Shirley Verónica Cardona, VP of marketing at Ellevation Education, is proud to be part of a diverse team delivering impact to English learners across the U.S.
Cardona is a member of Ellevation’s leadership team, where she helps build company culture and inform business strategy. Recently, she teamed up with the CEO, additional leadership members and a broad group of internal advisors at the company to establish the organization’s five-year vision, which includes a focus on growing to serve more than 70% of multilingual learners, proving the impact of their products on student outcomes, and developing leaders who reflect the communities they serve.
It was a special opportunity for Cardona to add her voice and perspectives.
“As a first-generation Latina executive who is also a former English learner, I take great pride in both my ability to positively impact the business, as well as my responsibility to speak on behalf of under-represented voices,” she said. “Whether they be the students and educators our products serve or the employees who make up our team.”
Diversity is one of many critical elements that informs Ellevation’s products. The company is a software solution for English learners (ELs) and the educators who serve them.
“That’s why it’s so important to have people at the table, informing the day-to-day work who share lived experiences that reflect those of the students and teachers we serve and who have deep understanding of the contexts in which our products are used and the problems they seek to solve,” Cardona said. “To that end, more than half of Ellevation’s employees are former educators, and 41% are from underrepresented ethnicities with many having been English Learners themselves.”
And that’s to Ellevation’s benefit. According to a 2019 McKinsey report, public companies that were in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 36% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean. And those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.
“I have seen this play out across my professional career time and again,” Cardona said. “Whether in consumer goods, travel and tourism, nonprofit or edtech, diversity consistently serves as a competitive advantage that results in greater sustained innovation, stronger employee retention and more resonant brand messages.”
Walk us through some of the initiatives Ellevation Education has put in place to ensure a more fair process for candidates.
First, we provide training that helps employees understand how unconscious bias can impact decision making. Second, we set clear scorecards for open roles that interviewers must use to evaluate candidates equitably. This helps align everyone’s assessment to specific metrics that hiring managers are seeking. Also, all our roles have standardized interview questions to minimize the chances of individual preferences or biases. Third, we understand that an in-person interview is not always the best indicator of a candidate’s full strengths, so we also include a written exercise as part of the interview process to fully gauge a candidate’s skills.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered when bringing in diverse talent?
An obvious challenge that plagues tech companies is finding and nurturing a diverse talent pipeline. At Ellevation, we are fortunate to have a talent acquisition team that understands the need to partner with organizations that serve diverse populations to source top talent. In addition, I have the privilege of participating in a variety of Latino-serving professional organizations, which are valuable platforms on which to promote our roles. In fact, one of our recent marketing hires was a fellow first-generation Latina who I had shared career advice with a few years ago. This speaks to the value of both nurturing and leveraging the diverse networks our employees bring, but also of paying it forward.
Culturally, how does Ellevation Education foster inclusion and belonging?
We have a company-sponsored initiative called “DEIB Champions.” It was born out of our desire to foster a more inclusive workplace. Fifteen team members either volunteer or are nominated as DEIB Champions and this committee is actively identifying, organizing, facilitating and putting in place practices that foster a workplace of belonging. We also have an affinity group called DELL (Diversity for Ellevation). This group is dedicated to creating brave spaces to foster community and engagement, broadening cultural awareness, and providing network building and support structures for employees at Ellevation.
How do you build team culture?
Authenticity is a core value that is essential to my leadership style. I bring my whole self to work and encourage others to do so as well. Whether sharing a personal struggle, asking for help, or taking time off when I need it, being true to who I am means showing vulnerability which often opens the door for others to safely emulate the behavior. Throughout my career I have found this particular leadership trait has helped to nurture an environment of psychological safety in which employees are more willing to take creative risks, share their perspectives, and make valuable contributions that only come about within a culture that values trust and inclusion.. It's important to me that my team understands I am not just interested in their success as employees but as human beings.
What are you most excited about accomplishing with your team in the next year?
In the next year, I look forward to nurturing a high-performing, innovative and resilient team that is rooted in their strengths and shares a desire to positively impact the lives of students and educators. Many of our marketing functions are new. Looking ahead, I am most excited about establishing clear charters, objectives and key results, and ensuring the team has clarity on the impact their work has on the business, our educators and students, and society more broadly.