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Bringing intentionality to diversity, equity, and inclusion

March 4, 2022 Article 5 min read
“If not me, then who?” is DEI Leader Hawzien Gebremedhin’s motto. Learn how this focus and her background have ignited her passion to create inclusive workspaces.
Headshot of Hawzien Gebremedhin.Hawzien Gebremedhin, Plante Moran’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) leader, may be only 32 years old, but she’s driven by a personal conviction some might associate with people much older. That’s because she’s spent a considerable amount of time contemplating her purpose, or her “why?” as she calls it. 

So what’s Hawzien’s “why?” Hawzien believes her purpose is to help marginalized people of all backgrounds feel supported and empowered — and that passion drives her motivation to create more inclusive spaces.

From banking to DEI

While Hawzien’s career started in banking, she learned that it wasn’t her true passion. After spearheading some exciting DEI initiatives at the bank, she started looking for new opportunities where she felt she could make a larger difference. Recruiters called, the job hunt ensued, and finally she was considering offers from a global shoe company and Plante Moran.

What led her to choose Plante Moran? A phone call from Managing Partner Jim Proppe put it all into perspective.

“To think he would call me directly and ask that I join the firm was a big deal,” she said. “It made me feel very special and valued. I realized I had an opportunity to be a leader and make a big impact.”

And so, Hawzien joined Plante Moran as the DEI leader in 2021. But her passion for DEI didn’t simply unfold one day; rather, it’s grown over the years as a result of many different life experiences.

From feeling like an outsider to finding her “why”

As a young refugee, Hawzien and her family immigrated from the Tigray region of Ethiopia to Colorado via Sudan. Growing up, she often felt like an outsider, which drove her desire to find community — this led her to attend Johnson C. Smith, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) in North Carolina.  In many ways it felt affirming to be part of that culture, but she still felt a sense of difference because of her immigrant experience. When Hawzien returned back to Colorado, those moments of feeling like an outsider started back up again.

Upon returning to Colorado, Hawzien began her career in banking. “A few years into my career, I went through a leadership program about finding your ‘why,’” she said. “After much reflection, I realized that my ‘why’ is helping marginalized people of all backgrounds feel supported and empowered. I want to help everyone feel valued, included and, ultimately, successful, in whatever way that means to them. And that’s my ultimate goal at Plante Moran.”

Being able to relate to people based on her own intersectionality and experiences has proven to be Hawzien’s secret weapon in her work today.

“Being in the DEI space, I can relate to people on so many different levels,” she said. “I feel lucky to be able to draw on my intersectionality as an immigrant, a refugee, a Black woman, and a mother to connect with more people. My background is multifaceted, which I believe allows me to develop deeper relationships with all types of people.”

Creating a nonprofit: If not me, then who?

Although Hawzien left the Tigray region of Ethiopia three decades ago, she still feels deeply connected to it. This is what fuels her commitment to the nonprofit she and her sister helped found, the Tigray Action Committee. (Their initiative was the subject of a Forbes article.)

“The same refugee camp that I came from 30 years ago is open again because of the genocide in Tigray,” said Hawzien. “This tragedy and the resulting displacement of thousands of people have affected me profoundly. It was daunting to imagine I had the power to help and create change, but then I thought, ‘If not me, then who?’ So my sister and I started our nonprofit to help give back and build awareness.”

Everyone has the power to lead change

Hawzien has reflected on the mantra, “If not me, then who?” many times. It also mirrors the advice she has for young professionals today wanting to see change in the DEI space. 

“Everyone has the power to make the changes they want to see,” said Hawzien. “For instance, right now the firm has four staff resource groups — all of which were initiated by staff who wanted to lead change. But there are people who still aren’t fully represented. That’s why I encourage everyone, ‘If you don’t see yourself in the current groups, speak up.’

“We recently had staff members come forward wanting to see a space for those with neurodivergent attributes, so they created the Minds of all Kinds SRG. We’re also in the process of chartering an SRG for Hispanic and Latinx staff due to individual interest. Everyone at the firm as the power to do this.”

Hawzien’s mantra also ties into our firm’s Year of Action, which builds on last year’s Year of Understanding.

“The Year of Action is elevating the Year of Understating, which was about educating,” said Hawzien. “This year is about putting those understandings into action in terms of recruiting efforts, retention efforts, closing the firm experience gaps between our different diverse groups.”

A DEI leader second, a mother first

When Hawzien isn’t trying to improve the communities of those around her, she’s focused on her family, especially creating experiences for her two sons.

“One thing I’m really excited about right now is that we’re building a cabin in the mountains,” said Hawzien. “This is for me and my husband, but it’s also for our kids. I feel so grateful to give them this space. I am honored and excited to help give them experiences that were not available to me growing up.”

As we know, work-life balance isn’t always easy, especially when you’re a parent. But Hawzien knows the importance of spending time with the ones she loves, and she makes the most of it.

“Family time is family time,” said Hawzien. “I disconnect from my phone and put my family first because, at the end of the day, that’s what’s important to me. I’m trying to create more moments where I’m fully present — at home and at work — so that each person I’m with knows they’re important to me.”

Whether in her volunteer work, her day job, or with her family, Hawzien is committed to making those around her feel valued. It’s one of the many ways she puts her “why” into action.

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