guest column

How Houston companies can use pandemic challenges to foster innovative corporate inclusion efforts

Two hiring managers weigh in on corporate DEI initiatives amid the pandemic in a guest article for InnovationMap. Photo via Pexels

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and over the last 18 months, that proverb has proven true across the world, from classrooms to boardrooms. Shuttered classrooms and businesses, overflowing hospitals, and social unrest spurred by the killing of George Floyd have forced communities and leaders across the world, and here at home, to find innovative solutions to a myriad of problems.

But even as many people long for a return to normalcy, the truth is that, in many ways, the bell cannot be "unrung." Remote work, which was a necessity for many at the height of the pandemic, has given rise to an explosion of hybrid working environments that show no signs of reversing course. In the midst of this physical separation among colleagues, leaders across industries have been forced to throw out the rulebook and reimagine what it means to collaborate.

Additionally, the disparate impact experienced by communities of color throughout the pandemic has highlighted the importance of programs focused on increasing diversity and promoting inclusion. It is no coincidence, for example, that roughly six months into the pandemic, the general counsels of 12 major financial institutions penned an open letter to the legal community calling for greater inclusivity in the legal community.

So, how can companies transform the struggles presented by the pandemic into a springboard for lasting, innovative inclusion efforts? The answer lies in taking risks, strengthening the fabric of connectivity, and looking to the future.

Crowdsource new ideas

The concept of crowdsourcing is nothing new, but at the corporate level, leaders may overlook its benefits. Hackathons—large, collaborative events originally developed for computer programming or coding—can be implemented across all employment levels to crowdsource innovative ideas.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, the firm implements the Hackathon concept during the summer associate program, thus harnessing the creativity and progressive ideas of younger talent. When the pandemic forced the firm's 2020 summer program to go entirely virtual, the firm decided to create groups of summer associates across all offices to brainstorm programming ideas aimed at improving and sustaining diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Together with partner leaders, these summer associate teams worked virtually to create truly innovative programming ideas, several of which the firm is currently implementing to recruit diverse talent. The program was successfully replicated in summer 2021, asking participants to hack the problem of associate inclusion. In addition to generating important programming content, these Hackathons increased participant morale, encouraged cross-office collaboration, forged new relationships across various geographic regions, and tackled the timely topics of enhancing law firm diversity and inclusion that will improve client service in the future.

Other industries—from large, global corporations to small businesses—can implement the Hackathon concept to successfully build bridges and harness innovation around inclusion. For example, MIT recently held a successful hackathon to source solutions to the problem of student inclusion during the pandemic, and Microsoft sponsored a hackathon aimed at solving the education and technology gaps of remote learning brought on by the pandemic.

Moreover, experts agree that equity and inclusion initiatives are only successful with buy-in from the c-suite. In other words, fostering an inclusive corporate culture starts at the top. If corporate leadership participates in the Hackathon experience—as a mentor, judge, or coach, perhaps—as opposed to merely sponsoring the event, it sends a message to all employees that the company as a whole values inclusion as a cornerstone of corporate culture.

Embrace virtual connections

The pandemic forced us all to navigate the world of virtual meetings, and with the popularity of hybrid working environments, virtual connectivity is here to stay. Companies must embrace this new virtual frontier and implement programs that engage employees, promote collaboration, and introduce an element of fun.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, new hires create introductory videos about themselves that are globally shared firm-wide, while veteran lawyers create their own video content introducing themselves and their practices, thus creating an immediate personal connection.

Additionally, virtual events celebrating diversity and inclusion events, such as Black History Month and LGBTQ Pride Month for example, provide opportunities for fellowship across offices and bolster inclusion efforts. Hunton Andrews Kurth hosted a virtual cooking class, based in a Dallas partner's kitchen, celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May, which was virtually attended by 132 attorneys firm wide.

Company-wide virtual events such as escape rooms, cocktail-making classes, games and trivia build camaraderie, which deepens the bonds of collegiality and strengthens feelings of inclusion and belonging. Companies should invest in virtual technologies to help facilitate this important new frontier of connectivity, recognizing that increased digital connectivity supports a collaborative and inclusive working environment.

Highlight community outreach

In global companies, high-level, company-wide diversity and inclusion leadership should work in tandem with leadership at the local level. At our firm, for example, in addition to firm-wide diversity leadership, each local office has a specified leader committed to promoting local inclusion initiatives. While virtual events help connect geographically-diverse employees, it is equally important to offer local employees opportunities to connect in person with one another and support diversity programming in the community.

For example, attorneys in Hunton Andrews Kurth's Richmond office recently came together to learn about and pool resources to support a local artist's public art project focused on creating murals to promote open dialogue around racial and social justice. Additionally, employees might select a local DEI educational experience in which to participate as a group outside of the office, then plan to gather informally (in person or virtually) to discuss lessons learned and continue important conversations. When colleagues come together to support local inclusion programs or participate in shared experiences, new connections are forged that help support a diverse and inclusive corporate culture.

