When Jennifer Sutton landed in the diversity and inclusion field approximately 14 years ago, she says that diversity, equity, and belonging (DEB) looked a lot different than it does today. “Back then we talked about assimilation more often than not, and had very different views on the importance of ‘fitting in and blending’ to a company’s culture,” she says. “The focus on equity and belonging wasn’t there, and it wasn’t as progressive.”
In her latest role as the Senior Director of Diversity, Equity, and Belonging at Instacart, Sutton has been tasked with spearheading and overseeing the tech company’s DEB initiatives. “We’re prioritizing a race, ethnicity, and gender equity-focused approach to achieve parity in all of our systems and processes, starting with a focus on women, Black, and Latinx talent,” she says.
Sutton is not expecting results overnight. “This is a journey for all of us,” she says. “Long-term, we want to be even more intentional about creating a culture that is an industry best, and we’re not shying away from the conversations and actions that will get us there.”
Here, Sutton talks about how she pivoted from finance to HR, her goals at Instacart, and the best career advice she’s received.
Tell us about your career journey and what led you to work in human resources, specifically within the D&I space?
I studied finance at Hampton University and worked on the business side in the financial services and investment banking space for five years before getting the itch to do something different. I’m not an HR person by trade, but had a strong relationship with the Head of Campus Recruiting at the time who asked if I’d ever considered recruiting. This leader thought my business acumen would help me relate to the candidates we needed to hire. I had to learn the HR landscape from scratch.
Through several roles at different financial services firms, I focused on initiatives including reimagining recruiting functions and increasing representation, and led programs focused on Black and Latinx talent with a sprinkle of learning and development for underrepresented talent. I also oversaw employee resource groups (ERGs) and succession planning for high-potential talent. I left the financial services industry to work at a recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) company before joining Google, where I focused on equitable opportunities in the hiring systems globally.
What was it about Instacart that made you want to work there?
First things first, I’m a big fan of the product. I started using Instacart in 2018 to order groceries for my grandmother who lives out of state on her own. It was a perfect way for me to make sure she had what she needed without going to the store. I used the product myself occasionally before the pandemic, but it became a lifeline over the past year.
I was already a customer who loved the product and I also felt that the opportunity ahead of Instacart was huge: It was going to be the next big thing and how great would it be to be a part of that? This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I had to “bet on Jen” and take the leap.
I was pleasantly surprised after I started having conversations with the team. I learned there was an appetite to really build the DEB function from scratch and to think outside of the box on how to do it. It was clear that the leaders I met with were not only eager to leverage my previous experience, but they also wanted to know what things I would do differently if given a clean slate and the freedom to build it. I was authentic throughout my interviews, and used terms like whiteness and tokenism. It was refreshing to see how our leaders were comfortable with precise language, and owned that they may not have the expertise to fully grasp some of the opportunities that I lifted up. They were eager to learn more and didn’t shy away from the tough conversations we needed to have in order for everyone to show up as their true selves at work.
All these things combined checked all the boxes. I believe in the vision, in the product, and in the growth. But more importantly, I could approach this work in a way that I felt was most impactful.
How does Instacart approach DEB? What are your priorities?
At every level, we know that for Instacart to be a successful company, we have to approach it the same way we do any business goal: intentionally and with the resources it requires. We truly believe that when people show up as their true selves and can lean in, it makes us a more innovative organization where we can move more quickly, and ultimately be a stronger business.
Our approach has four pillars—all rooted in data—that encompass increasing representation, inclusion, and career development and opportunities, as well as social impact initiatives that uplift our communities. We also want to ensure we’re designing products that are accessible to everyone and uplifting historically underrepresented businesses through programs like our ads initiative that amplifies Black-owned and Black-founded CPG brands.
Why is belonging an important part of a diversity and inclusion strategy?
Belonging ensures that everyone is part of the conversation. It’s predominantly anchored in inclusion, but it’s even broader than that: It’s making sure all individuals see themselves in the conversation around how we show up, leveraging empathy, and ensuring no one has to code switch at work to feel included.
What are some of your goals when it comes to DEB at Instacart?
I’m very fortunate to have just hired three experts who are going to change how we are integrated in all of our various systems and processes. They bring operational excellence and rigor to this body of work that is critical if we’re going to drive systemic change, and we’re anchoring to data and a systems-thinking approach. We’re all eager to take our past experiences and expand on them at Instacart.
We recently launched a set of principles for how we interact that will help shape an environment that creates space for growth where we don’t shy away from making mistakes or having uncomfortable conversations. They include authenticity, intersectionality, and intentionality.
How does Instacart address intersectionality in its initiatives?
Intersectionality is key in understanding the lived experiences of our talent. So many of our people here at Instacart have intersectionality with their identity. In my case, I’m not just a woman or a Black person. I also show up as a Black woman and that shapes my lived experience.
We’re working with our various communities and asking them to anchor to our DEB priorities and where they intersect with other communities. That means if you’re part of our [email protected] community, we’re asking you to help focus on Black women and Latinas. Our Rainbow Carrots LGBTQ+ community is working to uplift the trans and Black queer community.
What advice have you received in your career that has stuck with you?
There are so many powerful nuggets that I have learned over the years from mentors, sponsors, and leaders who illustrate class and grace. But if I had to choose one, it’s that you can’t be successful without building relationships. Earlier in my career when I was in asset management, I was so used to being execution oriented. I was keeping my head down and just getting it done. I didn’t really focus on the “warm and fuzzy” or small talk aspect of relationships as much as I should have, because I never had to to be successful, to be honest.
However, when I made the transition to HR, I’ll never forget my first performance review from my new leader. I was just meeting expectations, and I was perceived as intense, which caught me by surprise. He gave me guidance on how to break down that perception.
He asked me if I knew why he had a jar of candy in his office, and told me it was to welcome people inside to sit down, talk, and get to know each other. He anchored me in the necessity of relationship building, and sometimes you have to get creative to do it well. Especially now in a remote world, I try to start all meetings talking about non-work related things, like learning where they’re planning to travel next, or switching up the way we connect to meet them where they’re most comfortable: text, calls, or Zooms. That’s one piece of advice I’ll always remember because I have adopted it, and in the next cycle I received the exact opposite feedback and got the promotion.
What career advice do you have for others?
The advice I give to anyone coming into any industry is to build your inner circle. Build a circle that celebrates you, but also checks you. Your circle should include not only peers in your line of work, but also business partners, thought partners, mentors, and sponsors who will advocate for you when you’re not in the room. Lastly, consider adding a therapist to your circle. I strongly encourage everyone to leverage their mental health resources in the same way that we go to the dentist every year or have an annual physical. Having a mental health professional will help you plan for the unexpected.