Ask Erika L. White about her work and she smiles brightly. She loves her job and has been recognized for her accomplishments. Recently, the National Diversity and Leadership Council named Erika 2021 DEI Champion, a well-deserved award for a woman who has spent the last 20 years in multi-cultural marketing, and the last six dedicated to DEI.
It isn’t surprising that in February 2021, Pennoni hired Erika as its first DEI Program Officer. Pennoni has a proven history of working to advance DEI goals, and this past June 2020 Dave DeLizza, President and CEO of Pennoni, joined other Philadelphia business leaders to sign a “commitment to equity,” penned by The Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia.
In a press release statement, DeLizza, reiterates, “We will rely on Erika’s expertise to guide Pennoni in creating a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program with measurable goals and outcomes that will attract diverse talent to our firm.”
Pennoni is a 56-year old, multidisciplinary engineering firm, which serves markets from traditional, government and education to emerging energy and design-build. Pennoni proudly states that its success stems from the ability to approach engineering challenges from a wider spectrum of angles, and its combination of talent and experience generates unprecedented solutions for diverse and iconic projects around the globe.
As a member of the WTCGP for over 20 years, WTCGP has witnessed Pennoni’s proactive approach to creating a collaborative work environment where every employee has a voice. Pennoni welcomes candidates, current employees, and clients to embrace differences and grow together.
"I can tell that the culture of Pennoni is already one of inclusion and is committed to the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion. We already have a long history of working with a variety of STEM outreach programs and we actively work with several diverse subcontractors to fulfill the needs of our clients,” explains Erika.
Erika’s LinkedIn page, chronicles the almost weekly DEI zoom conversations she has been invited to attend as an expert. She serves as a Board of Trustee for the Shipley School as well as Board of Director for the Center City Proprietors Association, and is co-founder of The Philadelphia Diversity Professionals Consortium. But Erika is never too busy to volunteer as a mentor to young women, or act as a regular volunteer in her faith.
Erika’s leadership in the DEI space began in 2007 as Director of the West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival and the Director of Community and Government Affairs for the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation.
As Senior Diversity Coordinator for Ballard Spahr law firm, Erika helped contribute to the pipeline of diverse lawyers. Most recently, Erika worked as The Pennsylvania Convention Center’s Diversity & Inclusion Manager, “I was able to cultivate a strategy that had a focus of three key elements, supplier diversity, workforce development and supporting the diverse conventions and conferences.”
Numerous written reports say the same thing, and 15Five.com sums it up, “when you make DEI a priority, every facet of your organization benefits, including the bottom line.”
But there can be challenges.
Erika warns that if you don’t do important initial first steps, corporations may find themselves spending unnecessary time and money on consultants and conducting trainings that don’t align with the overall strategic plan and organization’s culture.
“The greatest challenge is the scale of their program and trying not to boil the ocean. A lot of times employers want to make a real impact and make it quickly and largely through making statements, conducting a lot of trainings, programs and initiatives. It may be hard for the company to manage all of those programs and have them feel organic to the culture of the organization. It’s like when you are trying to graft a plant or flower to make a hybrid, the process is very delicate and if done correctly, the process allows the two plants to work together to make something new and strong. It is the same concept with starting a successful diversity, equity and inclusion program. There must be an understanding or assessment of the existing structure and culture of the organization then you can begin to graft the elements of a DEI program into the DNA of the organization. You do this through a detailed assessment of the organization that can include a review of the policies and procedures, current programs, interviews of key stake holders, focus groups, surveys of the workforce, and then goal and strategy mapping.”
For corporations looking to rollout a DEI plan, Erika advises hiring an experienced DEI officer who is well versed in the principles of the work such as bias and cultural competence but also understands the strategy and business case behind implementing a successful DEI program.
“The support of senior leadership is a must, and the program must be routed in an established business element of the organization. For example, at Pennoni I am the first DEI officer and I report directly to our Vice President of Human Resources, Joyce Hess. I also have a dotted line to our Chief Operating Officer, David Pennoni and our Chief Executive Officer, David DeLizza with the full support of the Board of Directors. When the DEI officer is connected to a fundamental business element like Human Resources and the Operations Department, they have access to the necessary data and the overall operations of the organization.”
What can we expect to see at Pennoni in the coming months?
“Our next steps will be to add structure to our current activities and create a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan based on our overarching three pillars of Excellent Reputation, Profit and Growth and our values of Honesty, Integrity and Service,” Erika smiles.
Congratulations Erika and Pennoni!