How one woman pivoted into diversity, equity, and inclusion work
Ellen Rice Chever pivoted her career as a healthcare consultant to become a D&EIA leader and podcast host. I talk with Ellen about the importance of aligning your career with your lived experiences, how being “the only” in the room motivated her career pivot, and why working moms have it so hard today. Ellen also shares her top advice for women and underrepresented groups trying to build their best possible career.
You pivoted into a career doing diversity, equity and inclusion work. How did you make that change?
I reached a point in my career where I realized I wanted to find a way into full-time diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility (DEI&A) work, internally for an organization. But I didn’t have traditional in-house HR DEI&A experience, I had instead worked in this space as a consultant with clients and as a graduate student and advisor. At my company I knew colleagues were doing some great diversity work as part of their roles, but there wasn’t a diversity specialist who was leading this work. So I started being proactive and engaging with people at our company doing this work. I just kept being persistent. Everywhere I went I was asking, I know we’re doing some great work. How can I help?
Then our former CEO released a statement on diversity and inclusion along with a company framework to address it. I decided to email him back with a list of recommendations to drive DEI&A at our company. He emailed me back the next day and told me to schedule a meeting with him as soon as possible.
We had a great conversation. I suggested books for him to read and I was excited to know our company and senior leadership team was passionate about and dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Our company was rolling out our DEI&A framework. My mentor encouraged me to submit my ideas on DEI&A and our framework.
My first reaction was, I can’t do that. Imposter syndrome creeped in. I think as women and as people of color, society and life have conditioned us to doubt ourselves and not always be comfortable telling people what to do. Sometimes we’re afraid to speak for ourselves. I didn’t feel like I had the authority to submit my insights. I was afraid to say, Here’s what I think you should do.
But I had something to say. And I knew what I was talking about. I had studied D&I, management, and organizational design at one of the best schools in the world and had the experience to back it up. I led D&I initiatives at a leading biopharmaceutical company and a boutique financial firm. I partnered with my mother, a corporate Attorney specializing in startups, in providing D&I services to small businesses. As Co-President of the MIT Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) I partnered with MIT leaders and student leaders to develop and implement D&I policies, and provided expertise on D&I as a member of the MIT Academic working council on diversity. I had given a keynote speech to the MIT Sloan Board of Directors on D&I.
Even more, I understand as someone who was often the “only” in the room, the impact of how effective DEI&A policies lead to an equitable, engaged, and innovative work culture, one that develops solutions for the toughest problems. I was confident I knew what I was talking about. I could talk about it in my sleep!
So I got over it, and with encouragement from my mentor, I shared some recommendations. Long story short — my expertise, passion, and persistence in speaking up paid off.
DEI&A is your job, but also it’s something you’re passionate about regardless of your title. What’s the benefit of a career that’s aligned with your interests?
Aligning your career with your purpose is the best thing to do for your career. It’s highly strategic. It will let you endure longer and go farther in your career.
I tell people you need to match your purpose with your skill sets and also what’s unique about yourself. Your lived experience gives you so much perspective and outlook. For example, I can study DEI&A in a book but my lived experiences also uniquely qualify me to do the work because I understand it in a very personal way. You can’t learn that in school. It’s your very own lived experience and it’s competitive because nobody else has it. When you’re going after a career of purpose, it’s really important to look at your lived experience (along with your expertise) and ask, What am I uniquely qualified to do?
You started a podcast — Unscripted Her — with your mom and Aunts, talking about issues facing women, working mothers, and people from underrepresented backgrounds. What was your inspiration?
I realized working mothers have experiences and challenges that are very unique to being a working mother in today’s society. It’s challenging. My mom was a single mom, attorney, and a corporate executive who ran her own company — she dealt with way more sexist and paternalistic environments in her generation. But even she acknowledges that she got to leave it at work, whereas working moms never leave today. Then my Aunts, an attorney and a sales and life coach, have endured challenges that come from their experience as a black lesbian married couple, both Christians, raising my amazing niece. So together, we knew we had incredible stories to share and also wanted to provide a brave space for stories to be shared.
I started Unscripted Her because I wanted to give voice to working mothers and the experiences that we go through. And also, I wanted to give voice to what I call “game changers” — people that are walking unique paths in their career and their purpose. Especially the game changers who walk among us. They might not be the people you hear on the nightly news, but they’re the game changers who walk among us — they’re you, they’re me — and they have powerful stories that can motivate you to live your life on purpose.
My family members and I also give voice to issues that impact women and underrepresented communities in a very real way. As women of color and multigenerational women, we have a lot of lived experiences to share.
So many of the women I interview are “the only” in the room — the only woman, the only person of color. How has your experience as “the only” shaped your career?
I spent my early childhood growing up in Minnesota in a predominantly white area. I was always the only. And that continued throughout my life in different situations.
Being the only woman or person of color in a room always made me curious. Why am I the only? Surely there might be others that want and should be here too? I’ve been asking that question since I was a child. At some point I also got curious about how to solve it. That’s what led me to think about a career in diversity and inclusion.
And I’ll get on my DEI&A soapbox — it’s not just a pipeline issue! I don’t want to hear that it’s solely a pipeline issue. The talent is out there. I know them because they’re my friends and my family. They’re rockstars. The problem is getting to them and opening up doors to make access, giving them the ramp to make it fair to get in the door.
You pivoted fully into HR and corporate DEI&A after 15 years of work experience mostly in consulting. Do you wish you had made your career change sooner?
I think knowing where you want to go with your career sometimes comes with maturity. When I was younger I was hustling and I was going with the flow of consulting. But I reached a certain point, where I wanted something even more in line with my passion and purpose. But I had to live a little to get to that point.
Sometimes I look back and think, I could have started this work when I was 25. But at that age, sometimes you just don’t know. When I look back, I realize I needed to have a few more life experiences to get to where I am today.
Any last piece of advice for women trying to build their best possible career?
First — don’t downplay your circumstances. Your lived experience is a unique differentiator and can be part of your power.
Second — do whatever it takes to overcome your fears and anxiety. Invest in getting over your fears. If you need to talk to a friend, read a book, hire a coach — do it. Fear and anxiety is just being afraid of the unknown. You need to get over that in order to go after opportunities that align with your passion and purpose.
Thank you, Ellen, for sharing your story! Listen to Ellen’s podcast with her mom and aunts here: Unscripted Her
Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Reclaim Your Career shares the stories of women who have made brave career pivots. They inspire and unlock what women always had the capacity to do: Break free from the traditional narrative of success to write your own story.