift in U.S. demographics as well as changing public attitudes. Beyond that dynamic, they say, DEI is being recognized as a proven business practice for recruiting talent and boosting worker satisfaction.

Several cooperative groups, including the Credit Union National Association, have adopted DEI-focused resolutions. A DEI resolution was offered by several electric co-ops during NRECA’s 2020 national resolutions process, and co-op representatives will vote on adoption of the measure during the PowerXchange virtual annual meeting this year.

Roanoke Electric Cooperative CEO and NRECA President Curtis Wynn, who has made DEI at electric co-ops a priority during his final year leading the national board, says diversity, equity, and inclusion have been cooperative values since the beginning.

“This is a not a new concept for electric co-ops,” he says. “But as with any other part of our business, it requires co-ops to continuously assess and evaluate how we’re doing, and to make adjustments and improvements as new circumstances arise.”

During Wynn’s tenure as president, the NRECA board of directors established the Diversity Champion Award to recognize co-op employees or directors for “outstanding contributions to lead and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The inaugural award will be presented in 2022.

Wynn says examining and emphasizing DEI practices will be essential as utilities respond to rapid changes in the industry and co-ops look for creative ways to further integrate things like distributed generation, beneficial electrification, battery storage, and other grid advancements.

“As we witness an energy transformation that requires a different approach and a new perspective, workforce diversity becomes increasingly important,” he says.

What is DEI?

Historically, diversity, equity, and inclusion practices have centered on correcting bias based on gender or race. But the concept has evolved to encompass a much broader scope, now including ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disabilities, and religious or political beliefs, among other facets.

DEI proponents define the terms in different ways, but they generally revolve around the following tenets:

Diversity is the recognition that a team, a workplace, a community, or a society benefits when it is made up of people with differing worldviews, ideas, and experiences.

Equity is the understanding that certain people have been historically marginalized in society, and it is the sustained commitment to providing a level playing field for all.

Inclusion is building a culture where all people feel valued and encouraged to succeed, regardless of race, identity, gender, etc.

Organizations evaluating their DEI position should take a broad view of diversity, says Michele Rinn, NRECA’s senior vice president for human resources.

“Are you leveraging the diversity you have today? Everybody has diversity in some way,” Rinn says. “It really becomes about employee engagement and using staff for all the skills and thoughts they have so that you get to better, more creative ideas.”

Ed VanHoose, for instance, points to his childhood spent in foster care.

“That’s really a marginalized existence that a lot of people don’t go through,” says VanHoose, general manager of Lorain-Medina Rural Electric Cooperative and North Central Electric Cooperative in Ohio. “My experiences have informed who I am as a person, and to be able to bring that to bear in a cooperative world is pretty important. I can use that to share what I’ve done and how I’ve gotten where I am with others, so that way we can all be stronger together.”

Most agree that DEI is not about hitting quotas, checking boxes, or entitlement-hiring.

“It’s not a numbers game,” says Bill Hetherington, CEO of Bandera Electric Cooperative, which serves some 36,000 members in the Texas Hill Country. “It’s not, ‘I have to go out and hire 6.8 out of 10 people with a Hispanic background because 68% of our community is Hispanic.”

Bandera Electric recently created its “Reimagining Rural America” program to attract a wider talent pool for critical positions at the co-op.

“It’s about treating employees with respect and equality,” Hetherington says. “It’s about promoting a culture of trust and integrity that allows employees to feel comfortable in voicing their opinions.”

Good for business

Studies have consistently shown that DEI practices are good for business.

A 2018 McKinsey analysis of companies in the United States and United Kingdom found that firms with the most gender diversity among executives were 21% more likely to record higher profits and 27% more likely to offer better products. Companies with “highly diverse” employees in areas like age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic background were 33% more likely to have higher profits than competitors.

While the report acknowledges that progress on DEI is slow, “individual companies have made real strides in improving their I&D [inclusion and diversity] outcomes and in effectively using these results to influence business outcomes.”

Other prominent trends in society may make DEI practices even more important.

The back-to-back shocks of the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest are causing many to re-evaluate where they live and whom they do business with. Telework and a growing awareness of companies’ environmental and social practices were already in motion, but observers say the crises have accelerated them.