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Rudene Mercer Haynes is a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, serves as a firmwide hiring partner, and also sits on the executive committee. Alex Gomez is also a partner and serves as a fellow firmwide hiring partner.

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Building Houston

 
 

Fertitta and his family have gifted $50 million to UH's medical school. Photo courtesy

As Houston’s most high-profile billionaire and owner of the posh 5-star Post Oak Hotel and Houston Rockets, Tilman J. Fertitta has become synonymous with over-the-top opulence and big-time entertainment.

But the CEO of the massive Feritta Entertainment empire’s latest move has nothing to do with penthouses or point guards, but rather a legacy, game-changing appropriation meant to aid his home state’s health.

The longtime UH board member and former chairman and his family have just pledged $50 million to the University of Houston College of Medicine. In turn, the new medical school has been christened the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine.

The projected school, upon completion. Rendering courtesy of University of Houston

This landmark gift aims to address the state’s critical primary care physician shortage, (especially in low-income and underserved communities), as well as attract innovation-focused scholars, UH notes.

Additionally, the grant is meant to further clinical and translational research, with an emphasis on population health, behavioral health, community engagement, and the social determinants of health, according to a press release.

Here is how the Fertitta family gift will be distributed:

  • $10 million funds five endowed chairs for faculty hires who are considered national stars in their fields with a focus on health care innovation. This portion of the gift will be matched one-to-one as part of the University’s “$100 Million Challenge” for chairs and professorships, doubling the endowed principal to $20 million.
  • $10 million establishes an endowed scholarship fund to support endowed graduate research stipends/fellowships for medical students.
  • $10 million will cover start-up costs for the Fertitta Family College of Medicine to enhance research activities including facilities, equipment, program costs and graduate research stipends/fellowships.
  • $20 million will create the Fertitta Dean’s Endowed Fund to support research-enhancing activities.

No stranger to writing big checks, Fertitta donated $20 million to UH Athletics — the largest individual donation ever — in 2016 to transform UH’s basketball arena into the now high-tech Fertitta Center.

CultureMap caught up with the CEO (who just sold his Golden Nugget gaming for $1.6 billion), best-selling author, and Billion Dollar Buyer to discuss his landmark gift.

CultureMap: Congratulations on this legacy grant, which has been a long time coming. What does this gift mean to you, now that it’s finally official?

Tilman Fertitta: This was a vision of our chancellors and, you know, I’m on my third, six-year term and not been the chairman for eight years — and we started working on this, seven, eight years ago.

To be able to be in the beginning and the nucleus, and the idea, and what we wanted, and to get the approval from Austin—to watch it come to fruition, how often does somebody get to do a naming gift at the same time they had a lot to do with the creation of the school? So, it was very special in my heart.

CM: Many know you as the CEO of a hospitality empire, author, and even TV personality. But not many know of your commitment to healthcare.


TF: I think there’s one thing in this world that we definitely should always be treated equally on, and that's that’s equal health care for all. This medical school will serve the whole community.

We’re trying to recruit students who want to be primary physicians who will take care of the community that we live in. It’s just something that was very important to me in my whole family.

CM: Academia, scholarship, and research aside, this could essentially be looked at as seed capital for a fledgling operation. Is that a fair assessment?

TF: I know where you’re going with this and yes, it’s no different than business.

I have the vision to know that being in nearly the third largest city in America and a top 100 university in the United States — as University of Houston is according to U.S. News & World Report — that I know what this is going to be in 50 years. It’s no different than looking at another business that you start and you can have the vision to see how successful it'll be in the years to come.

Being on the ground floor of the University of Houston Medical School and being a part of it from its inception, and to help the seed money that will attract other money, I know that in the years to come what a special nationwide medical school this is going to be — because it’s in one of the great cities of America.

So, to be a part of it today and still be a part of it when I’m not here 50 years from now, maybe even sooner than that [laughs], you know, it’s going to be something very special to always be attached to.

CM: Other Houston medical schools here have distinctions in pivotal research or groundbreaking procedures. Is there a specific direction you’d like UH Med to take, going forward?

TF: Honestly, you know, what I’ve been saying? There’s a significant shortage of primary care physicians, not only in the country, but in the state of Texas. We ranked number 47th in the nation.

What we need in the state of Texas, as well in Houston and everywhere, is primary care physicians to take care of your everyday people—and to see them to know if you need a specialist.

I hope that this medical school looks back and we see that they’re graduating more primary care physicians than any other university in the United States and that's our goal. We’re going to be a med school of the community.

CM: You have zero problem with issuing directives, Tilman. What’s your message to the first graduating class, the one that will initially benefit from this $50 million gold mine?

TF: Go out and take care of the people.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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