On the Inclusion in Progress podcast, we’ve shared examples of the types of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work we’ve done with client partners. But we’ve never featured any of them until now.
Many of our listeners have asked what it’s like to work in DEI, both as an external contractor and as part of an internal DEI team.
So in today’s episode, we’re speaking with Anthony Papini, the Global DEI Lead of ActiveCampaign. Not only has he been a long-time podcast listener, he’s also partnered with #TeamIIP in his current and previous roles leading diversity, equity and inclusion as an in-house practitioner and expert.
In our conversation, we discuss:
- How Anthony first got into DEI work and how he’s watched the conversation evolve
- The benefits of an in-house DEI team working with an external partner and how he partnered with Inclusion in Progress
- Why buy-in for DEI work is critical — even in a recessive period — and the advice he’d give to current and aspiring practitioners looking to lead equity and inclusion in the future of work
You’ll also hear examples from a seasoned practitioner (and one of our esteemed client partners!) — as well as why in-house and external practitioners can work together effectively to gain buy-in and support business-critical functions.
Anthony Papini has over 20 years of experience in strategy-driven diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), philanthropy, and higher education administration. He currently leads the global DEI function at ActiveCampaign, one of the fastest-growing email marketing, marketing automation, and CRM SaaS companies. His first foray into the tech DEI space was helping to diversify a national computer science education program at Microsoft. He has also served as a nonprofit executive director, leadership coach, and educator – always with the commitment to promote comprehensive and sustainable inclusion practices. Anthony received his Master’s in College Student Personnel Administration from Bowling Green State University, where his research focused on intersectional identities and belonging. He also earned a Bachelor’s from Fairhaven College at Western Washington University, where he studied social justice and human development theory. Raised in Seattle by Italian immigrant parents, he now resides in Chicago and is a huge theatre lover, avid cyclist, pretend Italian chef at home, and plant dad.
If you want to partner with Inclusion in Progress to create more equitable, effective teams in your hybrid workplace — email email@example.com to book a free no-pressure consultation with our team.
Welcome to the Inclusion in Progress podcast where we give you the ideas, actions and insights to help you build more equity at your workplace and in the world at large. I'm your host, Kay Fabella, international expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, a Filipina American living in Spain and your guide in navigating this DEI journey. Having worked with teams at companies such as Philips, the IMF, Red Hat, PepsiCo and more, I know firsthand that the work of inclusion only works when everyone has a seat at the table. Regardless of your personal entrypoint into this conversation: your race, ethnicity, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, country of origin, or educational background, we all have a role to play in creating inclusion for all and it starts with us having conversations we need to create the change we wish to see. So let's dive into today's episode.
Kay: On the next few episodes of this podcast, we’ll be interviewing several of our past client partners who’ve worked with Inclusion in Progress on implementing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within their companies. Today’s episode features one of client partners, Anthony Papini, Global Head of DEI at ActiveCampaign.
Anthony has over 20 years of experience in strategy-driven DEI, philanthropy, and higher education administration. He currently leads the global DEI function at ActiveCampaign, one of the fastest-growing email marketing, marketing automation, and CRM SaaS companies. His first foray into the tech DEI space was helping to diversify a national computer science education program at Microsoft. He has also served as a nonprofit executive director, leadership coach, and educator - always with the commitment to promote comprehensive and sustainable inclusion practices.
Anthony received his Master's in College Student Personnel Administration, where his research focused on intersectional identities and belonging. He also studied social justice and human development theory. Raised in Seattle by Italian immigrant parents, he now resides in Chicago and is a huge theater lover, avid cyclist, pretend Italian chef at home (his words, not mine!), and plant dad.
Anthony has also been a long-time listener of this very podcast, and we’re excited to share how we met and his story with you as one of the practitioners we admire most. Let’s dive in!
Kay: We are really excited to bring on Anthony Papini onto the podcast! As somebody we admire, respect, and are huge fans of on #TeamIIP, how did you get into this work? And how have you seen the landscape shift [for DEI] over the last… especially the last five years?
Anthony: First, Kay, thank you so much! As a long-time listener of Inclusion in Progress, first time caller, if you will, I'm honored and grateful that over my career we've gotten to work together. I'm a huge admirer of yours and appreciate the time today. My career, gosh. Almost 22 years now, in some capacity, I have worked in the diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, [and] accessibility space. That puts me squarely middle-aged in my life and in my career. I got my start in higher education. Some context and background that is pertinent to answering this question, I grew up in an immigrant family. My parents emigrated to the United States. So I was first-generation American, I was a first generation university student, first person in my family to graduate from university. Went to college with this mentality that my parents, who did not have that benefit, said you need to get a degree so you get a job and you get hired by a company and you have this long career and they pay you a salary, they pay you a pension, retirement, and you work hard and then that's that!
