Corporations across the country have started diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. While they want to make big impacts, it’s important to take time to collect data about employees and the community to understand demographics and what is important to them. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Aikyna Finch talks to Joe Matthews, Vice President of DEI at Gentex, about his experience starting a DEI program. Learn how he’s worked to “create a movement, not a moment” by starting small and building out initiatives while making sure to get buy-in from the C-Suite down to hourly employees.
Aikyna Finch: Greetings everyone, and welcome to the podcast today. I have the honor of interviewing a wonderful gentleman by the name of Joe Matthews. Joe Matthews was the very first diversity officer for Gentex, and he started this in 2018. And since 2018, he has won numerous awards on his Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Initiatives. And in 2022, he has assigned to be the Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion full-time. And so with that, I would love to introduce Joe Matthews. Joe Matthews, how are you doing today?
Joe Matthews: Doing great. How are you doing, Aikyna?
Aikyna Finch: Fabulous. And I know today we’re going to be talking about an insider’s view into corporate DEI. Can you tell us why that is important to you?
Joe Matthews: It really starts from the beginning. If you look in terms of what’s going on in my family history, my grandparents are educators. My grandfather was a principal, at an all-Black high school in Cleveland, Texas. My grandmother was on his staff and really when the schools get integrated, only my grandfather and grandmother had jobs in the integrated school system and that moved them from Cleveland, Texas to Gary, Indiana. And, with that being said, that’s the beginning of it. My dad also did a lot of work. He has a degree in biology, but he also worked a lot with Dr. Sullivan, Reverend Dr. Leon H. Sullivan, who is the originator of the OIC, Opportunities Industrialization Center. So, again, there’s a lot of things I’ve learned on my own DEI journey, how important diversity inclusion is for all people.
Aikyna Finch: So let’s go back to 2018 when you became the first diversity officer for Gentex. And I assume that you had to build this from the ground up. Can you take us on that journey?
Joe Matthews: For sure. So one of the first things we really try to focus on as a company is what is our ideology? Really, the way we view diversity and inclusion at Gentex Corporation is one of those ones where we want to make sure people can do diversity inclusion work, wherever it exists, be it they have a title or not, if they’re individual contributor or VP. And so the goal is to create ideology where everybody can rally around so that way they know what to do to be able to benefit the community, be able to workforce, the workplace and the marketplace as well the suppliers. We basically look at the work we’ve done in five different sectors.
Aikyna Finch: So when you were on this journey, can you tell us some of the things that you noticed in corporate that most people don’t think about as far as diversity, equity and inclusion?
Joe Matthews: I think really you just, you have to look at one, getting the data and understanding what the demographics are for your organization. Also, getting the idea of what the employees feel about their workplace and workforce. And then using those as data inputs to be able to figure out what is this cohesive strategy to go forward.
Again, a lot of insights I have are based because I have an Engineering degree. I have a degree in Electrical Engineering with a minor in Russian, also has a couple master’s degrees as well from Cornell University. My undergraduate was Rose Holman and so I would tell you having a data-based approach terms of how you view diversity inclusion is very important. And that’s one of the things that we try to incorporate into our strategies there.
We have a DEI advisory board at the company, and one of our DEI advisory board members, his name is Rob Wilson. Rob was Nissan America’s first director of Diversity Inclusion. And Rob will tell you is, when you do diversity inclusion work, there’s some people think you’re doing too much and some people think you’re not doing enough. So really you have to be consistent with the pace that your company can digest it without burping it up.
Aikyna Finch: I love that analogy. I love that very much. So, can you give us an example of a pacing that is easy to digest?
Joe Matthews: I would say first it starts off with just understanding what the ideology is and then communication. And really the first thing we did is really focus a year on communication in terms of what our approach was for us do diversity and inclusion. Beyond that, we also launched two business resource groups. Again, you can have multiple business resource groups. We wanted to start with the ones that we knew would be impactful for us and where we were.
So, we have Women at Gentex, which is basically for women and their allies, as well as Gentex Vets, which is for veterans. And then we started off with those two things. We also establish a process as to start more business resource groups. However, it’s one of those things where we going to use the data, because those are really employee-driven, but also with executive sponsorship at the C-suite level as well.
So, those are two critical things to have in place to make sure you have sustainability in what you’re trying to do. Again, employee-driven, but also executive sponsored for BRGs. So, that’s just the example of some of the things we started small, it started at a delivered pace.
Last year in 2021, we actually launched on Franklin Covey and Conscious Bias Workshops across the company in terms of hiring managers in west Michigan. And it was something where again, we went to a pilot session, we went to a small focus groups and we started very intentionally. Again, there was something where all the CEOs directed reports, the targeted, which hiring managers, they want to go through the process. And now in year two, we’re going to focus additional training on things that can help unleash the potential of the individual.
