By Lisa Rossi

The Technology Association of Iowa on Tuesday honored six organizations across Iowa that have prioritized diversity, equity and inclusion to drive change.

The honorees were part of the 2023 Catalyst Live event, which is a “collection of conversations with technology leaders who inspire change, forge new paths and ignite technology innovation in the state of Iowa,” according to TAI.

“Together we create a future in Iowa where every individual feels valued and heard and empowered to contribute their unique perspectives, regardless of their background or identity,” said Brian Waller, president of TAI.

Here are the stories of the honorees.

VGM Group
Language barriers have become increasingly common as the company recruits employees from diverse backgrounds, said Cassi Price, vice president of corporate projects.

“We set out to build our own language-learning program. As we began our research, we found the benefits of eliminating language barriers were far greater than we thought,” Price said. “Beyond creating opportunities for growth and development, language education can improve safety in our warehouse and our production settings, because truly a misunderstanding can easily cause an injury.”

On June 5, the company launched the VGM Language Learning Program and now has 37 employee-owners who are working on mastering English or Spanish, Price said. The company partnered with an online language-learning module and also set up a classroom where employees can work on their education. Participants dedicate two hours each week in small groups during working hours with the goal of becoming as fluent as possible, she said.

Veterans Tech Support
Sixteen-year-old Abigail Johnson is the founder and CEO of Veterans Tech Support, a nonprofit organization that provides computers and technical support to veterans.

The idea started to bloom when she was volunteering at a local American Legion and noticed that the older adults were asking her questions about technology, such as how to read a text message or how to set up a cellphone so it rings.

At age 14, she secured a $10,000 STEM grant, part of which she used to start Veterans Tech Support.

She said she was a “bit taken aback by the skill level.” Sometimes a lesson is simply learning how to turn a computer on. There are also people who come in with their laptops and have advanced questions.

“The lessons can be frustrating at times for the learners, but the same people keep coming back and more people show up,” she said.

She also said lessons can range from signing up for a first email account to scheduling a virtual doctor’s appointment.

The need will continue, she said.

“Technology is always changing and evolving,” Johnson said. “Service members will always be re-entering the community with a digital divide because of service. Older members of our society will always be behind on the new advances in our technology, and having a free service available as a thank-you for the freedoms our veterans have provided us is a small way we can give back.”

At Athene, leaders in the organization created three goals, said Angela Jackson, senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Those goals were deepening education, increasing the diversity of the workforce and building a culture of inclusion and belonging.

One way the company committed itself to deepening education was creating Days of Understanding, which was an opportunity for the organization and leaders to have a conversation — open and honest conversations, Jackson said.

It was “an opportunity to build trust and really learn from each other,” she said.

“These are important because you can learn about your peers, you can learn about their culture, you can learn about their language, you can learn about their experience. And you’re able to break down those barriers. You’re able to build those bridges.”

City of Cedar Rapids
The city of Cedar Rapids recently decided to update its email signature guidelines to add the options of pronouns, said Elizabeth Buch, diversity, equity and inclusion manager.

“You might be thinking pronouns seem like a small gesture,” Buch said. “Sometimes I think we forget that life and experiences and memories and feelings of how we are within spaces are built from very small moments and very small gestures. And if we don’t capture those small moments, then it’s almost impossible to actually reach those very large and grand gestures.”

She said the discussion unfolded a “wave of learning, a wave of vulnerability” among the top leadership team in Cedar Rapids with questions like, “What happens if I accidentally misgender someone and how do I handle that situation as a leader?”

The city held department by department discussions about what they can learn alongside how they are implementing these strategies.

“We had these foundational questions of ‘How can we be inclusive?’” she said.

The city also decided to raise the Progress Pride Flag at city hall for the first time in the city’s 170-year history, Buch said.

“It all stemmed from the idea that if you are supporting me like you say you do, then why can’t I see it, why can’t I feel it?” Buch said.

John Deere
Eighty-six women are promoted into leadership or their first supervisory position for every 100 men. In tech, that number drops to 52, said Crystal Wells, manager, tech stack architecture at John Deere, citing a McKinsey study.

Wells said part of the problem is rooted in mentoring. Men and women receive different kinds of mentoring.

“What happens at the mid-level management is that women may be coached to be more assertive, more confident in meetings, where men may engage in those business discussions,” she said.

She said with the full support of leadership, she set out to make sure they did not have this gap at John Deere.

She set a goal to give women a strong network they can rely on and enhance their business acumen.

The mentoring program at John Deere spends about an hour brainstorming 80 to 100 topics women participants could talk about. The group then votes on 12 topics and asks the women to answer those questions.

“We invite you to go interview other leaders in the community to learn on it,” Wells said. “Every month, every woman in that conversation gets to have the ability to learn … on her topic.”

She said the company is giving women the opportunity to be a part of a conversation they might have otherwise missed.

“If we want a diverse tech community in Iowa, it’s a program like that that can be built anywhere that will help us build it.”

ITA Group
Jason Katcher, the CIO for ITA Group, said the company has recently rolled out a series of initiatives as it relates to making the benefits package a more inclusive and inviting environment.

The company has established a gender-neutral bathroom, elevated its parental leave policy, has a work-abroad program, enhanced its time-off policies, created a safe environment where people can ask questions and has a DEI program focused on unconscious and implicit bias. Finally, the company created a gender-neutral dress code policy.

“We’ve heard that our ability to embrace different policies has allowed team members to bring their true, authentic selves to work every day,” Katcher said.

In his personal journey, Katcher said that “by being silent, I was making a loud statement. Inaction is action.”

“I choose to become really, really uncomfortable and become an active ally,” he said.

Lisa Rossi is a freelance contributing writer for the Business Record.