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Leading DEI Efforts
in Significant Times

By Antonio Payne, CPA, CDE


The A/E/C industries have a people problem: We need more people in our workforce than are available. There is now a need to fill positions of retiring CEOs, architects, engineers, construction personnel, and marketing professionals. The struggle to recruit, hire, and maintain talent is more difficult than ever, especially when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
In recent times, we have experienced waves of opposition to DEI throughout our nation. As of March 2024, it was found that 28 states had proposed some form of anti-DEI legislation. While most of this legislation failed to pass, detractors believe that DEI initiatives are actually less inclusive.

If, by DEI, they mean dead-end initiatives, they could be right. The fact is, many DEI initiatives were doomed from the start due to uncertainty about where to begin. There is a lack of vision for what success looks like, absence of internal expertise, fear of making mistakes, and inadequate resources devoted to real, actionable impact.

We now find ourselves asking: How can we successfully navigate opposition to DEI initiatives? And, the answer is, by welcoming it. A thought leader recently said, “Opposition is not the burden you ask for, but it is the blessing you need.” There are three ways opposition can help bolster your mission:
Opposition tests the integrity of your motives. The No. 1 attribute of any impactful undertaking must be authenticity. If you are merely checking a box, people will know almost instantly.
Those who resist can help display the impact of your mission. People who want to maintain the status quo will line up against progress. This is the time to make the business case for DEI.
Objectors can shine a light on blind spots, improve efficiencies, and positively impact DEI initiatives. We are all human and, therefore, will make mistakes along the way. The key is to be accountable and forge ahead.

“Opposition is not the burden you ask for, but it is the blessing you need.”

The business case for DEI is a human case. According to Forbes, the top 100 Fortune 500 companies have more diverse boards than the other 400. Companies with higher numbers of women in upper management are more profitable. Further, the buying power of the multicultural consumer is more than $5 trillion. And, the cost of exclusion, rather than inclusion, has an economic impact of $1 trillion annually (Accenture).
If A/E/C industries want to solve their people problem, they must become more inclusive in all the ways that matter. It is necessary to expand the pool of potential professionals long before they are ready to enter the workforce. And, programs like ACE Mentor and the SMPS Foundation Zinsmeyer Scholarship are great. But there is much more work to be done, and DEI can help pave the way.

“If A/E/C industries want to solve their people problem, they must become more inclusive in all the ways that matter.”

We are now finding that many people in A/E/C leave the industry because they feel they don’t belong. This results in additional time and money spent replacing talent, which can be up to two times their annual salaries (Gallup). The great resignation may be behind us, but its effects could last for years to come.
Someone asked me if my commitment to advancing DEI ever waivers with all that’s happening in our country. I may get weary at times, but my resolve remains stronger than ever. The opponents of DEI, who have attempted to detract from it, oftentimes simply assign it a different name, including:
Employee engagement Recruitment and retention Communicating Team building Firm/industry sustainability
My motives and passions around DEI are simple: I want to help build a more inclusive world where my middle-school-aged daughter can see herself in the C-suite of an A/E/C firm. I work daily with and for intelligent, strong, and creative women. I am inspired to help them reach their highest career heights. And yes, I want the same for myself. We must simply do better.
Antonio Payne, CPA, CDE, has over 25 years of nonprofit association finance and leadership experience. A proud alum of Hampton University, Antonio obtained his master’s degree from George Washington. He currently serves as the Society of Marketing Professional Services’ (SMPS) CFO and Chief Diversity Officer. He is a staunch believer in continuous learning, having earned a certificate in Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell University. Antonio also recently received the credential of Certified Diversity Executive from the Institute for Diversity. He enjoys impacting winning culture by creating access and opportunities for everyone.
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