Julie Elberfeld is listening

A hard look at leadership inspired a longtime CIO to transform diversity, inclusion, and belonging in the tech industry.

Welcome to Free Radicals — a collaboration between Everything and Sherrell Dorsey, founder of The Plug. Free Radicals is a limited series celebrating those who embody leadership in this moment. Each edition features a conversation between Sherrell and a leader in tech, focusing on equity, advancement, and progress. This is the third edition, featuring Julie Elberfeld. 

To read previous editions, and sign up for future updates, click here.


To diversity consultant Julie Elberfeld, there is promise in corporate America. “Inside our companies, we have control over a lot of the variables that we can't necessarily control in the broader society—we can actually drive change,” Julie Elberfeld told Free Radicals. 

Elberfeld has spent her entire career in finance and tech, including more than a decade at Fifth Third Bank, and most recently as divisional chief information officer at Capital One. Now, more than 30 years into her career, she’s making a major pivot to advise companies in diversity, inclusion, and belonging, and cultivate the best talent. This begins with helping company leadership understand the business and moral imperatives of hiring and retaining a diverse workforce. 

If she succeeds, she’ll help reshape corporate America, and change the careers of countless individuals.

“When I set out to do this I was a tech executive, I wasn't a diversity and inclusion expert, but I saw that this was just about being a good leader and listening to people and trying to move forward in initiatives that I thought would drive good change,” she says. Elberfeld concluded that supporting working parents, women, and underrepresented and marginalized folks is not a token gesture or a company perk. It’s a crucial extension and expression of good leadership that makes companies and workers stronger.

Elberfeld spoke to Sherrell Dorsey about  the power of good leadership, the opportunities that emerge in crisis, and where to start when it seems like everything needs to change.

As a workplace equity and inclusion thought leader, if you could wave your magic wand what are the three biggest changes you would make?

Can I only pick three? 

My work has been largely at the intersection of the tech industry and diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB), so if I could wave a magic wand, I would have CIOs collaborate across the tech industry on really big ideas that would simultaneously increase the overall pool of talent and diversify the workforce, inclusive of increasing advancement and retention of all women and men of color in the field.

I’d also have all CEOs and CIOs make diversity, inclusion, and belonging the top imperative it should be, right along with their other business objectives, and work at it in the same way—with priority, accountability, funding, staffing, objectives, measurements, and continuous improvement.

And, I’d like to see hiring and advancement done based on the full set of skills that make someone successful in a job, including a belief in growth mindset, commitment to equitable and ongoing development, abandoning pedigree-based hiring, and removing four-year college degree requirements from many jobs where the skills needed can be acquired through

other routes or on the job.

Assuming there’s pushback against your work promoting equity in the workplace, where does it tend to come from, and how is it typically expressed?

I find that the largest barrier to success in DIB programs is that they are too often outsourced to well-intentioned and talented people in human resources, without clear prioritization and engagement from top executives. Everyday decisions are made by managers and executive leaders in businesses, yet the most important asset to most any company—their talent—often fails to be a top strategic imperative. I help leaders focus on talent strategies, and if they want the best talent, they have to embrace diversity and inclusive leadership, full stop.

How do we take these leadership challenges and really start to think deeply about who gets access and opportunity and who doesn't? Especially now when we may be working in a virtual environment. And what do we risk if we don't get this right?

First of all, a really interesting stat that has stayed with me is that internet access is not available to 21 million people in the U.S. I first read that in a Microsoft study from 2018, but newer estimates indicate that it might be much higher, closer to 42 million people who just don’t have access. Then there are the millions of people who could purchase broadband access, but don’t, many because they can’t afford to bring the internet into their home. 

And so now when we live in an environment where we expect schooling to happen over the internet, and we expect work to happen over the internet, making an assumption that it just exists at home for everyone. Right there, you're starting to create inequity in the way that people can approach their education, the way that they can approach their job opportunities. I think it is tremendously important that we understand the bigger social dynamic of this expectation, and the assumption that everyone has internet access, when no, they actually don't. 

At the same time, when it comes to remote work, you’re reducing geographic limitations. I think in the tech field in particular, we have put a lot of emphasis on the coasts, leaving the majority of people in our country isolated from this tech boom. If we can start to appreciate that working remotely actually can work, then we start to open up different geographies for one of the greatest and fastest growing fields in technology.

There are other upsides, too. When people are willing to actually get on video and have a conversation, it's actually much more intimate. When you're in a room of 15 people, and there's one long table, who ends up sitting on the margins? Who ends up sitting within eyeshot of the leader? Who does the leader end up engaging with? On Zoom you can see everyone, and it feels much more equitable. We have more awareness of who is and isn’t speaking, and can then engage people more in the conversation. 

Still, none of these benefits can simply be realized without effort. For example, a downside in the virtual environment is that relationships have to be even more deliberately sought and encouraged than they would be in an office setting. 

We typically surround ourselves with people like us, and we have those people that we gravitate to in the workplace. The risk in the virtual environment is that you no longer have the opportunity for the hallway conversations with people you might not seek out deliberately, the serendipity of seeing someone doing something that intrigues you, and the chance to stop by and engage them. 

