[The Big Interview] Yemi Akisanya, Global head of DEI at Groupon
Yemi Akisanya passionately believes and advocates that “People matter. They are the only ones who can really change the world”.
Yemi is the global head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Groupon. He serves on the Board of Directors at Chicago State University Foundation and i.c.stars, a program that provides technology-based workforce development, leadership training, and access to career opportunities for low-income adults in the Chicago area. He is the current Chairman, Board of Directors for Digitalundivided; a leading non-profit leveraging data, programs, and advocacy to catalyse economic growth for Black and Latinx women entrepreneurs and innovators.
Yemi is a guest lecturer in Communication and Leadership Development at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, where he also serves on the EMBA DEI Advisory Committee.
Prior to this, Yemi spent 10 years at Options Clearing Corp (OCC), where he was responsible for building the first-ever Diversity & Inclusion office. Yemi also held positions at Chicago Mercantile Exchange and JP Morgan Chase.
What is your role at Groupon?
I am responsible for building Groupon’s DEI global strategy focused on creating short- and long-term plans to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture in services of Groupons merchants, customers, and employees. Our success in doing so derives from the dedication, skills, and talent of our people. It is my responsibility to help inspire all colleagues to contribute the best of their unique selves to meet Groupon’s stakeholders’ needs in new and better ways. Our people are our greatest asset and are the key to our ability to execute and grow as an organisation. We are committed to fostering a culture that values diversity and inclusion.
When the opportunity to join Groupon came about, it was really interesting to me – and unique, in that the focus from a DEI perspective was not just on building a strategy for employees but our merchants and consumers too. And it’s a global business, so it was a great opportunity to challenge our understanding of DEI through a global perspective.
Groupon is an experiences marketplace that helps consumers find fun, affordable things to do. Our merchant partners are the founders of the small local businesses that we support. And we believe that successful local businesses are the backbone and fabric of neighbourhoods, of communities. When we marry our business objectives with our values this is when our culture truly comes alive. We want an environment that seeks diversity, fosters inclusivity, collaboration and drives innovation. And this is exactly the culture we are continuing to build.
What does DEI mean to you?
Diversity is defined by who we are as individuals. It encompasses a range of similarities and differences that each one of us bring into the workplace. This includes, but not limited to, nationality, language, race, colour, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, family structures, age, disability status, socio-economic status, morals, values, community. I can continue, but the idea here is that what I just described is the embodiment of what it truly is about. It’s about the diversity of thought, perspectives and experiences that are uniquely different, based on the things I just mentioned.
Equity for me is around promoting justice, impartiality, fairness within procedures, policies, processes, and distribution of resources – that’s the work of equity. It’s the governance and the environment that must integrate those voices and perspectives in a valued and meaningful way in the workplace. Tackling equity issues requires an understanding of the root causes of outcome disparities within our workplaces.
When I think about inclusion, inclusion is about a working culture. It’s an environment where colleagues, neighbours, community members are treated with equity and respect, with equitable access. Inclusion is about creating a culture that invites diversity, harnesses the collective ideas and experiences, and transforms it into outcome/results. Working openly, fairly, and respectfully together can deliver on our mission, live our values, and proudly demonstrate why Groupon is the destination city for the best experiences.
What has the ESG journey been like for Groupon?
We recently launched our very first inaugural ESG report which we are thrilled about, and I was proud to have played a key role in developing. The four focus areas of our ESG report include; 1. People & Culture; 2. Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion; 3. Global Marketplace, Local Impact; and 4. Responsible Business Practices.
The report is being spearheaded by our chief communication Officer, in partnership with our head of corporate social responsibility.
But with respect to our DEI journey, we have crystallised our company strategy and critical priorities. We must do the same for our DEI mission and focus. The achievement of our mission is inherently connected to embracing workforce diversity and enabling workplace inclusion. This will help inspire all colleagues globally to contribute the best of their unique selves to meet Groupon’s stakeholders’ needs in new and better ways.
Currently, I’ve been here in London on a 6-month assignment to really understand what DEI means through the context of our international offices. In the USA, we can easily define the different diversity, dimensions and even the 18 protected characteristics of individuals. However, in the UK and specifically in France, there is no such thing as a definition of what the different ‘classifications of diversity dimensions’ are.
The goal is really to work closely with both our employees and ensure that we have the mediums in place where all the communities that represent Groupon’s culture have a voice that contributes to our overall strategy. With thousands of employees on multiple continents, it’s critical that we have a mechanism in place that allows us to gather feedback. Each quarter, we run a “Pulse” survey to gain insights into the engagement levels of our team members and to measure the overall health of our culture.
Our engagement survey in 2021 had strong employee engagement scores, with an 85% response rate.
What’s exciting is that we also have set-up employee resource groups (ERGs) which are employee-led groups organised around a particular shared interest, characteristic, or experience. They act as a “voice” for the group identity; help actively attract, develop and retain talent; assist in developing new business opportunities; promote Groupon’s brand; and engage in community outreach. They are proven effective forums for championing programs and people. The ERGs we have include a Wellness Group, a Woman & Allies, a Pride & Allies, a Parents & Allies, a Latinos, and a Blacks & Allies group.
