Creating “aha” moments one staff member at a time
George Floyd’s death was a tipping point for many. It forced us to reckon with America’s deep roots of racism and to ask what justice and understanding might look like in the face of tragedy. What happened to him — and countless other Black men and women — ripped open a wound in our collective consciousness that had never been adequately addressed. As a firm we knew we had a responsibility to address this, but deciding what was appropriate, respectful, and impactful would take the input of some of the best minds of the firm.
Thankfully, we could draw on the expertise of leaders in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) space — people like Hawzien Gebremedhin, our DEI leader; Lou Longo, the chair of our DEI Council; and Ashley Parker-Ozier, our DEI consultant.
Ashley is the newest member of our DEI team. Prior to Ashley’s move from PM Group Benefit Advisors, our DEI team and our management team had been focusing on a firmwide strategy. They were making progress but knew that — to really effect change at the firm — they’d need more resources. Ashley, who’d participated in an operations fellowship with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council in 2019, was the obvious — and most qualified — choice, and she joined the DEI team in January 2020.
Hitting the ground running
With the social unrest of 2020, Ashley didn’t have time to ease into her new position. Staff were clamoring to hear if the DEI team and the firm were going to respond and curious about what that would look like.
“The past year was a critical moment for our country,” Ashley said. “Many businesses and individuals were thinking about issues of race and systemic racism in different ways. There was a lot of work to do.”
While many organizations were tweeting anti-racist statements and calling for unity on their Facebook pages, that didn’t feel like the right approach for Plante Moran. We know that words are incredibly powerful, but oftentimes they’re not enough. It’s one thing to announce you decry the treatment of a group of people; it’s another thing entirely to stand up for that in your actions.
As a firm, we’re fortunate to have strong DEI leadership and Ashley to consult with on these matters. Together they worked with our management team to develop our response to the tragic events that occurred. Part of this includes our internal Year of Understanding initiative.
Ashley wants to empower diverse staff to find that sense of belonging from within that ultimately determines the heights one can achieve in their career.
“I heard someone say that many companies were quickly reacting, but few were truly responding,” says Ashley. “The ‘Year of Understanding,’ along with several other initiatives to increase equity, has been our response.”
The Year of Understanding spans the diversity spectrum to educate PMers on the experiences of our diverse staff, how to make the firm more inclusive, and explore how we can “walk the talk” in our commitment to social justice. We’ve hosted firmwide events like “Inclusive Workplaces and Hate Crimes Reporting” in partnership with the Matthew Shepard foundation and a virtual townhall, “Conversations on the Black Experience” which explored the daily experiences of our Black colleagues and peers. We also created an inclusion & diversity resource library to help staff increase their cultural competence.
Emphasizing empowerment and change
In addition to her involvement with the Year of Understanding, Ashley focuses on programming and events associated with how the firm attracts, retains, develops, and promotes diverse talent. A key piece of this comes from her emphasis on empowerment and change — at the individual level. She wants to empower diverse staff to find that sense of belonging from within that ultimately determines the heights one can achieve in their career.
She’s hoping her own journey might even inspire others. While she’d been happy in her various roles at Plante Moran, she was ready to embark on a new path with this DEI consultant role.
"Retention is what helps us build the pipeline of diverse leaders to provide the representation our industry desperately needs."
“I wanted to find a way to align my career with my personal values — and I’m thankful I didn’t have to leave the firm to find that,” says Ashley. “I’ve often heard people talk about being put to their highest and best use, meaning that different roles or paths would open for them if they wanted to stretch themselves. I’m excited that this happened for me, and I hope to be an example for others who may be questioning their fit in their current role.”
Ashley is also passionate about recruiting and retaining diverse staff at the firm. She oversees our DEI training efforts and serves as the project manager for our TRACK internship program and the Emerging Professionals Summit (EPS). EPS is a two-day workshop geared toward incoming African American interns and full-time campus staff. This event focuses on strengthening networking skills, developing a personal brand, and bridging the expectations gap between college and a career.
“I help prepare diverse college students for a career in professional services,” says Ashley, “Connecting with them early on and building relationships help them feel supported and empowered as they embark upon their career journey where they may be the only person like them or one of a few in the room, which is reflective of our industry.”
The only Black person in the room
Since joining the firm, Ashley has been an active presence within the African American staff resource group (AA SRG), where she is now a program lead. For her, like so many others, the connection to the AA SRG has been an invaluable experience.
“Sometimes it’s hard to express what being a part of the AA SRG family really means,” says Ashley. “For many of us, we go through our day where we don’t see anyone who looks like us. It’s validating and comforting to connect with other PMers who know what it’s like to be the only Black person in the room, but we’re more than a “feel good” group. We also discuss professional and personal development to aid us in advancing in our careers.”
“I’ve seen people have these profound ‘aha’ moments as they broadened their perspectives.”
“The AA SRG provides a sense of belonging that’s crucial to keeping talented African Americans at the firm,” says Ashley. “It’s just one more reason I’m excited about my new position. I want to welcome diverse staff members and share that sense of community with them in every way that I can—because retention is as important as recruiting. Retention is what helps us build the pipeline of diverse leaders to provide the representation our industry desperately needs.”
Looking to the future
When Ashley isn’t contributing to the firm’s rigorous DEI efforts, she’s loving life with her busy family. Ashley will celebrate her 11th wedding anniversary this summer. She has a daughter who attends the University of Dayton and two young sons: Zaidan is six years old and Zonjic is two. They enjoy watching movies, bonding, and making the best of home life in the COVID-19 era.
“Pandemic parenting isn’t easy,” says Ashley, “but with Zaidan back in school, I’ve been given an opportunity to strengthen my relationship with Zonjic, and that’s been everything to me. Seeing him become a mama’s boy has been amazing. What’s also great about this new consultant role is that I’ll be based out of the Flint office, thereby shaving a lot of time off my commute — time that I’m excited to give back to my family.”
A sense of future excitement is what continues to drive Ashley personally and professionally. That’s because she’s confident all of us can make meaningful strides in the DEI space.
“I’m excited about creating more allies. I know this work is going to take our firm working together as a whole, not just the DEI team. So, I look forward to having opportunities to broach these topics with people who are open-minded and being able to bring everyone along on this journey. And I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen people have these profound ‘aha’ moments as they broadened their perspectives. Seeing this growth happen because people were willing to listen and educate themselves has been incredibly rewarding.”