If we aren't consciously thinking about them, all those opportunities are lost in the virtual environment. I worry that if the folks in power are not making deliberate efforts to foster an inclusive environment in a virtual setting, they are further distancing the people who have already been underrepresented or marginalized.

Study after study (after study), plus mountains of personal stories make it clear that the pandemic has had an outsized negative effect on working women. What do you see as needs specific to this moment to keep an entire generation of careers on track?

This is a time of crisis, and honestly, we should all feel that our goal is to survive. For parents who are trying to balance working in a home environment not designed for full-time work, childcare arrangements disrupted, home schooling demands, emotions of guilt and isolation, and perhaps needing to do cleaning, cooking, and other tasks that may have been previously supported in other ways, it is just too much. Working moms can tend to carry guilt in the best of circumstances; now is a time to do your best to shed that guilt and ride it out in your own best way.

What companies need to do is acknowledge the burden and make space for relief valves and truly care for employees. There are a few ways to address that systemically.

Performance management and promotions need to take Covid into account and avoid recency bias. It can be tempting to over-reward those who have been able to put in extra time to help companies through the crisis, while penalizing those who may seem more distracted, but are truly heroes for the work they are contributing, along with all the other demands. We need to look at this year as an anomaly, not a norm of performance for any associate, and those heroes that are balancing it all have a determination that will reward your company over time.

Companies can consider more paid vacation time or use this moment to galvanize a part-time or job share model for those who could take advantage of that now and in the future. Companies should also insist on space for self-care for all employees, maybe setting aside days for self-investment, and certainly, do not expect everyone to be on video every day, all day. That is just exhausting.

I see many comments on “how productive” companies are in this new paradigm. Leaders should realize that when they overemphasize “productivity,” one, they may add anxiety for those who are feeling anything but productive at work, and second, leaders are already realizing that their emphasis on productivity in this virtual environment is at the expense of the innovative ideas that come from more natural interactions.  Simply stated, inclusive leaders should appreciate that remote work isn't ideal for many people.

This is not the first global crisis you’ve weathered, is it? 

It was incredibly difficult to be a leader when the financial services industry was tanking in 2008. I was a divisional CIO at a financial institution at the time, and for the first time in the history of the company, we had to let people go to save costs. 

A lot of my peers were remaining silent and saying that they didn't really want to talk to the associates who were left about the challenging place we were in. That just didn't resonate with me as a leader. I felt that it was a time for me to really unite people and to think about inspiring them for the future. So I pulled together my entire team and stood in front of them and was really transparent about the challenges I saw in front of us, and how little I could answer about what the future would hold. It galvanized us around a shared mission and my team was amazingly supportive, despite the empty desks around them.

Was there an aha moment that made you realize that companies have to create environments that make it possible for women to move forward in their leadership journeys? 

One of the things that I learned and I feel has really guided the way that I’ve led both my technology teams and the way I’ve leaned into diversity and inclusion is this idea of authentic curiosity—of being authentically engaged in continuous learning, and never really stopping that process of trying to understand the root cause of challenges. 

In 2014, two young women came to me about the challenge of culture in the tech industry. My genuine sense of curiosity, trying to understand the experiences that people were having, I think served me really well, because I didn't just discount what they were saying. I didn't try to assume that I understood the answers. And I discovered that at that time, 56% of women were dropping out of the tech industry by the midpoint of their career. I was able to ask “What's going on with that? How can the experiences of those women who have left give me more insight into what the challenges are?”

So being vulnerable, admitting that you really don't have all the answers as a leader, but that you're willing to listen with understanding and curiosity and empathy, and really try to peel back what is underneath all of that, and what needs to change, I think, is something that leaders need to embrace. Combined with your other leadership skills, listening gives you the opportunity to think differently about the path forward and how it can change in order to rectify those fundamental and systemic issues that are holding people back.

How does research and quantification of who stays in or leaves tech help you understand what needs to happen in the industry?

There's been some great research—the Kapor Center did the Tech Leavers study. At Capital One last year we did a research study on why women stay, which was an angle on it that I'd always been curious about. Were there differentiators? Were there things that we could learn from why some women stay in tech and others don’t? 

Well, looking at one example, one of the top reasons for staying was flexibility in the work. One of the top reasons for leaving was lack of flexibility in the work. When you look at the other top contributing factors—whether or not you had women role models, whether or not your leader was supportive of you in continuous learning and development, whether or not you were being paid equitably—those who had these things stayed. Those who didn’t, left. It was the same set of characteristics. It was largely about company culture. 

Of course, what we hear is: “women don’t like tech.” In fact, of the women who left, only 3% said that they didn't really like the work—97% of the women who left loved the work. They just were in a circumstance where they weren't feeling that they could realize their aspirations. 

