Black History Month Spotlight: Darla DeGrace Helped Reebok Build a Diversity Pipeline — Then Launched Her Own Company

For the past three years, in honor of Black History Month, FN has celebrated African Americans in footwear and fashion with our ‘Spotlight’ feature series. For 2020 we’ve added a theme: Diversity as a Superpower. This year, we’ll highlight movers and shakers who’ve used their voice to drive change and create access for others. Also new for 2020, FN commissioned New Jersey-based artist, Briana Woodburry-Spencer, to design the series logo.

Last week, Darla DeGrace pulled out a few photos of her childhood, reminiscing about her youth in Cambridge, Mass.

In one of the pictures, she said, she was wearing bamboo door-knocker earrings, a trend that peaked in the late ’80s and reemerged in the early aughts, popularized by rappers Salt-N-Pepa and famed girl group Destiny’s Child — as well as a pair of Reebok Freestyle sneakers.

“I had every single color of the Freestyle,” DeGrace said. “Reebok was the hot thing through middle school and high school; you really weren’t hot if you weren’t wearing Reebok.”

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Fast forward two decades later, when DeGrace was tapped to be a senior recruiter at Reebok as part of its talent acquisition team. She was thrilled to become part of a brand that she had admired for so long as a consumer. Plus, she got to show up at work dressed in sneakers and athleisure wear after working 17 years in the education sector wearing suits and heels. She also faced the complex task of helping the company to broaden diversity at the firm — an initiative many fashion companies have either adopted or accelerated in recent years.

“I’ve spent my career in talent acquisition, probably the last 10 to 15 years with a diversity lens. My first entrance into footwear was really my time at Reebok,” she explained. “I was [tasked with] bringing in more talent and more people of color.”

During her year at Reebok, DeGrace created the company’s first affinity group for people of color and launched the brand’s first partnership with historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and an internship program with Howard University. Eventually, she founded her own namesake diversity and inclusion consultancy, DeGrace Group. And in June 2019, she left Reebok.

“I was comfortable walking away from a brand I love, and I realize the privilege in saying that because I have a full-time practice,” she said. “But I think it’s important to build more diverse professionals in your network; not everyone in your network should look like you.”

Here, DeGrace explains how corporations can do that.

When and how did you learn that your vantage point matters in this industry? How did you find your voice?

“I have to attribute that to my mother. She would always say, and still says it to this day, ‘A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.’ Those words resonate with me in every aspect of my life. If I don’t speak up, people won’t know my perspective or value. It’s OK to disagree, but it’s more important that you get your thoughts out there. I live my life that way — unapologetic — and it doesn’t mean I won’t say I’m sorry. It just means that I am my authentic self. People either love it or they don’t. But I sleep well at night knowing that I voiced my opinion, shared my concerns or frustrations and — more important — opportunities or suggestions to make it better. [I approach] every problem with a potential solution. But first, people need to understand what the issues are. Sometimes those conversations are really tough to have, particularly [when it comes to] race relations.”

How do you help other people of color gain access to the industry?

“I think this generation is more vocal than I was at that age. How I empower young people or people coming into the industry is [to] just tell them to show up and be [their] unapologetic self. If you disagree on something, let it be known that you respectfully disagree. I think people should have self-humility and self-transparency. Offering up different ways of doing things or using your voice in meetings is critical. As a company, you want to create a culture that’s welcoming to diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It’s not just the individual who needs to be vocal; you really have to challenge the organization. Because I had a consulting firm, I was willing to lose a job if people didn’t like what I had to say. I will still continue to do that.”

How do you leverage your diversity as a strength in your day-to-day professional endeavors?

“I think a really good practice for a business resource group is to have that executive presence and executive sponsorship so those issues and concerns are being elevated to the most senior level of the organization. That’s how you get traction. If there’s some sort of consensus or affinity group that’s saying, ‘Hey, here are some of the challenges and issues that we’re facing,’ it’s really on the members of that executive leadership to help solve those and elevate those issues so that people can work on them. That creates a sense of empowerment and a safe space. That’s the whole point of those resource groups — to make sure you’re bringing in more diverse talent, and you’re able to retain them and able to develop them and create more inclusive cultures.”

What barriers exist in expanding opportunities for African Americans and other people of color in the footwear industry?

“The biases are just atrocious, whether they’re conscious or not. There’s a lot of training and education that needs to happen — not only on the corporate level, but it’s also an individual journey. I think people need to understand the value of it, how it impacts the bottom line, why it’s important to have diverse perspectives and different people in the room as part of the decision-making process. … The only way we can get to that is vetting things through business resource groups. There are a lot of brands and fashion houses that have made mistakes that could’ve been avoided if they had a more proactive approach in leveraging diverse teams across their brands, [if] they [were] really proactive about it and [made] sure that they [had] D&I professionals and [were] leveraging people … there who understand culture.”

What capabilities do people of color possess in overcoming these barriers? What is the role of companies and their leadership in eliminating barriers?

“People need to really stand in their truth. There’s a level of professionalism that you have to [have], but you need to speak out against any sort of injustice or biases, whether that’s calling people out directly or voicing it publicly. I think it’s important for people to do that and build more diverse professionals in your network. Not everyone in your network should look like you. That’s how you learn and grow — making sure you have diverse people around you and diverse perspectives — because diversity isn’t just [about] people of color. It’s really representative of every facet, and the more people learn about different views, [the more they] tend to appreciate those differences and identify where they’re alike.”

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