Smita Pillai, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Dow Jones. Credit: Dow Jones

Smita Pillai: Leading at the Core of D&I 

Listen to this article

By Evan J. Cutts

New York, NY — In 2018, Smita Pillai joined Dow Jones as its inaugural Chief Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Officer. With two decades of global D&I expertise in the Fortune 50 arena and beyond, Smita designs best in class D&I strategies for Dow Jones and its flagship brands, The Wall Street Journal, Barrons, Factiva, and Financial News (FN).

“We have come a long way, in terms of being truly inclusive; yet we have a very long way to go, to leave a better world for the next generation,” Smita explains.

Inspired by “the resilience of [and goodness within] the human spirit,” Smita leads from her “head, heart, and gut,” with an eye on a better future. Her commitment to fostering equality, both in the office and in the community, has been recognized and celebrated by the NY MOVES Magazine Mentor Award, the Tri-State Diversity and Leadership Conference Leadership Excellence Award, Diversity MBA Top 100 Under 50 honoree, among other awards and acknowledgments. 

In the following Q&A, Smita Pillai shares insights into her role as Chief D&I Officer at Dow Jones.

Evan J. Cutts: Can you tell me more about your role as Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Dow Jones? 

Smita Pillai: I joined Dow Jones over a year ago as the company’s inaugural Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. The hiring request came directly from the CEO, William Lewis, who realized the importance of a D&I strategy and wanted someone who could connect it back to the business. 

My role here started with a listening tour, where we conducted 25 listening sessions across 8 global hubs. People from all levels of the organization came to these sessions and shared their honest thoughts. We reached almost 600 people in the first 100 days. These sessions gave us the insights [needed] to create a simple phrase to frame our D&I efforts: “Be yourself; bring your best.”  That’s it.  It doesn’t need to be overly complicated to be effective. 

How would you describe your global business strategy?

Smita: Diversity is not just a “good to do” thing; it is a business imperative that requires strategic vision and operational excellence. At Dow Jones, we take an agile approach to this work. We focus on near-term actions and long-term goals, with an intentional drive to empower individuals at all levels to develop and champion initiatives. 

Our global D&I strategy is based on three intersectional tenets: Talent & Culture; Business Growth; and Social Impact. By tying it all together, diversity no longer remains a job limited to the HR function. It is embedded into the company’s overall business goals and, more importantly, into our company’s purpose.

In your experience, what does it mean to be a global citizen?

Smita: I am fortunate in having lived and worked all over the globe.  I was born and raised in a city called Ahmedabad, India, in a conservative Hindu family. Over the past two decades, I have traveled, lived, and worked in the Middle East, Far East Asia, South Asia, Africa, Western Europe, and North America.  As I experienced the uniqueness and complexities of our global environment, I learned that to be a global citizen is to learn and embrace other cultures and empathize and respect the differences, even if they do not match up with your own personal beliefs, and find strength in our humanity.

At Dow Jones and the Fortune 50 companies that you worked for, what ways are ERGs empowering employees and business alike? How can they improve? 

Smita: Through my years of experience and best in class research, I realized that affinity groups can often end up siloing people, rather than celebrating intersectionalities, which is why we refer to our affinity groups at Dow Jones as “Inclusive Resource Groups.” For example, our LGBTQ employee group, Pride@DJ, welcomes people of all backgrounds and proactively celebrates intersectionalities of race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, veteran status, and others. All of our IRGs recently came together for an IRG Summit where they presented to each other and networked, to figure out how to work together. Employee groups can improve by coming together and finding intersectionalities and sharing ideas. 

Mentorship is often cited as a ‘must’ for personal and professional growth. What advice or resources would you offer professionals of color seeking mentorship opportunities? 

Smita: There is a lot to be said on this topic.  In fact, our African American/Black inclusive resource group had an entire career day on this. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find senior management that looks like you in a not-so-diverse organization. Our goal is to try to change this, but as a starting point, I strongly recommend professionals of color to join the movement for global diversity & inclusion, bring their authentic selves forward, and leverage existing employee groups. A good start is also to join existing company-wide mentorship programs and connect with a broad network inside and outside your organization.

Corporate responsibility and accountability are brand values that today’s professionals promote all over the country.  What strategies do you employ to promote a culture of leadership accountability at Dow Jones?

Smita: Leadership accountability is the key to driving a truly global and inclusive diversity and inclusion agenda in any company.  In our company, we have democratized D&I by encouraging organic employee groups, but have [also] complemented that, with direct oversight of C-suite Executive sponsors for each employee group. These executive sponsors report to the CEO, so D&I remains at the top of their minds. Finally, we are integrating a global D&I scorecard with clear metrics on diversity and inclusion into our overall leadership assessment and growth criteria.

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Smita: One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandella: “There is no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that is less than you are capable of living.”

The advice I would give to my younger self is along those lines too: Life is too short to make compromises and not live it to your full potential. It might mean that, at times, not everyone is pleased with the direction you choose for your life, but you have one life, and you must make it meaningful and fulfill your dreams.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a person of Color in 2019?

Smita: A person of color in 2019 is a person at a crossroads; we have the weight of the past and a view of the future. Diversity is a fact, and as a person of color, it is a reality we live every day. Inclusion is a choice that we all make, and as people of color, each of us has our own unique life experiences of being included and sometimes being painfully excluded and treated like ‘the other.’  It is time for us to embrace who we truly are and live our best lives. As a person of color, I want to inspire you to be yourself and bring your best!

Smita Pillai will lead the conversation shaping the future of D&I on July 25th as Keynote Speaker at the  2019 Chief Diversity Officer Summit hosted by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Follow @ColorMagazine / @ColorMagazineUSA & #CDO19 on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram for live event updates!

(Photo Description: Smita Pillai, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Dow Jones. Credit: Dow Jones)