Podcast: Lena Hall on the importance of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Viasat

The new global head of DEI talks about the road ahead

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In this episode of the Viasat podcast, host Alex Miller catches up with Lena Hall, who is the new global head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) at the company. The Howard

University grad has an impressive history working in change management and is ideally suited to help Viasat move ahead with its DEI efforts in the coming years.

Topics covered in this podcast include:

  • Why most companies are paying a lot more attention to topics surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion
  • How the ‘equity’ piece came to be included and what it means
  • Addressing some of the pushback we’ve seen in recent years against some of the progress made in these areas
  • What DEI might look like in the coming years for Viasat and other companies
  • Turning DEI initiatives into action and how to embed it into company culture

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Transcript

Alex Miller: Hello and welcome to the Viasat podcast. I’m Alex Miller with the editorial team. And in this episode we’re speaking with Lena Hall, who just joined Viasat as the global head of diversity, equity and inclusion. Lena, it’s great to have you on the podcast.

Lena Hall: Thank you. Thank you so much, Alex. It’s really, really an honor to be here. And I’m so happy to be here at Viasat.

Alex Miller: Okay. All right. Well, you know, I know as I said, you’re quite new to this role at Viasat. So I wanted to start by asking a bit about your background, how you came to this position, and a little bit about the landscape we’re in here in 2022. So a little about your story. So where you grew up and went to school and your career path so far?

Lena Hall: Sure. So I am a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, born and raised, went to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where I majored in English liberal arts with a minor in mass communications. So I’m loving what I’m doing right now with this podcast, as it was part of the part of the plan when I was younger, I wanted to be a journalist. However, as you know, you grow up and your career takes you to different areas. So once I left Arkansas, I was actually working for my congressman out of Arkansas, and that’s what moved me to the D.C. area to work on Capitol Hill.

Alex Miller: Oh, okay. Wow.

Lena Hall: Yeah, yeah. Found out that politics just wasn’t in my genes and my genetics and decided to take a turn and actually go to grad school at Howard University in the Washington, D.C. area. So that’s where I was introduced to change management consulting. And honestly, you know, DEI, of course it wasn’t called that back then, but I was introduced to change management and DEI during that, during that time frame. And so after I graduated from Howard University, I moved on to work for a major consulting firm where I was actually practicing change management and involved with DEI for 10-plus years. And it literally just started to evolve from training my clients to helping them build communication strategies, to change management strategies. And honestly ... DEI was just part of the fabric that I was in being a part of women’s groups there being a part of African American groups within the company. And so it really just evolved within the role that I was already doing. And like I mentioned, it was not called diversity, equity and inclusion back then. But it was just part of my nature, and it grew to where it became a passion. And not only that, it’s now my purpose. And I love what what I do. And then once I left the major consulting firm, I went on to join another major consulting firm, which was absolutely great. And that’s where I became a lead of diversity and inclusion for a global team. And it just grew on me where I had the power. I had the voice that many didn’t have, and I could actually speak on their behalf. And people actually listen and understand why DEI is important and what’s important back then. And then from there, my business segment grew, and that’s what led me to Viasat.

Alex Miller: Wow. Well, thumbs up to our talent acquisition folks to find someone like you who’s got such a great background in all this. So I also wanted to talk a little bit about the background, the environment out there, and how so many companies have increased their emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion and why this has grown so much in importance. And also, can you speak to the recent addition of equity to the mix —it used to just be diversity and inclusion?

