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30 Minutes with Cara Valentino

A group of RTI employees attend a Kwanzaa celebration sponsored by the Black Employee Resource Group.
This interview originally appeared as part of the Inclusion Works series at Hive Learning.


RTI International engineers actions and measurements around a heart of compassionate humility to address the specific challenges and disparities the Black community faces.

When it comes to RTI’s approach to racial equity and DEI, Cara Valentino drives a methodical, thoughtful, and compassionate system.

Valentino is the Program Manager for The Racial Equity & Inclusion Program at RTI International and a Certified Diversity Professional. Although this program is new for 2020, it builds upon RTI’s Diversity & Inclusion Program which includes twelve employee resource groups (ERGs) and three international chapters.

Valentino has been instrumental in RTI International’s inclusion journey throughout her 10 years with the nonprofit.

As a founding member of the Black Employee Resource Group (BERG), Valentino helped grow its membership to ~200 individuals and counting. She also brought ally training and open forums for talking about race to RTI, both firsts for the business.

If you can believe it, there’s more under her belt. Valentino is an ordained minister. She holds healing groups for addressing racial trauma in Durham, North Carolina, and hosts ongoing conversations on race in the Durham community.

We’re excited to share a glimpse into how Valentino uses rigor and compassion to help RTI International do even more to tackle the challenges of racial inequity.

Immediate response

In the immediate aftermath of this year’s surge in the BLM conversation, the organization met with the BERG who recommended the creation of a charge code. With this, employees could formally take paid time off to heal from racial trauma and track the time they spend in forums about race. This contrasts with many companies that expect employees to do this in their own time and expend considerable emotional labor without recompense.

With input from their BERG members, RTI International designed a leadership communications toolkit. They built a new behavior, ‘Engage Inclusively’, into their leadership competency model. Plus, they gave leaders a list of concrete actions they will be observed upon and, in the case of senior leaders, measured against.

As well as this top-down tactic to operationalize leadership commitment and action, RTI International employed bottom-up initiatives.

The organization offered Racial Equity Institute’s ‘Phase 1 Training’ and ‘Groundwater Workshop’ as well as white allyship training. Valentino wisely notes that training of this sort should always be voluntary since research has shown that mandatory training will not have the desired effect and, in many instances, has the opposite effect.

Lasting change

Valentino explains that there’s a huge opportunity to mobilize and equip line managers in what she calls, “the frozen middle we’re working to thaw”.

She recommends firms go beyond providing line managers with materials for conversations. She’s deploying a robust change management plan to help managers and leaders adopt equitable behaviors and practices.

You can follow suit. In partnership with HR, assess all business practices, policies and procedures through a lens of racial equity. Then, from your precisely defined ‘current state’, build a roadmap complete with measures and review points.

Importantly, RTI International will provide ongoing listening sessions. The qualitative data from these will look beyond what they planned to measure and address how change is landing.

Presenting data is one thing. But combining the quantitative and qualitative data provides a more realistic output of whether the change we set out to make actually landed and was accepted by the staff.

Many companies are worried about having these conversations on race in the workplace for fear of ‘getting it wrong’. Yet leaders should be mindful that saying the wrong thing will be part of the journey. When we make a mistake, offering a heartfelt and honest apology creates a stronger community in the workplace. Refusal to engage for fear of ‘getting it wrong’ is a risk. Data from COQUAL shows that employees who are not provided an opportunity to talk about race in the workplace are almost 3 times more likely to leave their workplace within the year.

Valentino warns that many organizations will get their goal selection wrong. Some already have.

The right goals will specifically address challenges faced by the Black community, and remove systemic barriers to success within their organizations. Brands promising to, “be more diverse” or, “practice diversity and inclusion” will miss the mark.

Why? Organizations are prone to take the path of least resistance to achieve goals. A company can fulfill these generic promises by, say, hiring white women.

Provide concrete ways in which leaders can be supportive and how leadership support can be observed. Detail their actions and next steps no matter how small. Do these actions actually address and engage Black people and other people of color?

To really ‘get’ what needs to change and how, managers and leaders need compassionate humility. They need to openly address where they can do better. They need to engage with the real issues of racial inequity. And we’re sure that, with Valentino’s no-nonsense strategic mind, RTI International’s people are on course for success.

Three lessons from RTI International

  • Engineer key behaviors that are highly relevant to specific contexts and processes. Recruiting, hiring decisions, career development conversations, and promotion discussions are flagship. This helps you drill down into the moments that require explicit actions to make a difference in a way that awareness or a blanket attitude may not.
  • Emphasize compassionate humility. Hold listening sessions and ask participants to talk openly about what they learned and where they will improve. Provide psychological safety.
  • Create a charge code or design a way that tracks and fairly compensates employees for engaging in forums and activities driving racial equity.