So I got to college thinking that I wanted to be a network engineer, not really understanding what all that meant and how much math was involved — and I am not great at math — and so I almost dropped out. But I was fortunate that I had really strong mentors and, truly, champions who watched out for me and who helped steer me towards studying, not just higher education, but helped me identify my passion around how intersections of identities and, at that time it was intersections of identities of students, play out into their sense of belonging at universities, where they did not always see themselves reflected. Where Black, queer youth were not reflected in Black spaces, there was no LGBTQ+ representation in white queer spaces, there was little to no Black representation, there was strong racism in the LGBTQ+ community, strong homophobia in the Black community.
So I started my career in higher education. Spent a long time in higher education, working in multicultural affairs, working with LGBTQ+ youth students; and then I moved into non-profit, and still in this LGBTQ+ and DE&I space, working for a community organization, really thinking critically about what does it mean to have advocacy, to have a sense of belonging, to have strong mentorship and allyship to support you? And it started to shape my thinking about how do we do this work effectively? How do we truly move the needle? Because what I was seeing 15-20 years ago was a lot of aspirational talk, a lot of talk around this values-driven conversation, or maybe even compliance regulatory conversations, but it was truly… there was no business case articulated and DE&I was certainly not seen as an asset or a catalyst to innovation in the industry that I was serving. And it just, it made me curious… why don’t we see that?
And so by the time I made my way into tech… I make my way to Microsoft, this huge global company… 150,000 employees at the time when I was there; with robust resources. And for the first time saw what it could look like when assets and money were not limiting factors. There was this opportunity to try audacious initiatives knowing that maybe, there's even a high chance that they would fail. But there was a space to learn from that failure. And that really was another catalyst point in my life, of [my] first time moving into tech, into corporate space and understanding how having structure and resources could help drive work forward.
That was kind of this boom time in tech, companies of various sizes… even small, few hundred person companies were rolling rich in resources and you saw innovation and drive. And then — I'm fast forwarding here, nearly 18 years into my career — 2020. There were these catalyst moments. Now those of us, you and I, others who have long been in the D&I space, know that while 2020… there was broader public visibility into some of the racist, anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ — particularly anti-trans incidents, the murder of George Floyd, as this catalyst point that moved companies to really think critically about, “What is our responsibility?”. And what I started to observe was, maybe for the first time, we're starting to see this more comprehensive investment in DE&I at all levels.
What I think 2020 [and] 2021 brought us, with a greater raised awareness of anti-Black racism, of employees’ health and well-being because of COVID globally were these moments — not this universal utopia — but these moments that showed: alright, corporations of any size, of any budget, of any structure can invest in its people, can help drive this culture of inclusion, can think critically and apply tactics and practices that help move the needle towards greater diverse representation, towards greater sense of inclusion, towards auditing their policies and practices for stronger equity.
And then you get to today. This is being recorded mid-2023 and the economy's in a different place. COVID is — right, wrong, or indifferent — in so many people's rearview mirrors and you're seeing, suddenly, this narrative that's, proverbially, “The going got tough and we have to make some sacrifices.” And, again, the narrative is that the DEI is on the chopping block. From my perspective, I actually don't think much has changed. And I don't say that naively. But I think there's always been this air of scrutiny for this work. I think what's changed is [that] the scrutiny is spoken out loud.
There's more challenging questions being presented. And I want to be clear, there are companies, there are industries that are saying, “We don't need a DEI practitioner, DEI is not important. We're just focused on money, money, money.” But I do think that, for the most part, from where I sit; I actually think that there's this auditing happening right now of DE&I. I think that it’s time for the industry and for us, as practitioners, to leverage our resources most effectively, to remain diligent and remind folks, business leaders: “Hey, we've been your partner through all of this, what hasn't changed is our commitment, our focus, our ability to hold the company, the business accountable. To think critically, to make sure that we are continuing to see DE&I as the asset and the catalyst for innovation that it is, and that we maintain that broader integration and application of DE&I into the business strategy.