Lena Hall: Absolutely. Alex, this is a great question. Many companies are increasing their emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion because it’s just the right thing to do. If you’re an employee, you are part of DEI regardless of your race and your gender and your socioeconomic background. Every single employee make up DEI. And that’s why companies are embracing it. Because when employees can come to work and be their authentic selves, then they can put in the effort to think more broadly. They can bring their creativeness and their innovativeness to work every day because they know that that will be embrace versus coming to work, doing your day to day job and not actually thinking outside of the box and being afraid to be open about your ideas. Many companies are now starting to see that all of this creativity, all of this innovativeness that they are building upon, it really does come from helping the employee feel comfortable in their job and allowing them to be open about themselves, but then again, also to be open about what they’re thinking and how they can help build their position, how they can bring their creativity and innovativeness to the job every day. And as far as equity is concerned, that’s an important piece. It should always be diversity, equity and inclusion. And I’m going to add another factor to that belonging as well, because diversity is the presence, of course, of differences within the organization, and it may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and more. And then inclusion is the outcome to ensure that those that are diverse actually feel welcome and have that sense of belonging. But adding equity is promoting justice and fairness with the procedures and processes of all the resources in the company, whomever they are. And so equity is a major piece to be in DEI. And I’m just going to add belonging to that as well, because everyone wants to feel like they have a seat at the table, that their voices are heard. And that’s where belonging comes in as well.

Alex Miller: So what kind of things in the past might we as employees and companies have tolerated back then that simply doesn’t fly now? There are many obvious ones we might think of, but many are more subtle. And I think that equity piece flows into these things most of us may not even realize are happening.

Lena Hall: Yeah, that is a good question too, because I would tell you, respect for every employee is now being embraced more and companies in the past — and I’ll take from my experience in the past — where there was a time where people didn’t necessarily take the time to understand the employee. And what do I mean by that? They didn’t take the time to understand their culture if they were different. They didn’t take the time to ask the employee what they did on the weekends. How do they celebrate different holidays? What do they normally do when they go home? They didn’t take that time to actually understand cultures and backgrounds. And today we are taking the necessary steps to understand each employee and what they bring to the table. I’ll give you an example. Years ago, when I was at a company, I had a client, and at that time I had a younger analyst come to my team. And, you know, she was an African-American woman and young woman at that. And so her name — we’ll just this is not her name but of course I’ll just for example, her name was Janice. Well, the client couldn’t quite understand her name. She couldn’t quite pronounce the name Janice.

Lena Hall: So she said, “Well, I’m just going to call you ‘JJ.’” And at that time, we laughed it off and I was like, okay. But even then, at that time, I wanted to speak on my employee’s behalf to say, you know what, let’s get her name right. It’s Janice. But I didn’t have a voice. And during that time, it was all about ensuring that the client is happy that we’re doing the best for our client. And so to me and I felt this then, and I definitely feel it now if it happens, but I feel empowered to speak on it now. It wasn’t right. And Janice didn’t feel respected as an employee because the client can’t even say her name appropriately or correctly and renamed her JJ. So today, you don’t see a lot of that. And if you do. Feel free to speak up and speak out and say no. My name is Lena. My name is Alex. Please don’t rename what my parents probably put a lot of thought in to doing, you know, when I was born. So taking the time to respect, fully respect the total employee and all that they bring to the job.

Alex Miller: You know, it’s interesting when you think about that, is it a little more difficult in that kind of situation where it’s not another employee, it’s a client or a customer where you might feel even more awkward about trying to correct that kind of behavior.

Lena Hall: Yeah, it does, because a lot of times and I’m coming from the world of consulting and like I mentioned before, you know, we want to make sure our client is happy. We want to make sure that we’re doing our best work and putting our best foot forward for the client. However, the client must also understand that the company embraces diversity, equity and inclusion. And we respect every employee. And we make sure that each employee can bring their authentic selves to the table, meaning that they can bring their authentic selves to work wherever that may be, whether it’s at the client site or at our home office or even virtually on Zoom. We want to make sure that the respect is there, regardless who our clients are. And we want to make sure our clients understand that we as a company respect all employees.

Alex Miller: Right. And real quick, I was wondering: So in that situation, would you recommend that you wait until the meeting is over and take the person aside, or do you try and call it out right there?