Aikyna Finch: I love this. And so, some of the listeners will be people that are ready to branch into the DEI space. So what kind of tips would you give to them to make the road a little easier?
Joe Matthews: Again, it goes back to being a crawl, walk, run mode. Start at a pacing that’s deliberate for you that this consistent with your people that you have. Again, you can be in very homogeneous community and you can still find opportunities to be an engaged in diversity inclusion. It might be more from a class perspective, it might be from a gender perspective. It might not just be ethnicity and race. Find those things are impactful for you in your community where you exist, but also for your workforce as well. And those are things that we do.
For instance, one of the things that the company launched last year was LEP, Limited English Proficiency Lines. The second language spoken in Ottawa County is Spanish. And so, we actually launched, we call LEP lines, Limited English Proficiency Lines, for our Spanish seeking population, where again, you don’t have to have English as your first language and be able to work for us.
And that’s on from one shift on one line to multiple shifts across multiple lines across multiple plants. So I think in total now we’re over almost 82 to 85 individuals who are involved in this particular process. It’s a very deliberate effort that has a steering committee that has people who actually identify what Spanish is their first language, although they’re now quite fluent to English. And basically, was very much engaged with the hourly workforce, as well as having bilingual group leaders, as well as departmental managers to make sure they’re fully integrated into the company. And now there’s some of those people that gotten promoted to other jobs inside the company where Spanish is not the prerequisite at all. So Gentex operationalize what the impact is from DEI perspective.
Aikyna Finch: Okay. So as a diversity officer, what made it so important to have that advisory board?
Joe Matthews: For me, the DEI Advisory Board provides a great perspective. Our goal for them is understanding where we are in west Michigan, what the culture of west Michigan is, but also being able to give us recommendations on how we become world class. And so they’re able to speak insights that maybe I don’t have to our executive leadership team. Again, our DEI Advisory Board consists of our CEO, our CTO, and VP of Engineering, and our VP of operations. So, exclusion of the CEO, the VP of operations and our VP Engineering/ CTO, they have a majority of resources in the organization.
So it’s important to make sure they had people that knew, they had trust and confidence in the people we had on DEI advisory board that understood, what world class diverse conclusion looks like, but also understand how we are, where we are and be able to provide great insight in recommendations for us to move forward. In addition to those members, we also have our VP of Legal on the DEI Advisory Board. The head of HR, our executive sponsors are two business resource groups. And then again, we had two external DEI Advisory Board members, along with myself.
Aikyna Finch: Wonderful. And so I love the fact that you, when the inclusive route. A lot of times we have conversations. We’ve had a podcast before speaking on diversity officer versus task force, but it sounds like your model includes both. You have the task force as well as the officer. Can you tell us some of the benefits of including both?
Joe Matthews: I think, again, this just provides pervasiveness into an organization. Again, this is not a Joe Matthew’s initiative. This is not a CEO initiative. The goal, and this is something I learned not too long ago. The goal is to make sure you have a movement and not a moment. And the way you do that is you make sure you include all, I mean, you include the white female just as well as the Hispanic or Latinx male as well. Again, there’s a lot of different ways you can identify people. So, we want to make sure we have a cross spectrum of people, not only salary-wise, but also from an hourly perspective. And that’s where we still have work to do.
Aikyna Finch: What was some of the things you have learned from having both the officer and the advisory board that was kind of shocking to you?
Joe Matthews: Your goal is to get things done. However, you have to be very deliberate in that process. And so, with that being said, there’s often times we as a DEI council, which is another part of our governor’s model, there’s things, “Okay, we need to do this.” And we had to say, ” Okay, let’s back up. Are we ready for this as an organization? Would organization support it? Will it have long legs? If you and I change chairs, that movement still exists?” And that’s one of the things that you have to be very intentional about what you introduce to an organization. And sometimes there’s false starts. We have a lot of great ideas is sometimes we put on the back burner, because, unfortunately, we might not quite be ready.
So the goal that we have is whatever we execute, we want to do at excellence. It’s not perfection. So we want start small and then be able to kind of experiment and do better as we go forward in terms of iterations.
Aikyna Finch: Thank you so much for that. I love that. So, can you tell us what are of the things you have seen missing in the corporate space as far as diversity, equity and inclusion?
Joe Matthews: I think probably the thing that I see that we need to continue to be mindful of is intentionality. Again, I would tell you, everybody has friends. And so, typically you want to help your friends. But, unfortunately, if you grow up in an environment where it’s very homogeneous from a particular aspect of identity, your friends will get the opportunities versus people who could be better suited for the roles that exist in the company.
