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Q&A: Tea Colaianni, Founder & Chair, Diversity in Retail

We talk to Tea to find out more about her, and the focus from DiR on diversity and inclusion as part of the broader ESG agenda… View Article


Q&A: Tea Colaianni, Founder & Chair, Diversity in Retail

We talk to Tea to find out more about her, and the focus from DiR on diversity and inclusion as part of the broader ESG agenda in retail.

Can you tell us a bit more about your background and where your passion for diversity and inclusion came from?

Certainly.  I was born and brought up in the south of Italy and left my home country when I was 25 years old to work in Belgium as a lawyer and since 1999, I have been in the UK.

My executive career spans several different industries and countries. My most recent executive role was Group HR Director at the FTSE 100 Merlin Entertainments plc. Prior to this I was VP of Human Resources for Europe and Africa at Hilton Worldwide where I was responsible for driving the strategic HR agenda in the region with $2.5 billion revenue, 20,000 employees and 180 properties across 26 countries. In recent years I have developed a portfolio of non-executive director roles across various sectors including Retail. I am currently Senior Independent Non-executive Director on the Board of Watches of Switzerland Group plc, as well as NED at both multinational law firm, DWF Group plc and global payroll and HR service provider, SD Worx.   I have also held Non-Executive Director and Chair of RemCo roles at Mothercare, Bounty Brands as well as Poundland plc so I have immersed myself in the world of retail over a number of years.

Being a woman and living in a country where I wasn’t born have made me develop a profound empathy for those who belong to an under-represented group in the working environment and a desire to support anybody who is in the minority whatever their circumstances.

Despite working in industries that are very diverse, I have often found myself as the only female in the room.  I have developed a keen interest in finding out why this could be when there are so many talented women working in our sector.  I found the work done by the Davies Report and then Hampton-Alexander Review (now FTSE Women Leaders Review) hugely inspiring and sought to look at the industries I have worked in to explore what that data said and what actions needed to be taken to accelerate progress.

Can you tell us more about Diversity in Retail?

In sharing where the idea for Diversity in Retail came from, I feel it’s important to mention that in 2018, I set up WiHTL – a Collaboration Community made up of hospitality, travel and leisure organisations where we share research, ideas, best practices and co-create solutions to fostering inclusive workplaces.  One such solution was to develop our own cross-industry leadership development programmes which are specifically targeted at progressing women and ethnic minority talent.

As the Community grew (it now counts nearly 70 companies and positively impacts over 3.7 million employees globally), we were often approached by retailers who wanted to join our community and benefit from the ground breaking work that we do. To answer to this interest and in light of some of the structural similarities between hospitality, travel and leisure, in 2021 we set up Diversity in Retail.

Diversity in Retail’s objective is to make a positive impact to 1 million people across the retail sector globally by 2025. It is a very ambitious mission, and the Community’s work already impacts over 550,000 people.  Our members include (among others) Asda, Boohoo, Curry’s, Dr. Martens, EG Group, Havi, JD Group, John Lewis Partnership, Joules, Kingfisher, Sainsbury’s, Selfridges, Sweaty Betty, The Very Group, Watches of Switzerland, WHSmith and Wickes.

We bring our members together to make a difference by sharing best practices, providing opportunities to benchmark their strategies and co-creating solutions via webinars, meetings, events, Committees, reports, articles and white papers.

Hearing the phenomenal feedback, we regularly receive is incredibly rewarding and energising!

Why is working collaboratively to further diversity and inclusion in the Retail sector important?

I strongly believe that diversity and inclusion is not an area where brands should compete – this is something Keith Barr CEO IHG mentioned to me during one of my early conversations with him at the beginning of my journey to founding WiHTL and DiR and it’s really stuck with me.

If we are to make a real impact, we need to work cross-industry.  One of the best examples of this in action has been during the creation of our Ethnic Future Leaders programme – a programme borne out of conversations in our Race & Ethnicity Committee around what tangible actions we could take to help high potential talent from underrepresented groups reach leadership positions in our sector. It’s a truly unique programme and judging by the feedback we receive, has been transformational for the attendees as well as their line managers and executive sponsors.  As part of the programme, we also run a cross-industry reverse mentoring programme.

What stood out as hugely valuable to both sides were the ability to have a ‘safe space’ where any question could be asked of each other and no judgement would be shown.  After all, if we are to genuinely offer inclusive workplaces, we need to ensure difficult conversations can happen and that there is an understanding at all levels of the organisation as to what it takes to create workplaces where everyone feels comfortable bringing ‘their whole self’ to work.

Working together and collaboratively is at the heart of what we do at DiR and fits in perfectly with one of my favourite proverbs: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”  (African proverb)

What initiatives do you have planned for the rest of 2022?

It’s been a busy year so far – I can’t quite believe we are only in March!  We started the year by launching our first Gender Pay Gap in Retail report which can be downloaded here. In it we analysed data from gender pay gap reports from across our sector, incorporating data, analysis and insights from our long-term partners PwC and then including key recommendations for retailers to help close the gender pay gap.

In February, we ran our inaugural Employee Network Groups (ENG) in Retail conference where leaders, including ENG chairs and Executive Sponsors from across our sector attended a virtual afternoon of presentations, best practice sharing, debate and networking designed to ensure participants learned how to instigate and improve how they run their employee networks and ensure they are impactful.  We also produced a toolkit covering the insights, learnings and experiences shared which is available to DiR members.

For International Women’s Day, we launched a series of ‘fireside chats’ where I interviewed inspirational female role models from across the retail sector, like Deborah Robinson, CEO, Central England Cooperative.  We had a fantastic conversation about her career story and lessons learned.  You can watch the interview here and/or download the summary.  Deborah has joined the DiR Advisory Board and is helping us shape the work we do with our Community.

We are very excited about the rest of the year.  In early May we will be launching our first ‘Role Models for Inclusion in Retail’ Index which will showcase some of the fantastic role models we have in our sector who are working hard to champion diversity, equity and inclusion.

In the autumn, we will be running the second edition of our Festival of Inclusion – a 2 day event designed to celebrate diversity across the industry.  We will be showcasing great examples of tangible initiatives that have a positive impact, raise awareness of the benefits of inclusive cultures from an employees’ and customers’ perspective and the perils of lack of diversity, inspire people whatever their background or circumstances to join and progress within the Retail industry!

Over the next few months and throughout the rest of the year, we have a busy programme of webinars, quarterly committees and our ground breaking development programmes that help our industry build and invest in our industry’s diverse talent pipeline.


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