“It’s a weird thing to say, but if there’s any silver lining in this awful pandemic, it’s simply that it presents an interesting and urgent opportunity for rural communities,” says Zachary Mannheimer, a consultant at McClure Engineering who works with co-ops on community development. “We’re trying to say to rural communities, especially co-op communities, that there are opportunities right now. And if you don’t act in the next two years, you’re going to miss the window.”

Data collected by Mannheimer’s firm points to “a migration shift unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetime,” he says. As of October 2020, “roughly 5% of the urban workforce have left for suburban and rural locations around the country. Most people are going within 200 miles of where they were. And of that percentage, most were thinking of leaving before COVID, which was the thing that pushed them over.”

The crises have also fueled the growth of “values-based companies,” adds Sheldon Petersen, CEO of the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation. If businesses make public statements supporting DEI, he says, investors, consumers, and employees expect their practices to match.

Even before the pandemic, Petersen says, “companies were already feeling the pressure, from investors demanding to see how companies measure up to environmental, social, and governance metrics to customers wanting to purchase goods and services from companies they feel good about and employees wanting to work for organizations that have a purpose larger than profit.”

As the energy industry transforms and many co-ops begin to feel the impact of third-party service providers, strong DEI practices coupled with the guiding cooperative principles could help engage members who will have more energy choices.

“DEI may become even more important as co-ops have to innovate more rapidly as their function and role evolves along with member and community needs,” says Ginny Beauchemin, NRECA’s managing director of business optimization.

Rethinking recruiting

In recent years, as waves of older employees have retired and job roles at co-ops reorient to meet new industry challenges, some co-ops have looked to strengthen their DEI efforts to make up an increasing “talent deficit,” particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

“And one way to address that is to recruit from areas that we have not historically recruited from,” says Maria Bunting Smedley, AECC’s vice president of human resources and corporate strategy.

With a workforce of about 700, AECC is a major employer in the region. Yet when Woods took over the internship program in 2013, she found few college students had even heard of the G&T.

“Our internship program operated more by word-of-mouth,” Woods says. “If your dad or your grandparents worked here or used to work here, that’s how you would get referred. In most cases, the students were the most qualified candidates, but you also want to increase your talent pool for the future.”

A graduate of Howard University, one of the nation’s prominent HBCUs, Wood now travels to 15 colleges each year to recruit interns. She also visits local high schools to talk about co-op careers.

Interest in the program has soared, from 500 applicants when Woods began to about 1,000 today. Intern placements at the G&T have increased by one-third on average. AECC itself has hired 15 interns, three of them from HBCUs. Even better, Woods says, “students are beginning to reach out to us now through word-of-mouth from their peers working with us through the summers.”

At Cherryland Electric, two cohorts have gone through the Emerging Leaders program to learn co-op finances, distribution operations, and future challenges and trends in power supply and technology. Participants get a per-diem and attend four two-hour sessions over four months.

While the co-op hasn’t had any board vacancies to fill since the program started, strong potential candidates are waiting in the wings, Johnson says.

“If you want a more diverse board, you have to develop interest in serving on your board from a diverse group of people. Programs like ours are a great way to do that.”

‘A unifying force’

Adam Schwartz, founder of the Cooperative Way, notes that when co-ops incorporate DEI principles into their business strategies, they’re leveraging the co-op principles of open and voluntary membership, democratic control, and concern for community.

“Co-ops have an economic purpose that is absolutely fundamental to who we are, but we also have a social purpose,” he says. “Years ago, that social purpose was to bring electricity for a better quality of life. But in times of social unrest or division, co-ops can be a unifying force too.”

The cooperative difference can help guide co-ops in ensuring an equitable industry transformation, whether that involves removing barriers so that all members can benefit or finding workers knowledgeable of new technologies, says NRECA President Wynn.

“That’s why the cooperative difference continues to be so important. ... We include everyone to improve quality of life and economic opportunity,” he says. “It’s our job, as co-ops and purpose-driven organizations, to nourish each of our diverse members with equity, providing the programs, products, and services they need so our entire community can flourish.”