So, you have to be very intentional about how you bring people into the organization, as well as how you support them in the organization. Because sometimes people take for granted, “I expect you to understand this and I expect you to do this,” but if nobody’s really been taught, nobody’s really going to understand that because they haven’t had that background, then they won’t know.
Again, when I think of myself in terms of corporate America, my family, my mom is a nurse. Her family comes from farmers. My dad’s family came from educators. I’m the first person in my family’s had a career in corporate for the last 30 years. So, you really had to build that network to understand, “Okay, what is right? What is normal? What is not normal?”
And if you’re a first-generation person, however you identify yourself or a person of color, you’ve never been a corporate environment. In general, you have to understand, “Hey, how do I navigate where I find myself to make sure I make a positive impact?” And sometimes you have to find those allies who might not be on your same peer-group level, but also within organization, you’re able to speak that truth in terms of their experiences as well, be inside or outside of company. And that’s helped me as well.
One of the people I follow is Brené Brown in terms of her impact and she has something call it SFD. I’m not going to say the word per se, but she has a SFD and sometimes things happen. It’s like, ” Man, what is that?” And that’s your first reaction. Sometimes you need to have friends that provide that perspective. It’s like, ” That’s happened to me. I’m a white guy. This happened to me, too.” And I’m like, “Oh, that’s just something that has happened to me as a Black man in corporate America, it’s happened to you as well. You feel the same impact of that.”
So those are things that help provide perspective. Particularly, when you start going down things where, where the heart meets the head, so to speak, in terms of diversity inclusion, you always wonder how those things are going to be.
Aikyna Finch: I love that. So, if you were to tell someone who is new into the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, who is starting out, getting ready to start their team, start their network, what are some must haves?
Joe Matthews: So, again, the first have, is be widely read. Soak up everything you can from a diversity and inclusion perspective. When my supervisor approached me, the CEO, he was in his first year at tenure. He said, “Joe, I have this idea. I really want to create a different trajectory for us as a company. What do you think about this?” And I was pretty excited about the opportunity because it was something new and different for me, from what I did previously, although I still enjoyed my previous role as well, which was the VP of Purchasing.
But with that being said, I basically started listening to people, reading different books and then running the of key books that we read that help start our ideology perspective was, “The Starfish and the Spider.” It was a book that was published in 2005, 2006.
And it really talked about how, if you have the right ideology, you can really replicate and flourish. So again, the premise is if you crush a head of a spider, the spider dies, if you cut the starfish in half, it replicates. So, again, our goal is create the ideology that allow people to flourish, where that allow us to kind of maintain, moving forward in terms of our DEI approach.
Again, it took about a year to go from concept to execution, to get that ratified by the overall, the CEO, the C-suite staff. But once that happened, that provided a rallying cry based on the vision where we have diversity inclusion. So, again, we have a vision for DEI, we have basically what our mission is in terms of our DEI values and action statement, and then we also have things we stand for as a DEI council as well.
Again, that kind of put the framework around it. And now, it’s just a matter of activating things, becoming more intentional of what we do in terms of how we impact our workforce, our workplace. So workforce speaks to the diversity of your work environment. It speaks to inclusiveness where you are, it could speak to facilities in terms of how those are accessible for all. And then also how we impact the community. Again, one of the things we talk about is how do we impact the community where people work, live, serve and play. So we look at things from a kindergarten, elementary to a high school perspective, community colleges, universities.
How do we have our talent acquisition process? What are we doing now in terms of also looking how people progress through the organization in terms of individual contributors, managers, directors, plus. Those are all things that we’re continuing to try to activate to make sure we improve them where we are. Again, we start small, start intentional, identify those things that you can do, understand those things that you might have to wait for a little bit longer, and then do the crawl, walk, run model.
Again, my goal is always to do something where you start off, maybe just start with one school in one district that you know your people live or that has a great need, that’s really right close to the business that you have. Because that’s a way that the students can connect with a manufacturing enterprise, but also not only impacts the students, but also impacts their families as well.
One of the things we actually started off last year is, we actually had a STEM night for elementary school that has a pretty diverse population. And now with that partnership, we’re going to do that again this year. So we’re starting a planning phase for that, but it exposes students to chemistry, it exposes students to Ozobots, which are like robotics, as well as us as a company. So again, something that was intentional, we worked directly with the school staff on that, and then it’s going to build out from there.
Aikyna Finch: You mentioned that it wasn’t automatic. You said it took at least a year for you to see some real change. And so would you say some good advice is not to be worried about it not happening instantaneously? And what would you say to some people that are going through those changes right now?
