When Gaelen Lemelle-Brown (’21), UCLA Anderson’s student VP of equity, diversity and inclusion, spoke with NBCUniversal Media LLC’s VP of diversity, equity and inclusion Jennifer Abbondanza (’06) about her career, he first asked her to describe the highlight of her time at Anderson. “I was proud of being president of the LGBTQ club, now Out@Anderson, and the Surf Club, especially because I was still learning to surf,” she said.“While I was there, we did the first-ever Surf and Ski Day. We surfed Venice in the morning, then we went to Big Bear to ski. So, I suppose, that was my great contribution to our community.”
Abbondanza’s humor and modesty belie the serious and important contributions she makes on a daily basis in her role at NBCUniversal. As an executive and role model, she helps steer the media giant’s efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion. Here are the highlights of her conversation with Lemelle-Brown, who is also the Black Business Students Association’s VP of diversity, inclusion and community and is charting a career in the music and entertainment industry.
Q: I wanted to hear a little bit about what your day-to-day role entails at NBCUniversal. What do you focus on?
My world of work falls into two big buckets, reporting and strategy. I manage a small team that is tasked with measuring and understanding NBCUniversal’s diverse representation across our workforce and talent; and our mantra is that you can’t improve what you don’t measure. We then use that information strategically to problem-solve, and we provide insights and recommendations. That’s where our work becomes really exciting, as we help to guide and influence our DEI efforts going forward.
Our goal every day, week or month is to get the reporting done, get the lessons out of the way, and then spend time on the strategic side. We have 15 different business units who have 15 different things going on from a diversity perspective. Mine is a small team that sits in corporate, working across all units and partnering with HR. We have many really interesting conversations to try to get to the crux of how we can improve our culture, our efforts and our programs to create an environment that is inclusive, that is equitable and that gives opportunities to all types of people.
Q: How do you interact with the rest of the leadership team at NBCUniversal?
We work with our executives on any number of things related to DEI. Disclosing our data has been a big topic this year. While we, NBCUniversal, have been disclosing publicly for a number of years, enhanced internal communications took a front seat in recent months as we saw employees craving a better understanding of our representation as well as our efforts. We also regularly work with our executives to support the decision making process with relevant yet standardized data, and we stay involved through the communication process to help with speeches and presentations.
Q: One thing I’ve found in my diversity work, at my previous employers as well as at Anderson, is that it’s hard to add quantitative context to a qualitative thing like culture. I was wondering how your team goes about doing that with senior leadership? How do you explain what moves need to be made with the data that you’ve collected?
It’s simple and hard at the same time.
It’s hard to demonstrate a return on investment for our specific DEI efforts. I have a diversity twist to the old John Wanamaker quote about advertising that I often say: Half of our diversity efforts are effective, we just don’t know which half.You really have to be firing on all cylinders to influence culture, but it is very difficult to know which of those efforts is helping the most or is going the furthest.
That said, it’s very easy to measure equity across whatever it is you might be measuring once you break out your demographic groups. Workforce is always front and center for diversity, equity and inclusion topics. Of course, being a media company, we also are measuring talent on air and behind the camera, even though they’re not actually our workforce in most cases. We also find it imperative to measure our dollars. How are we spending our money, both from a vendor perspective and from a philanthropic perspective? The value of data — bringing it to the table, talking about it — I think it goes a long distance in these efforts.
Q: I think that when we have conversations about diversity issues, when we talk about them in larger spaces, it feels like maybe the first 20% of the meeting is explaining why diversity is good. I just feel like we shouldn’t be having that conversation anymore, do you?
I agree with you about the first 20% of the meeting issue, and I think that’s the unfortunate reality of getting more people to the table. The good news is that we have had more people talking about diversity, equity and inclusion this year than in recent history. The murder of George Floyd brought so many more people to the table. But this movement has been happening for some time, and these recent joiners are late to class. To paraphrase a wonderful analogy made earlier this year by Annie Reneau from Upworthy, it’s like they’re showing up to a lecture 30 minutes in, raising their hands and saying “Hey, get me up to speed, I’m here now.” Of course, what you should do is sit down, take notes, do research, ask your friends to help you out, and build a foundation from which you can contribute.
Q: The second part of that question is, as diversity leaders, now that we have that attention, what are the main asks we should be making of our big companies — of our organizations and our communities?
The challenge is that we don’t know how long folks will stay engaged. This is a seismic shift, and people are here, and will hopefully stay here. We hope that this newfound attention across all types of people stays and continues to grow, and is used for good. But, unfortunately, I think that civil rights activists in the 1960s probably felt the same way and were let down.
The tough task is to effect real change by challenging the norms and systems across corporate America. The question that companies need to be asking themselves every step of the way is, do our systems and processes really have to be the way they are, or are they that way just because that’s how we’ve been doing it all along?
Q: It can be grueling to just get all of it to work, right? What are your key motivators for entering this field?
I shifted into diversity from corporate strategy, which gave me the opportunity to work to further the values that are important to me.
I came out the year before I showed up at Anderson. And then, coindidentally, I moved across the country and dropped into an entirely new community. So, my time at Anderson was this great time of freedom, because I had finally chosen to just live my true self. I presented myself as my true identity right from the beginning and without the baggage of having to make an announcement or explain a change. That was very freeing and powerful. I was so ready and the Anderson community was so inclusive, supportive and safe that it wasn’t a hard thing to do at all.
While the space that we’re working in is certainly challenging, there has been and will continue to be progress. Diversity is a corporate strategy, which means that we have a responsibility to track how we’re doing and constantly make adjustments to do better.