David Ortiz landed in Chattanooga 20 years ago, moving from his native New Jersey to work in communications for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. The son of parents born in Puerto Rico, his passion for inclusion and diversity led Ortiz to jump into related work projects and volunteering, which ultimately shifted the trajectory of his career. Starting in 2006, Ortiz worked as a diversity and inclusion consultant for BlueCross, and now works as a diversity and inclusion strategist for Oracle. He also served as chairman of the board of La Paz, the Chattanooga area's Latino advocacy agency, from 2006 to 2011. In his work, Ortiz focuses on encouraging vulnerability and open-mindedness, as well as growing more comfortable with conflict. "We correlate diversity and equity and inclusion with everyone getting along, and that is not always the case," he says. "We also need to be comfortable with disagreeing respectfully."
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What was it like, moving to Chattanooga from New Jersey in 2001?
A: I was not prepared for the culture shock. We were in the midst of the Latino explosion — Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin. People would ask me, 'Do you speak Puerto Rican?' I took it as an educational opportunity, an opportunity to explain my background.
Q: How did you get involved with La Paz?
A: I had heard about the organization and wanted to connect with them, and then I saw (La Paz Executive Director) Stacy Johnson speak, and I was so impressed, I really wanted to support the work. I figured, I'm this Puerto Rican guy who moved from New Jersey to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I experienced some cultural difficulty adjusting — for those who didn't speak English, how much more difficult would that be? We first connected in 2006, I became board chair, and I worked with the organization until 2011. It was amazing to see their growth, to be part of that.
Q: How did your career evolve from communication to diversity and inclusion?
A: I started by volunteering for projects — it was just so engaging, and I loved it. There was an opportunity to join the diversity team and I had to unlearn and relearn some things, and I found it so fascinating, how effective diversity and inclusion can be in inspiring employee engagement. I started with Oracle in 2015, and I lead diversity and inclusion for one of our sales organizations.
Q: How has the pandemic affected your work?
A: When I started with Oracle, my job was full-time remote, which was new and different to me, so you learn to adjust. I'm even busier now that everyone is working from home and remote. I've seen so much innovation, and increased levels of engagement in diversity and inclusion initiatives since we went virtual. People have more access. Before, if you were to attend a two-day diversity conference, you needed to travel — get there the day before, take the time to travel back. Now people can attend and get access and pick and choose their sessions. People are getting really innovative with the ways they engage. Our employee resource groups host Friday water cooler chats to foster that sense of camaraderie, one organization had a conference fashioned after Animal Crossing, some of our employee resource groups have hosted 24-hour events where different regions connect at different times.
Q: Does more access mean more inclusivity?
A: I follow a variety of thought leaders on Twitter in the disability community, and they point out that now everything is accessible in the midst of a pandemic, and when I needed it before you said you couldn't do it. There's this whole concept of ableism where cultures are built for people who don't have any disabilities, and this has allowed more people more access. When I engage with leaders and talk to anybody, I tell them it really is an employee's market now. Most of these positions are able to be done from anywhere.
Q: How do you define the terms diversity and inclusion?
A: The best definition I've heard is from Andres Tapia with Korn Ferry. It's like baking a cake. Diversity is the mix, inclusion is how you make the mix work. Diversity is the mix of ingredients, and inclusion is the recipe. How do you make it work together? If you're intentional, you're looking at measurements, monitoring the environment, there's an art to it.
Q: How do you ensure you're doing both?
A: You can have diversity and not be inclusive, and you can be inclusive but not be diverse. Let's say you have all these employees who have the ability to speak Spanish, but if they're in one department, that's not inclusive, you don't see them throughout the organization. Or you have the opportunity to be inclusive, to get all these individuals and seek out their input, ask them for their thoughts, but are they all similar in some capacity. Maybe they all went to the same school, or they're all from New Jersey. That's inclusive, but it's not diverse.
Q: What are some of the obstacles to success in this work?
A: We correlate diversity and equity and inclusion with everyone getting along and that is not always the case. We also need to be comfortable with disagreeing respectfully. The one piece of it is you have to make yourself vulnerable, which is scary. I've had moments where I share information in a moment of transparency and someone uses it against you and your trust shuts down. When you have an inclusive leader who models that vulnerability, you have that trust at the start of the relationship.
Q: How did the movement and protests for racial justice this past summer affect your work?
A: I've had leaders mention they've had some of the most uncomfortable conversations they've ever had in their careers around that time. It's largely generational. I'm Gen X, and we were taught to compartmentalize. Early career professionals have the expectation that they will have a space at work — we need to have the resources and space to have these discussions. This summer, I had a colleague say, 'We're just working every day until we're tired.' We had not just leaders asking for resources, it was employees asking, 'What do I do? We have to talk about this.' One message a human resources leader sent out was to practice patience and flexibility, practice more empathy and less apathy. We really needed to have these conversations when the incident happened in 2012 with Trayvon Martin, but we didn't. It was very heavy emotionally in Black and brown communities to have this kid murdered. The whole concept of allyship is important. It can't be just one group of individuals or HR — it's everybody and allies stepping up, and not just performative allyship. People want to be seen, valued, and respected. Some of us were taught to cope with toxic behavior, with micoragressions, but I tell young professionals, you need to go where you're celebrated, not where you're tolerated. I tell individuals, don't give away your power, find a leader and an organization that's inclusive.
Q: How do you make that happen in a company culture?
A: No one organization has the silver bullet, each organization and company is dealing with its own obstacles when it comes to diversity and inclusion. You hear people say it's a pipeline problem, but I don't agree with that. I see diverse individuals at work conferences, so where are you going to source this talent? All organizations need to be able to arcticulate their diversity and inclusion strategy, to have a diversity ambassador program, to train individuals and leverage them into the interview process. Make it part of the way you do business. My goal is for organizations and leaders is to think of diversity and inclusion the way they would any other key performance indicator for their business.
Q: Do you see progress?
A: I've seen some things change, and some things have not. I feel like we're still talking about some of the same things we were talking about in 2005. I do think individuals are a lot more comfortable talking about these differences in the workplace. The expectation is that there is going to be a culture of inclusion. My kids have always had technology and they connect with people across the globe and they bring that into the workplace.
Q: What should businesses do?
A: Start where you are with what you have. You've probably got some individuals in your midst who are having some of these conversations. Seek these groups out. It's so easy to look at other organizations and say, I'll never catch up. Think of diversity and inclusion as a continuum, like math. Nail the basics, start where you are with what you have and assess what your culture is. Assess, scan, ask yourself, am I as diverse and inclusive as I can be? What perspectives do I need on my team? Ask people how they're feeling, get to know people as people.