Lena Hall: I would take the person to the side. DEI is still a fairly new concept and although it’s been around for years, it just really received its name, diversity, equity & inclusion recently. And so everyone is in process of understanding what does it really mean. And so I’m all about educating and bringing awareness first to the individual. So bringing the person to the side and just educating them and making them aware that, you know what, that really didn’t make me feel a certain way. My name is is not JJ and just being totally transparent one on one with that client and you never know that client may just .. Wasn’t aware and wasn’t educated that this really does impact this employee. And so they needed to take a step back versus just calling out in front of everyone. So I always take the position on having that one on one conversation and then making them aware and educating them on DEI.

Alex Miller: Yeah, and it sounds like it doesn’t have to be confrontational. It just has to be part of a conversation between two people.

Lena Hall: Absolutely.

Alex Miller: Okay. So that leads into my next question. You know, it feels like some of the progress made in the past, I don’t know, decade or two is being rolled back or some people challenge this thinking and maybe even use “woke” as a dirty word. So how do you address those concerns that maybe some of these things are going too far?

Lena Hall: You know, it’s all about education and awareness. And I continue to focus on education and awareness because it is a shift in the mindset. Like I mentioned before, DEI is still fairly new, and as far as embedding it into the fabric of a company, we must be able to make this happen. And so many people are not educated and aware of why DEI is important today. And so taking a step back to bring awareness and bringing education to a company about why DEI is important can really be a change for a lot of people. And because I have experience actually 15 plus years in change management, I understand that people do not like change regardless of what it is, and you have to have a process in place when you’re trying to change the environment of an organization. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen within a year. It’s currently happening, but it’s not going to all of a sudden be implemented within a year or two because it involves shifting the mindset of our employees. And so the first step to help shifting the mindset of employees is just bringing up the education and awareness of why DEI is now a focus today in companies and then helping them to understand what it means for them and to them. And I always fall back on what I stated earlier. DEI is not just for people of different race or different genders or different sexual orientations. It’s for everyone, right? Everyone has a diverse spectrum within themselves because you are your own individual. There is no one out in the world that is just that’s like you. You are your only you. And you come to work every day with you as an individual. And that’s what makes diversity, equity and inclusion. And if we embrace that and make it part of the fabric of the company on a daily basis, you will be surprised how all of the experiences and differences can come together to make a company grow and expand with amazing results. All because we have allowed everyone to have a seat at the table.

Alex Miller: Right. That’s great. It’s just like, you know, sort of getting rid of this old junk from the past, you know, and kind of freeing people up, you know. So when it comes to a company really presenting itself in a positive light in terms of DEI and incorporating those values, what might be some broad strokes you’d love to see a year from now or even five years from now, and not just for Viasat, but for companies in general.

Lena Hall: You know, Alex, the goal is to have DEI organically embedded in the company where it’s not even a hot topic anymore. It’s just the culture of a company. And when a company hires an employee, they ensure that they’re going to meet and exceed expectations or whatever it is they’re hired to do. And so DEI should be just that important and made a priority. It should organically be embedded into the culture. And when someone joins a new organization, they should feel comfortable and understand that they are valued and they belong here and they have a seat at the table. And so within the next year or the next five years, that’s what we like to see roll out at Viasat. We want to see diversity, equity and inclusion already embracing the culture.

Alex Miller: Great. So, you know, it can be a challenge for companies to take some of that sentiment and turn it into action. So as you look ahead to creating a plan for Viasat, how do you get a, you know, a broad section of the company or everybody invested in pursuing these meaningful changes?