Kay: It's so interesting because I was listening to you speak, Anthony, and I just… I'm in awe of just how much breadth and depth you've covered in a short span of time… but also how you've really captured the different layers and nuances of the conversation and how it's evolved over time and how you've really realized it's systemic. When we normally ask that question of “How did you get into DEI work?”, if you go back to some of our earlier episodes, we really hear a lot about the sort of identity piece of like, “I got into this work because I came from this background” And what I loved about how you chose to answer that question was you highlighted in your career that the struggles and conversations and the progress that's been made that does come in fits and starts. And so to capture that, in your answer, I thought was brilliant. And I think it's also a really good reminder for our listeners of the work doesn't stop just because the circumstances don't look quite right or the narrative that is being portrayed in certain places is And it really is a work in progress, hence the name of our podcast, as you know. Thank you for sharing and for also continuing to bring that depth of subtlety and nuance and, I think, also thoughtfulness to this work. I knew this conversation would be great when we were deciding on people that we wanted to have here for the podcast to highlight.
Anthony: I appreciate that! I think that is why we have to continue to invest in the work strategically, [and] bring along the right partners. This whole notion that DEI as an industry is dead is… again, I don't think that's the case! I think we're seeing what happens when you have these fair-weather allies in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, in the midst of COVID and rethinking what work looked like, but were never really committed to the work and, frankly, just gave up.
So there are still those of us… you are still doing the work. You partner with organizations still doing the work. I'm still doing the work. There are so many of us who are outcome-driven. And, in spite of a changing landscape, in spite of — I would even argue — a changing structure, you know…... It doesn't surprise me that… wha? The average tenure of, keep me honest here, Kay… the average tenure of a Chief Diversity Officer is, like, less than two years now?
Anthony: Again, I think that when you build a structure — and I'm not talking just economically, but the structure itself, the reporting structure, the resources, the investment, the commitment are set up to fail, why would we expect any different? The diligence comes in, I think, how do we ensure that we're maintaining the commitment, bringing along, leveraging those correct partners who will really help us move from compliance, foundational compliance, into DEI as this comprehensive, critical, integral part, sustainable part, global part of the business?
Kay: Exactly. And I think it's so great that you also spoke to your experience from coming in through higher education, because it's really easy to identify DEI work as — obviously, we're speaking in the context of working in corporate companies or private companies or non-profits – but that a lot of what we're called to do and sort and lead with, or partner with leaders around, comes from way before people even enter the organization, right? So thank you for highlighting that.
You mentioned this idea of partners and, obviously, we've met and we've collaborated as #TeamIIP and Anthony, you working internally within an organization and us as the external contractors, and it's been such a great partnership. And I'm glad that I can veer into… it went from listener to friend territory now. And I wanted to speak to that relationship a little bit! Like you mentioned, the DEI lead is normally there for maybe 1-2 years tops before they move on or are burnt out or they feel like they're struggling with lack of resources…. how does having an internal advocate and primary stakeholder partnering with somebody who might be external, from your view, actually benefit the company when we're looking at times of economic uncertainty? How do we continue to move the needle forward with having that additional perspective to support the person who is doing that work internally?
Anthony: Yeah, it's a great question. I wrote down this quote… I'm mad at myself because I wrote the quote down and I didn't write down the article — the source here. Academia Me would have given me an F on this assignment!
Kay:I’m giving you an A so far on this interview!
Anthony: The quote that I took note of was, “The Chief Diversity Officer is expected to be a therapist, advocate, coach, advisor, educator, and prospective broker. They're the go-to person when it comes to facilitating the most difficult discussions in the workplace. It's a job in which no one can agree on the ideal candidate, best practices, core responsibilities, or even the name of the role.”
I think, with that in mind, there is no such thing as the “ideal DEI practitioner.” There's no such thing as the definitive “best practice”practitioners. It's why I actually avoid, as much as possible, the language of best practices and steer instead — maybe this sounds like semantics — but to me there's a distinction around proven and effective practices, because what works [in] one place might not work [for] another.
And to that end, when you think about this immense breadth that DEI practitioners are expected to serve… my goodness! Two things come to mind: it is incredibly lonely! There are very few other roles that have no direct counterpart or peer role in the organization, save for maybe the CEO of a given company. There are very few outlets in which the DEI practitioners can turn, other than their own networks. And I am so fortunate that in 20-some odd years, I've built this incredible network of mentors, of friends, of colleagues who are advisor, coach, support; and I think and hope I get to do that for others, serve as that advisor, that coach, that thought-partner. But then there reaches a point where you say, okay, and we need to act. I need to put my proverbial hat back on and get my head in the game. And I think leveraging high quality, robust, external resources — practitioners — who have experience, who understand the breadth and depth of DEI work and can simultaneously serve as a support and guide, but also as a champion, a cheerleader to the work, I think, is hugely important and is an investment that companies of every structure, every budget should make room for. Because, again, you otherwise set your DEI practitioners up for failure and for isolation.
