Progress has hired Dr. Shirley Knowles as its first chief inclusion and diversity officer to develop strategies, initiatives and practices to support and advance an inclusive, equitable and diverse workplace for employees.
Dr. Knowles recently became the CIDO for Progress. Hired to champion inclusion and diversity as part of our corporate social responsibility program, Progress for Tomorrow, Shirley hopes to continue our work to ensure that all employees are valued, engaged, safe and successful.
She will be responsible for creating awareness for inclusion and diversity across all aspects of the organization. She will chair the Inclusion and Diversity Committee and partner directly with Progress leadership and employee resource groups (ERGs) to develop strategies, initiatives and practices that support and advance a respectful, equitable and inclusive workplace for employees. She will also lead ongoing efforts to attract, retain and grow diverse talent and drive strategies to enhance the employee experience, ensuring inclusivity is embedded in the company’s practices. Finally, she will strive to advance those practices and our commitment to them within our eco-system, including suppliers and the local and tech communities.
Below are excerpts from our recent Q&A that touch upon Shirley’s life, her path to Progress and what she hopes to accomplish.
What is your go-big dream goal for your new job at Progress?
The go-to answer for some would be to increase the number of racial, ethnic and gender diverse employees, as well as the number serving in leadership roles. Although the increase is important, I want to make all employees—from every walk of life—to feel like they belong here at Progress. That’s so important.
What I really want is for folks at Progress to feel as though they have a vested interest in inclusion, equity and diversity. This work is not just for “underrepresented” groups. There’s something for everyone. Diversity is not just race, ethnicity and gender. There is diversity of thought. There is neurodiversity. There is diversity in abilities.
Talking about inclusion and diversity is not something to be afraid of. It’s something you can talk about with your peers if you are comfortable doing so. If you see something going on in the world and you are unsure of how to address it, there is someone you can reach out to—whether it’d be me, which I definitely welcome, or if it’s someone you trust enough to say, “I don’t know what I don’t know, but I want to start learning.”
That’s where the journey begins, and the real work is done.
What are some of the things we can put in motion today to make meaningful change?
It all starts with listening. From the people on the Inclusion and Diversity Committee to the employee resource groups to senior leadership, people here should value listening to one another. But that’s just step one.
Step two is taking action. Can we roll out development programs for employees of all backgrounds? Are there individual contributors with the potential to be great managers who show empathy and support others? Are there people with all the qualities needed to be great leaders? OK, let’s get them on the road to leadership.
What has been your biggest achievement in inclusion, equity and diversity so far?
When I see people who once believed they had no personal investment in I&D work, who might be in positions of influence and power, reaching out and mentoring, developing, talking to folks who are different from them, being willing to listen and to be an ally or advocate for others—those have been the biggest wins in my career.
Not only am I an inclusion and diversity officer, but I’ve also taught cultural diversity classes, so I bring those skills to every role.
It’s not an easy topic. Some people still don’t think it has a place in the workplace. Some people are uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say or where to start. It makes me proud when people feel as though I have created a safe space for them to grow.
Another thing I’m proud of is when I see people learning about their coworkers’ cultures, celebrating them together and building connections.
What has been the hardest lesson you’ve learned over your career?
As I mentioned earlier, there are many people who feel as though social justice, social unrest and personal beliefs should be separate from work. “Don’t bring that to work.” “I don’t want to hear about it.” “Why are we doing heritage month celebrations?”
As a woman of color who grew up in the South and has lived in the Midwest and Northeast, I’m open and welcoming to people from different backgrounds and experiences. But some people aren’t.
The hardest lesson I’ve learned is that in some cases you can’t reach everyone.
What was your background like before you started your professional life?
I’m originally from Tampa, Florida. I went to school in the Midwest (Marquette University), so that was a kind of culture shock. It was the first time I was around people who were raised differently, including peers who grew up in Ghana, South Korea, and India. We learned so much from each other and it helped open my eyes.
What did you want to do when you were a child and how did you end up doing what you do today?
As a kid, I wanted to be an accountant because my mom was an accountant. As I moved through school, I realized that math is not my strong suit. I’m more of a writer. My undergraduate degree is in journalism and political science. Then I was a sports photographer, and I thought that’s what I was going to do. I was just going to travel and cover NBA and college basketball games.
But then life happened, and newspaper jobs started disappearing. So, I worked for three years in education—at a high school with predominately low-income, first-generation students whose parents came from Mexico. From there, I came back to communications, while always finding a way to focus on inclusion and diversity. And finally, I became the inclusion and diversity officer at my last company, Homesite Insurance.
What part of your personal journey has shaped you the most?
As a woman and as a person of color, I know what it feels like to have someone second-guess you. It makes me even more empathetic for the work I’m doing advocating for others who face challenges with people accepting them for who they are and respecting their lived experience.
What gives you hope?
Seeing someone who was on the other side of an issue who once said, “I don’t want to talk about it,” finally want to talk about it and want to understand. It’s not easy for anyone to say they’re wrong or maybe didn’t understand why people celebrate or love or believe in certain things. So when they make an effort to understand and be part of the solution, that inspires me.
Finally, what should people know about you personally?
I am a big, big, big sports fan. I fell in love with baseball at the age of 10, and from there it just took off. I’m a big college basketball fan. I think athletics is a great way for people from all backgrounds to find commonality in this one area where they might be different, but they share a passion. I love the Red Sox and Duke and Marquette basketball teams. I’ve gone to so many Red Sox games. Admittedly, I don’t know much about soccer or hockey, but I am learning!
I also love Marvel movies—to the point where people I know think I have a problem! Typically, I work in a quiet environment, but if I just need some sort of background noise, I will put on “Avengers: End Game” or “Infinity War.” I love the Captain America movies. I’ve seen each of the Marvel movies at least five times!
Finally, I love to travel. I went to Cuba with my family at the end of 2016 when it opened to folks here in America. It was such an interesting country, looking like it was stuck in the 1950s in terms of infrastructure. It’s frozen in time. But their culture is so rich. I truly enjoyed learning about the people, including listening to their hopes and dreams, as well as their struggles. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden are at the top of my list, also, in terms of super memorable trips. Once the pandemic is over, I plan on going back to Scandinavia.
I love learning about cultures, customs, people and their beliefs. It shows you that the world is so big.
I can’t wait to meet our global Progress employees and learn about their experiences, not just with the company, but as they move and live in the world.
This article originally appeared on the Progress Software blog