Lena Hall: Well, the first step to change is to 1-Listen. Currently, I’m on my listening tour and I am taking a seat, sitting back and listening to our employees and our leadership to get their perspective on diversity, equity and inclusion. I want to see what they have to say as far as what’s going on now, what’s went on in the past. But then again, I want to see what they would like to see in the future. DEI is a change and I want everyone here at Viasat to understand that I care about their thoughts because they are part of diversity, equity and inclusion. All of us are. And so I care about their concerns and I want to make sure I have the opportunity and take the approach of listening that helps me to understand what I’m doing and what what expectations, you know, that that’s put before me from the perspective of our leadership and our employees. Then you can bring your ideas, your thoughts, and it’s just not my ideas and thoughts. It’s a collaborative effort. Like I said, DEI is everyone, and it takes a team to embrace DEI and to make sure that it becomes part of your culture. And so what I’m doing, I’m listening. I am ensuring that everyone is a part of the and culture here. Yes, I have a DEI team. However, I always solicit volunteers because there are so many people who are passionate in this space and we want to make sure that they have the opportunity to make comments, provide feedback, and to provide their creative ideas that we can actually help implement and they can be a part of that execution of their idea. So when you talk about meaningful change, you listen, you educate and you collaborate. And with that, everyone feels like they are part of the change.

Alex Miller: Right. And it’s not going to happen overnight. And I think we’ve come a long way since, you know, whatever the 1950s. But, you know, there’s still a lot to do. So I know you’ve got your work cut out for you. And even though you say I’d like to be where, it just wasn’t a thing that we had to worry about, I don’t think you’re going to be out of a job any time soon because there’s there’s always going to be work to do in this area. So my last question was thinking about our younger employees, you know, the Gen Alphas, the Gen Zs, you know, people in their, you know, their twenties who might be joining the company. How do their evolving expectations shape our plan? Because, you know, these folks do have a different take on things than previous generations.

Lena Hall: They do. They do. Alex. Now, you know, they come in graduating from college and grad school and their minds are broader compared to when I graduated from college or grad school, they are more accepting of diversity and inclusion. They are willing to be innovative and creative. And while, of course, you know, as as young college students coming out, they always wanted to know, well, what’s my salary? What am I benefits? But that’s not the full equation anymore. They really want to see a company who embraces DEI. They want to see a company who will allow them to bring their authentic selves to work. But from their perspective, you know, they’re technically savvy, they’re the next generation and they can build websites and in a day versus me probably having to go and find someone or Google it to see exactly what to do. And so they want to be able to express themselves. They want to be able to go and build different websites. But with the fact and the idea that they see leaders embracing their creativity and their innovativeness, they want leaders to actually be able to say, hey, yes, we have you coming in to do this particular job. But guess what? We have all these other business segments that you could possibly experiment in, and we want you to go out there and see what you want to do. We want you to continue to expand your knowledge, not just in this one area, but all the areas that we have in this company. In addition, from a DEI perspective, they want to see diversity. At the top.

Lena Hall: They want to feel that they have the opportunity to grow and see themselves at the top, be the CEO, the CEO or the CFO, whatever their career aspirations are. They want to be able to see, Oh, I can get to the top, right? And when they go to a company’s website and intentionally look for diverse executive leadership at the top, if they don’t see anyone that looked like them, then they may tend to go to another company where diversity, equity and inclusion is more authentic and embedded into the culture. And so that’s why DEI is so important to our younger employees, because that’s what they’re looking for these days. And we want to make sure that we are accepting of our younger employees because they are you know, this might sound a little cliché, but literally our younger employees are our future. They’re the ones who’s going to be creating all of these new ideas and tools and processes and everything that we’re going to need when we become older. That’s probably going to help us out when we are a certain age. I will talk about myself, you know, once I get to retirement age and there may be new tools that they develop in their company. Now, that’s going to benefit me when I’m in my 70s and 80s and even nineties, because we’re definitely living longer these days and I want them to feel embrace, to be that innovative wherever they are. So they are a future. We literally should embrace them and help them adapt to a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment in our organizations.

Alex Miller: Yeah, they’re probably going to be a big part of the education component as they interact with older employees too. So Lena, you’re the global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, and it occurs to me that when I’m thinking about global is DEI probably looks pretty different in other countries around the world where Viasat operates. So I think that might be a great topic for maybe the next time we catch up. Talk about that global aspect of DEI. But for now, thanks so much for being on the podcast. This is really great and good luck with all you’re doing here at Viasat.

Lena Hall: Thank you so much, Alex. I appreciate the time.

Alex Miller is the director of editorial at Viasat.