Flexibility was one of the top factors for my own long career in tech. I was able to work

from home when I needed to and even worked part-time when more of my time was needed for my children. Companies have an opportunity to formalize their flexibility policies, in particular making a part-time schedule or job-sharing model viable and culturally acceptable. Looking at team norms and asking teams to ensure the core hours are thoughtful of all team members, especially in an agile work environment, are key considerations.

The good news is that this is something that companies can completely control. They can create the opportunities for development, they can create equitable opportunities to move toward more senior positions, they can offer flexibility in the work. These are all things that leaders can decide to embrace and keep people in tech. 

For those wondering, why is it so important to keep people in tech, to retain diverse talent?

You need to be thinking about your workforce and talent as a competitive advantage in tech, and a key differentiator in your overall business strategy. It needs to be right at the top of your priorities. It's all about bringing in great talent, and giving them an opportunity to give you their best work. We know diverse teams produce better results, and once you have them on your team, you certainly want to have an inclusive environment where everyone feels they belong.  That is when teams produce their best results. 

As a business leader, you're always using the data to help drive your decision making on solving some of these very complex and very human challenges. When you’re presented with the opportunity to make some changes you start off trying to create some planning and some programming, it's still experimental and so you have no idea until maybe years later whether or not these things are working. 

It's absolutely a really good point. As I talk to people on my journey, especially in the last few months, I feel as if people are in some way saying, I really want to act, but I am so fearful of doing the wrong thing, or not saying the right thing, or not putting the right programs in place, or trying to just communicate a message without any action behind it. It is a very appropriate conversation right now. To realize, first of all, that if you want to drive change in an area that is a societal challenge, one that people are grappling with at all levels of government and society, it's going to be a journey."

At the beginning of my own work in this space, we did a lot of things that I would call “activities,” that were not necessarily aligned to a specific outcome. They were great activities. They were all foundational. And they were all really important. We were sponsoring hackathons and we were helping college women, and we were bringing people together internally, but they weren't aligned toward an outcome. 

And what I found was that you really need to establish what it is that you want in terms of an outcome. Do you want to change the representation of women and men of color? Do you want to ensure that your promotion rates are at parity? Do you want to change the composition of your leadership? Do you really need to lean in on leadership, because there's a lot of leverage in thinking about the diversification of your leadership team? 

So you need to think of the programming around specific outcomes, and then test it like you would anything that you're doing in business. We try a marketing campaign to change the outcome with our customers. And sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn't. But we assess that, we measure it, we try to figure out whether or not it’s creating the outcome that we wanted. And when it doesn't we try again, right? And so I think we need to think about these DEI initiatives in the same way.

You’re talking about designing initiatives with outcomes in mind, whether that’s pay parity or representation across a company, or at the executive level. Assuming that none of these are great in a hypothetical company, which would you start with? How do you decide what type of initiative will have the greatest impact? What are the questions you start with?

This seems to be the question of the hour, as so many companies have found themselves responding to the elevated expectations from employees, customers, and communities, without solid foundational work to stand on. 

I help organizations think about their biggest leverage for impact, since most places have a long list of opportunities for improvement. If you are only hiring a few people, an outsized focus on hiring is not your leverage, for example. If your teams have a low sense of belonging, working with people managers on inclusive leadership may be the best place to start.

Some organizations need to consult an expert—they may need to start with defining terms and talk about the possible ways in which the lack of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging can manifest in an organization. 

Developing awareness of these topics can also come from reading, for example, from Harvard Business Review's Diversity content or reading books.  Some of my favorite books are by academics, such as Iris Bohnet, Amy Edmondson, Claude Steele, and Ibram X. Kendi. I often send folks this Korn Ferry article.  

I suggest starting with top executive commitment to make sure that it’s clear that support comes from the top. Then look at your people data, to understand how employees feel about inclusion and belonging—are there culture challenges to address? Expand that lens to understand the opportunities that exist in product, customer, and community. Then define your specific problem statement. What needs to change? What can change now and what will take longer? What are your levers?

Although you want to be thoughtful about where to start, do not fear getting started. Make your commitment clear and take results-oriented action.  As leaders, we know how to champion change and solve challenging business problems.  I recommend that you take the same approach, but as I like to say, add in some heart.

This was a conversation between Sherrell Dorsey and Julie Elberfeld, edited for length and clarity by Annaliese Griffin and Rachel Jepsen.

What’d you think of this interview?

Amazing • Good • Meh • Bad

Like this?
Become a subscriber.

Subscribe →

Or, learn more.

Read this next:

Chain of Thought

🎧 ChatGPT for Radical Self-betterment

Clinical psychologist Dr. Gena Gorlin’s AI-powered annual review and goal-setting session

Jan 31, 2024 by Dan Shipper

The Sunday Digest

How AI Works, Crypto’s Prophet Speaks, ChatGPT for Radical Self-betterment, and More

Everything we published this week

Feb 4, 2024

Thanks for rating this post—join the conversation by commenting below.


You need to login before you can comment.
Don't have an account? Sign up!

Every smart person you know is reading this newsletter

Get one actionable essay a day on AI, tech, and personal development


Already a subscriber? Login