You and I met several years ago. And the context, if I’m remembering correctly, that conversation at the time was helping us to rethink and evolve some of our ERG work. I had come with several years of background in ERGs, but I needed that external partner, that external voice, that external support. I can say something that maybe is an effective proven practice, but you have this global lens — external partners have this global lens and can say, “Here's what we're seeing in the industry.” It adds additional credibility and, again, to that practitioner, provides that sanity check moment.
We've continued to work together. I love how we were able to leverage you. I'm currently head of D&I at ActiveCampaign, a leader in customer experience automation. You [and IIP] are a customer of ActiveCampaign, so you got to come in and speak about how our platform helps you do your job effectively. I mean, what a setup! I can't think of a better way to convey the business case, then hearing directly from a customer who is in the DE&I space, leveraging a partner's platform. And while that wasn't a requirement, by any means — it was happenstance — it helped the individuals in business understand, “oh, we have these wide ranging industries that we serve. When Anthony and his team are telling us that representation matters, and why building a diverse team ensures that we're able to serve a diverse customer base…. Oh, that's what he means!” So it cements the message.
As I get older, maybe I'd become a little bit more pessimistic, a little bit more cynical. I don't think it's cynicism in the sense of, like, defeatist. But I think there's a deeper pragmatism that has shaped my work as of recent. And, again, I come back to that far-reaching definition, an expectation, and I can't stress enough that having professional support — you know, and from those who are listening who, maybe, aren't in the DE&I space, those leaders, those Chief People Officers, CHROs, those CEOs, those leaders in the space who work with or oversee support, you know, a DEI leader — you might be saying, well, “We offer mental health benefits, we offer professional coaching,” and that's great, keep doing that! This is not to say cut those benefits, they're vital! What it is saying is, let's think really critically about how we continue to upskill and build capacity and encourage this work to be sustainable, especially if you have a team of 1 or 2. And more and more companies — I mean, big companies that had 20, 30, 40-person DEI teams are shrinking. I know, I won't mention any names externally because I can't validate this in this moment, but I've spoken with a colleague a while back that their team, their DEI team, at its peak was 30 people… it is now down to 2.
We in this space, if we want to continue to be effective… in the same way that you wouldn't tell engineers, like, “Well, goings got tough! We have to cut access to coding tools and repositories of code base and the resources that you utilize”, in the same way we wouldn’t tell a marketing team, “Well, we've got to cut your access to graphic design tools and communication tools and editing tools.” There are tools for the business. And I would argue that, at whatever level you can make the investment, [DEI] is an investment to set that function up for success. That external thought leadership is necessary and a necessary investment to do the business. You should absolutely have internal practitioners, they are the pulse to the culture, to the employee voice, to the metrics and measures, the success specific to the company. And having that external thought leadership ensures alignment, ensures that there's more critical thought towards those effective, sustainable practices. To me, they go hand-in-hand.
Kay: I love that. And thank you for sharing. I can say, from having partnered with you, it really was an example of how we can make internal and external work together to move the needle forward. And I only saw benefits from the work that we did together. So I'm really appreciative that you see it that way, that you highlighted that for our listeners as well.
Anthony: Oh, absolutely! 100%.
Kay: Fantastic! And just out of curiosity, what benefits have you gained from partnering with external contractors, whether that's with us or with other folks? What are the types of concrete benefits that you've seen? I know, you spoke a little bit to that piece of loneliness, the isolation, the “could somebody just check my work?”...
Anthony: Yeah, I think the other side of that is the professional perspective. It's ensuring that you're bringing in current emergent, effective practices. You are, if I were to summarize it in one sentence, it's like leveraging a library of sorts… “Hey, help me build the case. Help me with your breadth and reach and purview that you have.” It's bringing in a partner, it's ensuring that the direction that a DEI leader is driving work in — somebody's checking the work, somebody is saying, “Hey, you know, as you think about this, these might also be other avenues to pursue. Hey, this particular practice could benefit from having these partners engaged,” or, “Did you think about leveraging this other team as other resources?”
Without getting too much into specifics — our work together — you've been really pivotal in helping to think about how we message certain work, who are the partners, and how we bring them along on the journey to really be those champions. Other external partners I've worked with across my career also bring in perspectives that I don't have.
