We’ll be the first to admit it: Cree | Wolfspeed is not the kind of organization that typically calls on us, The Equity Collaborative, for help.
For starters, we’re much more likely to work with a public school than a publicly traded corporation. On top of that, a CEO and board of directors run the show at Cree | Wolfspeed, while we’re more accustomed to working with school principals and vice principals. Plus, the relationship between employee and employer has certain nuances that just don’t align perfectly with the relationship between student and teacher, student and principal, and student and school.
And yet Cree | Wolfspeed, a semiconductor technology company and manufacturer based in Durham, North Carolina, did in fact call on The Equity Collaborative. We’re very glad they did.
It was the summer of 2020. As was the case at so many other companies, schools, and organizations, Cree | Wolfspeed’s employees felt deeply affected by the murder of George Floyd and the eruption of protests that followed. They needed to talk about it. Beyond just talking, though, the company’s leadership wanted to confront the issues presented and needed to do so with absolute authenticity.
“We wanted to provide an opportunity for our employees to express how they were feeling,” says Tamara Pearce, Cree | Wolfspeed’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “We tell them to bring their whole selves to work, and this was something that was affecting everyone. When people are being who they are, they are more productive and they’re able to succeed. We’re not leaders without our people.”
When the company’s CEO, Gregg Lowe, issued a heartfelt letter and video to all employees stating emphatically that they would always stand on the side of justice, employees responded. Pearce says Cree | Wolfspeed’s employees feel refreshingly comfortable reaching out directly to the CEO. He received an outpouring of emails. Employees shared personal stories of unjust obstacles, as well as harrowing stories of racial violence they themselves had endured.
If employees were going to be their true selves at work, they needed the opportunity to engage in direct, sometimes uncomfortable, dialogues about race and equity. The company had big ideas about its DEI initiatives, but opted to start with the simple but purposeful act of listening.
“Leading with respect and not persuasion”
With Equity Collaborative partners Graig Meyer and Aaron Johnson as facilitators, Cree | Wolfspeed hosted nine voluntary “listening sessions” with its employees. Participants ranged from those employees who had parts of their true selves to share to those who didn’t quite understand what these issues had to do with their job.
The company’s leadership knew they needed to be the listeners, not the talkers. They knew they needed to create an environment in which employees felt free to share, and they knew facilitating that kind of session would take a coach’s intuition, which required a level of objectivity that would be difficult for an internal team to provide. That’s why Cree | Wolfspeed started requesting proposals from companies like The Equity Collaborative in the first place.
After all, Cree | Wolfspeed is in the business of making semiconductor products out of silicon carbide, not tearing down systemic inequity and oppression. And yet leadership recognizes that the company’s success depends on a healthy workforce and that racial inequities, both internal and external to the company, can take a significant toll. They also recognize that not all employees are starting at the same baseline of cross-cultural awareness and understanding.
The Equity Collaborative was there to listen, not to judge or to teach didactically.
“Graig and Aaron were phenomenal when it came to leading with respect and not persuasion,” Pearce says. “We really wanted to make sure we had a group that could be reflective of the organization and the culture but not be afraid to push the boundaries and get our employees to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Something just broke and people really started sharing.”
Immediacy, yes, but also long-term investment
In addition to listening, the company recognized the importance of taking long-term action. Employees told the CEO that they found the sessions both enlightening and cathartic, but that they wanted those meetings to serve as just a first step toward something much bigger.
“Our DEI goals came directly from the listening sessions,” Pearce says, “and it’s incumbent upon all of us to ensure we’re achieving these goals.”
To make sure the conversations kept flowing, an internally organized three-day virtual conference on equity and inclusion followed from the listening sessions. Here, the company’s leaders spoke. They talked about the need to nurture a culture of trusted allies.
From there, the company supported the formation of employee resource groups, setting guidelines by which employees could convene groups dedicated to increasing opportunities for success for everyone. The first two groups were focused on making the company a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ employees and for women. Following that was an employee resource group for Black and Latinx employees. Today, the company also has a group focused on mental health resulting from an employee request.
DEI was named one of the four most critical long-term strategic objectives for the company, so Cree | Wolfspeed also implemented a DEI scorecard, using it as a measure that helps inform company-wide annual bonuses. As part of this initiative, the company is taking steps to strengthen diversity at every level, especially in leadership.
They also took a step back to take in the bigger picture, the one that they could help paint beyond their own company doors. The company has taken a number of measures to help implement long-term change throughout the communities in which it operates, such as creating a $4 million endowed scholarship program at North Carolina A&T University, an HBCU with a top-rated engineering program.
“It’s a corporate social responsibility,” Pearce says. “Even if these students never end up working for Cree | Wolfspeed, how can we continue to minimize opportunity gaps that would prevent them from succeeding? That’s how, even as a semiconductor company, we can make an impact.”
It’s not just a quick fix or a box to check, in other words. It’s a long-term investment.
“The journey would’ve been so much harder.”
Even if Cree | Wolfspeed isn’t a typical Equity Collaborative partner, it’s a partnership that makes perfect sense, and one that taught us something important.
The broad perspective, the willingness to see strength in difference, all the things we work to engender in school environments: those are the things that the next generation’s workforce will bring with them. Those are the things they’ll expect to encounter in the workplace, that they’ll demand of their employers. Companies that recognize the long-term investment it takes to build a diverse workforce—companies like Cree | Wolfspeed—will be much better equipped to attract the best and the brightest for years to come.
“We could not afford to fail coming out of the gate,” Pearce says, “because the journey would’ve been so much harder.”
She’s talking about Cree | Wolfspeed’s DEI journey specifically, of course, but she could just as easily be talking about the country as a whole—the inequities that have pervaded its systems for so long.
The journey is in fact hard, but Cree | Wolfspeed reminds us that it’s one you can pick up at any point in your life, not just when you’re an impressionable student with your whole life ahead of you.