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Breaking The Bias - DE&I Leader Kelli Kombat

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This month, we are celebrating women who have made history, who are making history, and who—day by day—are making our world a better place and improving the human condition. Today—during International Women’s Day (IWD)—we celebrate DE&I leader Kelli Kombat. With this year’s theme of #BreakTheBias, there is no topic more appropriate for IWD than diversity, equity, and inclusion.


DE&I leader Kelli Kombat

For her entire career, Kelli Kombat has been dedicated to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace, leading efforts at companies including L’Oréal, Ford Motor Company, and General Motors long before the way-overdue public reckoning of the past few years.

Last month, Kombat joined MBS executive coach Abbe Rosenthal and one of the largest audiences in MBS history to share her insights as a DE&I leader and executive coach.

“I want to take you through my experience navigating as a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) person in corporate America,” said Kombat, noting that while her presentation took place during Black History Month, “Black history is our history. And one of the things that’s super important to remember is that it’s up to us to learn about each other every single day, 365 days a year.”

Using warmth, humor, sharp wit, and real-life examples, Kombat—now Global Head of Talent and DE&I at IDEO.org—created an interactive and impactful experience full of rich, practical takeaways and numerous resources.

Top Takeaways


1. When it comes to diversity…there are a lot of things that make us the same. “When you think about diversity, we all have something that’s different about us. From wearing glasses…your faith, there’s something different about every single one of us.” She then led an exercise where the audience was asked to imagine what would change for them if they woke up the next day as someone completely different—different race, different gender, different physical abilities, elderly, a different religion. Participating via chat, answers ranged from “having more choices” to “having less choices” to “my independence, “and “my self-image,” to what Kombat called a mic-drop answer. “I probably wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt that I’ve been given in many circumstances thus far.”

2. Everyone has biases. “It’s what we do with it that makes a difference,” says Kombat. (Education goes a long way).

3. Discrimination isn’t always overt. Many times, says Kombat, it’s covert and often happens through microaggression—which she described as little pinpricks over time. “Example: You say something amazing, and there’s crickets,” says Kombat. “Another colleague says the same thing two minutes later and it’s [commended as] absolutely amazing.” Nearly all of us have witnessed those situations, says Kombat, but “I want to go from the challenging part of it to what can we do about it?” What can you do about it (see #4)?

4. You can be an ally. For anyone, at any time, for any reason. “If you are in meeting or in class, and you have a situation where you see your classmate or colleague getting completely disrespected—a microaggression happens— what are you going to do about it?” asked Kombat. “Are you going to feel bad for that person, or are you going to say, ‘excuse me, I think Cheryl just said that two minutes ago.’ Or, if Cheryl was interrupted…it doesn’t matter what your level is, an ally can be anyone, at any time for any reason,” says Kombat. “The courage to be able to speak up – whatever your style, it may be daunting, but think about the world of difference you’re making to that person.”

5. Inclusion is innate. When you stick up for someone, “how do you think that person feels?” asked Kombat. “They [feel like ‘you] empowered me and heard me.’ And [everyone] deserves to be heard.” One of the things in life that people tend to forget, says Kombat, is that inclusion is innate. From birth, says Kombat, we have certain essential needs, “We need to feel loved, we need to feel included, and we need to feel safe. Think of dodgeball. Who doesn’t want to be included in that game?” asked Kombat. “Who wants to be that ‘other?’”

6. Diversity drives innovation. “Think about a company that hires the same people from the same colleges and universities,” said Kombat. People who attend the same courses, with the same professors… “If [companies] don't fish in different ponds and don't try to find people who are diverse—people who have a diverse energy, and communication, and thought processes—what are the results? What’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years when it comes to their products? There won't be any diversity, and there won't be any great sales.”

7. Diversity and career success go hand in hand. “I do believe that diversity and success absolutely go hand-in-hand when it comes to leadership,” says Kombat, noting that some leaders are actually assessed on  the level of diversity they bring to their organization. “Some forward-thinking organizations do 360-degree feedback for not only their leaders, but people who are high-potential and emerging leaders…[company heads] will expect you to develop that skill in being inclusive, and being able to bring people along. So, it is something to work on, indeed,” said Kombat, who asked audience members how they planned to be more inclusive.


8. Conflict is something we can’t avoid entirely, but we can manage it. Kombat discussed common causes of conflict, steps to take for conflict resolution, and additional conflict-resolution tips.

9. The ability to communicate well verbally is important.  And to communicate and present well, says Kombat, you need to practice, practice, practice. "The most well-known speakers in the world are who they are because they practice speaking all the time,” says Kombat. “With practice," says Kombat, "you’ll get better too.”

10. For resources, LinkedIn Learning is a wellspring of (free) information, both on communication and on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Kombat provided the below resources, as well.



Jen Reiseman-Briscoe
Published On: 
Diversity and Inclusion
Breaking the Bias
International Women's Day 2022
Kelli Kombat