Back to that notion of the DEI leaders to be the “be all, end all” and know-at-all. I'm not a know-it-all, I'm a learn-it-all! Part of that learning requires other perspectives. I am a first generation, middle aged, white, cisgender, gay male with a disability. Those aren't all my identities, those are aspects of my identity, and that shapes my perspective. But this work requires [a] breadth of perspectives. And so bringing in practitioners who have varying identities, different identities than me, to help offer that additional lens — it is so pivotal, it is so pertinent. And it really gives an advantage. The organizations that see that as an investment, I believe, have a greater competitive advantage because it helps make sure that the work is sustainable, is comprehensive. It helps cement that DEI is owned by everybody. Because, again, you're getting world class expertise to align with you.
Kay: I love that you've already given so much wisdom in this conversation for those who may be considering DEI work in an official capacity, or maybe already are in it. Because, as you said, at the time of this recording, it is a challenging landscape for many of us. But if somebody was listening to this and they were on the fence about whether or not they wanted to continue or whether or not they thought they could pursue this work, what would you say to them?
Anthony: First and foremost, at the sake of sounding cliche, DEI work is not for the faint of heart. I would also argue, as callous as it sounds, it is not effective or sustainable for somebody who proverbially wears their heart on their sleeve. You have to have conviction, you have to operate with a level of care and ethics in mind, absolutely. But this is a part of business. There is an effective strategy. And nearly every DEI practitioner I know has a personal conviction, a drive to advocate on a societal or global level, for social justice, for equity and inclusion as a standard of practice. You have been hired to fulfill a responsibility within your organization... And stay laser- focused on that responsibility.
It is of no surprise why this field has such immense burnout. And for my colleagues in the space and my colleagues thinking of entering the space, let us continue to hold the respect and admiration and care for one another. I have such deep admiration for my colleagues who do this work, or for individuals who enter this work. Let's continue to uphold that as the model and remind ourselves and each other that we, as practitioners of this work, have a core responsibility. We are holding the leaders, their organizations, and ourselves to a commitment — a focused commitment — to move the needle and to have measurable goals, measurable outcomes, and drive that accountability. Let's not lose sight of that.
I would say, just in concluding also, give ourselves and each other some grace. We can't be the “be all, end all”. Sure, there are times we're going to be the therapists. Sure, there are times we're going to be the educators. Sure, there are times we are going to be the coach. But we can't be all those things all at once for everybody all the time. We are human. Allowing ourselves to breathe, to step away, to practice self-care… one thing my team and I started enabling is that we build into our week time for our own advancement and education because it's part of the work. I found myself at the gym in the evenings, on the weekends, reading books, articles, listening to the DEI-focused podcasts and saying, “Oh my goodness, I'm doing what I tell other folks to do and working 24/7!” Now I've built that as best as I'm able into my work week.
Also find ways to say, “Look, when we need it, let's recharge. Let's step away. Let us be the model to practice self-care.” And I know that's really hard to do. There are likely folks listening, saying, “Oh, yeah? Oh, nice that you can step away… I can't!” Give yourself that permission. My goodness, all of us deserve that — we DEI practitioners, especially. We need to prioritize that for our sustainability, for our well-being. So, that way, our field isn't one that has a less than two year shelf life and role.
Kay: Exactly. And thank you for sparing time, obviously, as a person that is in a role that is requiring you to be all those things and wear all those hats. We immensely appreciate your contribution to not just the show, but also to our listeners and other folks who will continue to contribute to this work. Thank you, Anthony, for joining us today. And thank you for also being in our corner on #TeamIIP as well! We are so thrilled to count you as one of our go-to people in this space.
Anthony: I'm so grateful to you, Kay. Thank you for the time today and every moment that we get together I value your guidance and hard work and your friendship. So thank you.
Kay: Thanks so much, Anthony!
Kay: So there you have it! That was Anthony Papini of Global Head of DEI at ActiveCampaign, one of our esteemed client partners and long-time supporters of the Inclusion in Progress podcast. We’ll be diving into more examples of client partners we’ve worked with over the years, so stay tuned for those stories in future episodes.
And as always, if you’d like to learn more about how you can partner with Inclusion in Progress to deliver strategic guidance on diversity, equity and inclusion for your team or company; to create greater psychological safety, inclusion and innovation; head to the link in the show notes or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a no-pressure consultation call with our team.
Thanks for tuning in and see you in the next episode!