Why are the programmes being successful?
Programmes are being successful because we have people who deeply care at all levels of the organization. People who lead with both heart and mind.
Company leaders and managers play an important role in creating an inclusive workplace, but what matters most is how colleagues interact with each other on a day-to-day basis. Achieving a workplace grounded in respect and diversity requires a shift from bystander to upstander behaviours across the entire organization. This is the message we don’t just want to communicate, but to align our behaviours to.
We want to be relentless in our efforts to foster DEI and make this a part of the fabric of Groupon’s culture.
Our efforts are not merely the sum of inclusive imagery, equity-focused language, and diversity of merchant partners. We recognise the importance of being a brand that lives its values. By recognising cultural moments when they occur, taking a stand for what’s right, and leveraging our influence to effect positive change within our communities we are making a difference. We are building something incredible.
One of the big barriers that we’re facing is working our way through how we identify the demographics of our customers, the consumers, and our employees. From a retail perspective, in the US, there is greater clarity. And the reason we have greater clarity is because of the privacy laws which are more flexible. In the US, we can collect and store data in terms of demographics and business classification. This makes understanding the customers we serve a lot easier. What I’ve found most challenging is access to data and the definitions of diversity dimensions differ abroad, making it difficult to collect, analyse and compare data across regions. Some countries completely ban diversity data while others use very narrow and medically certified classifications or rely solely on employee self-disclosure.
Any big learnings so far?
After running our surveys last year, we had a ton of data to go through with feedback from across the globe. For example, we had a lot of feedback from our international colleagues that our DEI programmes were very ‘North American centric’. We also learnt that in some geographies, employee participation in DEI events was at 70% and in other regions just 20%. That was insightful learning and helped us shape a response action plan which included welcoming an industry DEI leader (based in Ireland) to help scale DEI integration, as well as ensure international stakeholder engagement aligns with the overall strategy.
Where does DEI sit within Groupon?
DEI currently sits under our commercial and marketing organisation, which is vastly different to most businesses who typically have DEI within Human Capital. We feel this is where the greatest opportunity for DEI to have a deeper influence sits. In the early stages of our DEI journey, DEI rightfully sat within HR and we were able to integrate DEI into our human capital strategies, processes, talent acquisition and talent management. The next step in the maturation of our DEI journey is to integrate it into all aspects of our business in service of our merchants and consumers.
How are consumers responding?
We are seeing a greater demand from our consumers with regards to diversity and how they want to support diverse businesses. For example, when we looked at the keyword search on our Groupon platforms, we saw an increase by over 400% in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor for black-owned businesses on our platform. searches for “Black-owned” were up nearly 400% for the full-year in 2020 vs. 2019.
In 2020 we began to run diverse marketing campaigns. This is where throughout the year, at various points we would have, for example women history month where we would run campaigns featuring our women-owned businesses on Groupon. The results were fantastic. During our August Black Business Month campaign (where we featured Black-owned business on our platform), units sold for businesses that identified as Black-owned and participated in our month-long event increased 44% compared to July.
This is part of the shift we’re seeing happening where consumers are using their pocket power to influence how retailers are showing up.
If we do this right, we can make things better for both — building amazing communities in the process of driving economic impact.
Do you believe that things are finally changing?
We are seeing tremendous progress and I’m really proud that Groupon is part of those companies that are committed to action in fostering a culture that values diversity and inclusion. I’m extremely biased, and I want to recognize my bias as well, but we have some amazing human beings that we work with at Groupon. Folks who are passionate, who tie their actions to the commitments.
In my experience of working in this space, there are a ton of areas, many of which are systemic issues, institutional issues, regulatory issues, people issues and leadership issues. And I can tell you, at Groupon I’ve had no pushback from individuals. Our leaders are deeply committed and passionate across the pond, it’s part of the DNA here.
When you think about companies on their ESG journey, they have their own unique motivations for pursuing the policies; to improve their position, to manage risk, or perhaps to generate a long-term sustainable return. Unfortunately, many businesses make strong ESG commitments, but with no real plan or resources to back it up. Not here. Not Groupon!
Why people first?
People matter. They are the only ones who can really change the world. And people create everything we have. So, if you reframe the question; What else matters more than people? I believe that every individual at Groupon has the ability to transform a company value from intention to meaningful action and have a positive impact on the employee experience every single day.
When we really think about it – and from a business perspective – when we think about services, or products, it’s typically in response to or in service of people. If that’s the case, then people are also the driver of these products and services which are built through the lens of their identity. And that identity is driven by their experiences, their culture. So, if we are going to provide the best products, the best services, it’s imperative that we value people.
Additionally, when we think about the future, considering the enormous shifts we’ve seen across the world with more diverse and multicultural individuals in our communities. For Millennials and Generation Z’s, if a retailer or a brand does not reflect who they are, they are not going to purchase. This is resulting in a real shift around us. Businesses that don’t take this seriously, who ignore the signs, will be left behind.
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