DEI: Finding Connections
that Unify All Humans

A conversation with Kellie Wagner, Founder & CEO of Collective — A DEI Lab

Read About the Episode

Kellie Wagner paints a clear picture of the problem with most DEI training: Employees sit through a session about, for instance, unconscious bias. Then the trainer leaves. Some employees now recognize unconscious bias as a huge issue. They feel guilt and remorse but are uncertain what to do. Others are resistant. Some dismiss it outright.  

In the end, the training hasn’t changed people’s behaviors. 

In this episode, Wagner shares her approach to helping employees navigate their differences effectively, even in an era of extreme tribalism. She discusses what leads to the kind of behavior changes that create cultures in which all employees feel a sense of belonging. 

Collective offers DEI support for companies, including assessments, strategic development, and DEI training. When Collective works with companies, its DEI practitioners validate and provide context for narratives around sexism, racism, homophobia and all other “isms” and phobias. 

Ultimately, Collective aims to transcend individual narratives by helping people discover universal points of connection.

We’re trying to help people navigate their differences more effectively, so that they can have that sense of belonging.

Kellie Wagner

Founder & CEO, Collective

Wagner's Inspiration for Founding Collective

“I felt this disconnect from the culture, oftentimes from the people.” That’s how Wagner describes her early professional years. 

She changed jobs often but never landed in a position that felt empowering. 

Wagner had moved around a lot as a child. Maybe she was destined to be a job hopper. “I felt like the problem was me,” she says. 

But she began to talk to employees from other underrepresented groups and finally understood: She wasn’t alone, and she wasn’t the problem.  

“I realized that I could hop from workplace to workplace, trying to find a place where I felt a sense of belonging, where I felt like I was empowered to do my best work,” says Wagner. “Or I could just recognize what was right in front of me, which was that the typical workplace wasn’t really designed with me — and with a lot of people — in mind.”

Wagner had never before entertained the idea of launching a company, but she was inspired to found Collective in 2017.

“You have to understand where people’s motivations are and then walk alongside them. It’s about stepping back and listening and understanding what the person needs.”

Finding Universal Points of Connection

At our core, all of us want the same things, says Wagner: access to opportunity, validation, respect, dignity, belonging, and psychological and physical safety.

Tapping into these shared human needs is more likely to create behavioral change than focusing on a singular experience, like unconscious bias or sexual harassment. Wagner notes that it’s easy for people who have not experienced sexual harassment to dismiss it: “Oh, that’s not my problem; that’s not my experience.” 

It’s not so easy to dismiss what lies beneath sexual harassment, which is power imbalance. Not everyone in the room will have experienced the power imbalance of sexual harassment. But more often than not, they’ve had to navigate power imbalances in different contexts — like the need to set boundaries with a boss who demands unreasonable hours.  

Instead of following an instinct to dismiss, people empathize. They understand that power imbalances show up in many contexts. People start to understand why their peers are advocating for change and perhaps explore what they can do to support them.

Arriving at this approach was an evolution, says Wagner. When she first launched Collective, she felt convicted that there was one right protocol. In time, she discovered ticking the boxes off a checklist doesn’t work because no such checklist exists. 

Her work will continue to evolve, she says, as will DEI work in general. “We’re all learning what works and what doesn’t. We’re also learning that what works in one company might not work in another.”
Listen to the Episode

A Movement, Not a Moment

In 2021, Built In published a report on the state of DEI in tech. The majority of companies surveyed have no Black leaders (87%) and no Latinx leaders (73%). Only 3% reported having Native or Indigenous leaders.  

Although the social justice movement of 2021 created new awareness of systemic racism in America and in corporate settings, those numbers are still the backdrop. People are asking: Is this a moment or a movement?

Wagner believes it’s a movement.

It’s not being driven by companies as much as it’s being driven by employees, she adds. After more than a year of remote work, people are preparing for the return to office life. And they’re saying: “I don’t want to go back to the way it was.” 

Generation Z is adding its own momentum, making it clear that they want companies to create social change, not just profit. 

“At a certain point,” Wagner says, “you have to be responsive to the market and adapt.”

“If you’re going to go this path of investing in DEI, saying that it’s something you care about, you need to be ready to do the work, or it’s going to backfire.”

Wagner’s Key Takeaways

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