04/04/2022 | by Lizzy Lees

During Nareit’s March 30 webinar, “From HR to the Boardroom: Strategies for Advancing DEI in the REIT Industry,” panelists discussed the importance of board diversity, strategies for creating a more inclusive workplace, and how to measure the success of a DEI program.

Nareit’s Senior Vice President of Industry Affairs, Nathaalie Carey, moderated the conversation between Tanya Foster, associate vice president of diversity & inclusion at Equity Residential (NYSE: EQR) and Merline Saintil, independent board member and co-founder of Black Women on Boards.

Carey began by sharing data from Nareit’s November 2021 report on the state of DEI in the REIT industry. Per the report, nearly 70% of REITs have employees with DEI responsibilities, and—over the past two years—there have been significant gains for women of color at the board level, with the number of new POC directors doubling in 2020.

Saintil, a seasoned board member, emphasized the importance of diversity (gender, racial, thought experience, age) on boards. In looking at shareholder value, “if you want to stay competitive and win, you want to have a diverse team helping you think about culture innovation and talent management.”

Black Women on Boards, co-founded by Saintil and Robin Washington, launched in 2020 in response to the growing number of requests they were getting to sit on boards. It was a shift from the typical board search process of ‘here’s an opportunity looking for someone’ to ‘here’s a group of women who are board ready that just need the exposure and network access.’

Sharing the perspective of a DEI practitioner, Foster agreed that diversity is a strategic advantage that drives innovation. “When you have a board that is diverse…it positions the [DEI] practitioner to have buy-in at the highest level.”

Equity Residential was the gold winner for Nareit’s 2021 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Award. Foster discussed the REIT’s approach to DEI. “We knew we wanted to cultivate belonging, and so we tried to figure out ‘what drives that?’” Their strategy focuses on four key areas: expanding committed and accountable leadership; building competency and awareness throughout the organization; attracting and retaining talent; and eliminating barriers to inclusion.

They developed the strategy by hosting listening sessions, which executives all attended, with the goal of hearing directly from employees about what was important to them. Employees were then invited to participate in sub-teams of a task force to develop recommendations, and they ultimately developed 14 recommendations.

“We try to take away the fear that can sometimes be attached when it comes to conversations around diversity and inclusion…we’re trying to go along this journey together and create the space and grace for people to make mistakes,” Foster added.

To measure the success of Equity Residential’s program, they created a dashboard with metrics and developed employee engagement or pulse surveys. “I’m a believer in what gets measured gets done…and the more metrics you have, the better,” she said.

When asked to share advice for fellow DEI practitioners, Foster emphasized that it’s important to understand that each organization, and its employees, are on their own journeys. “It’s ok to create solutions and strategies based on what’s best for your company and not just move as fast as you need to,” she said. A successful DEI program requires a lot of engagement and partnerships, so support from senior leadership and financial resources can make a significant difference.

Saintil then shared advice for those looking to break into the world of corporate boards. The first step is understanding your value proposition, and then understanding what an organization is looking for—there should be alignment, she said. It can be helpful to let people know that you’re interested in joining a board, since one of the biggest challenges for those who are board ready is remaining top of mind and finding those opportunities. “It’s through word of mouth and networks, which is what we’re trying to talk about—opening up those networks,” she added.

Questions about Nareit’s strategic DEI plan? Contact Ayris Scales at