Joe Matthews: I would say, just be persistent, know your “why.” And that goes back to what the vision you have from DEI perspective, as well as your mission. And I think those are really important things and you don’t have to have that perfect. Even for us, it’s gone through iterations. I mean, I would take some of the things we had and basically do a process called Nemawashi, where we were just gathering opinions internally to various stakeholders, be it internally, externally to see what people thought about it. Because again, the goal was incorporate the ideals that they had in terms of what they saw. And then that way, when they saw the finished product, they could see that part of else, their ideal base inside of what was there. So it helps to generate the buy in.
And again, it’s one of those things where I don’t have all the answers. I’m not trying to be the smartest person in the room, but the goal is to make sure we get everybody’s ideas so they can be heard. I got advice from somebody who’s now a VP Diversity Inclusion for one of our local health systems. And she said, “You want to make sure everybody can see themselves in the data.” Because if people can’t see themselves in data, you risk backlash from a particular people group. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you don’t see yourselves reflected in the data, you’re going to push back on it because what’s in it for me?
And again, that’s just a human tendency to be able to do that. So, again, you want to show how impacts people around the board and once you’re able to do that, it helps to generate the buy in for other things you might try to do that could be a little bit more progressive or aggressive depending on what the situation may call for.
Aikyna Finch: And so, I know that you’ve been doing this since 2018 and you have had many initiatives along the way. I would love to hear about your proudest moment as the DEI officer and then the impact of it.
Joe Matthews: The proudest moment is one that I was actually was not directly involved in, because we set the ideology and that’s a Limited English Proficiency Lines. We know that has had an impact because now there’s a lot of local organizations are trying to pattern our success off of what happened there.
This is for people who historically, English was a barrier for them working for us. Because again, if you didn’t speak English, you couldn’t work in our manufacturing facility. Now you don’t have to speak English, you can work for us. And not only does that impact the worker, but actually impacts the family, it impacts the whole ecosystem around that family. And that’s got a ripple effect because now we have other companies in the area which are trying to pattern off our success.
So that’s raising a whole demographic of people whose English might not be their first language. They might not even be proficient and it impacts them financially. Because again, we pay benefits day one in terms of medical benefit, it’s we also, as a company, we’re probably one in a few in the United States, there are offers stock option benefits for people as well, even though they’re hourly employees. Are we perfect? No. Do we have opportunity for improvement? Yes.
But I think that’s one of the things that is a game changer because it’s something where the ideology was set up to allow this to flourish, the CEO support it. And then now it’s got its own legs on its own, because again, as a diversity officer, you’re just trying to create the environment where you can allow people to be able to be themselves and execute the way they need to on a path towards excellence.
Aikyna Finch: That is a powerful impact indeed. And I love your humbleness, but, of course, if you weren’t at the helm, this may or may not have happened. So kudos to you for that. That was a major, major impact. And so as we get ready to close, I would love for you to just take a moment and give our current and future DEI officers, a couple of nuggets.
Joe Matthews: So, I would tell you, diversity and inclusion work does have an impact on you. And what I mean by that is, you do it out of a passion, historically. And what that means is that you’re trying to basically leave a legacy. You’re trying to set the foundation up where people can go beyond you.
Again, you also have to be mindful of your own mental health as well. And so what I mean by that is that it’s very trying. I mean, because you’re fighting against something, in some cases could be institutionalized. So you have to keep a very good countenance about you, a very positive orientation, knowing that in some cases you’re not going to be able to make as much progress as you want because the organization’s not quite ready. Again, it’s tilling the ground. You can have a lot of great ideals, but just realize you got to go at a pace where organization can digest it.
I mean, I or the DEI councils had a lot of great ideas, and sometimes they come to fruition, sometimes they don’t. And those that don’t come to fruition, we just put on the back burner, realize, “Okay, this is not the right time for it.” And then you re-circle that every year to two to say, “Okay, is this the right opportunity to be able to do it?”
And you have faith in that, knowing that there’s a process, particularly, if your organization supports it. And that really starts from the C-suite. Again, it can be a bottoms-up approach, which is great. However, that won’t allow you to have all the resources you need. It could be a top-down approach as well, which is great, which means you might have the financial resources, but you have that organization to buy in because the middle management is really where things are critical.
And so I would tell you, those are all items that are really important for us to be able to make sure you have the longevity. And then also just realize that, the competition is not somebody else. The competition is internally to your company. And what I mean by that is that you got to go to pace of organization can really move forward. Don’t be afraid to ask for questions and ask for help. Again, like supply diversity, diversity inclusion for companies is something where if even one company gets better, we all get better by making the impact to where our communities are and where our people work.
Aikyna Finch: Well, thank you so much, Joe Matthews for coming and being with us today. This was super exciting and I have learned so much. And to the audience, remember the people need to see their selves in the data as Joe mentioned, they need to see their selves in the data and then they will know that you see them. So, thank you everyone. Be safe and be well.
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