An Advocate for Diverse Professionals

By: Cedric F. Brown, APR
May. 1, 2020
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Donna Renella is the president of ABW Solutions, LLC, a consulting and professional recruitment firm. Renella has built her career placing diverse professionals with top companies and brings close to 30 years of experience in human resources and recruiting for major corporations and large agencies. 

I spoke with her about what’s inspired her to take the lead in being a fierce advocate for professionals of color.

You’ve taken an active interest in recruiting diverse talent. What led to this?

My interest in recruiting always included working with people who were like me, and my friends — people I grew up with. I am from the projects in the South Bronx, which includes candidates from diverse backgrounds, especially those like me who were the first generation [in their families] to graduate from college. I’ve never drawn a line between the ability to do a specific job and background; rather, passion and desire were paramount to me when predicting success. I could pick out accomplishments in candidates’ backgrounds and translate those to skills required for a position.

These days, you focus on executive recruiting. How many diverse practitioners have you placed during your career?

I have placed a plethora of diverse candidates in my current function as a consultant and executive recruiter. However, I am most proud of the candidates I placed as interns or entry-level professionals, who now are senior executives. A perfect example of this is the career conference and job fair at Howard University that I have led on behalf of the Public Relations Council for almost 20 years. Our panel now consists of PR professionals who we recruited at Howard — our best proof statement for the industry. It also builds a great relationship with the students.

In your experience, what are the common reasons that your peers have been hesitant to hire diverse talent for leadership positions? 

The two main reasons that diverse talent is not hired for senior positions are diametrically opposed: fear of how to terminate a diverse leader if necessary (worried about government complaint filings, lawsuits) and fear of losing the person (to the corporate side, a competitor).

Talk about the importance and responsibility of employing diverse pros. 

Diverse hires are made most easily like all senior hires: when a person is recommended, when someone is known from industry work, when a client expresses a specific desire for a diverse contact. Clients are holding all suppliers — not just agencies — accountable for diversity, and expect to see account teams that reflect society. It started by being part of the clients’ diversity plans for their own companies, but now is a part of the company’s business plan.

How can our profession be more inclusive of diverse professionals?

We need to have professional recruiters for sensitive hires. I created an in-house recruitment team at an agency in a major holding company and led such a team in another — and recruitment is not just transactional. Look at the turnover numbers for recruiters in our industry: It mirrors, if it does not surpass, the percentage leaving agencies. 

All in the agency need to be responsible for the recruitment and advancement of diverse talent; it needs to be a core requirement that is measured and weighed when raises and promotions are given. Recruiters need to be able to relate to diverse — and all — candidates. CEOs need to actively participate in hiring decisions and closely monitor the applicant pool for diversity as well as the hires. 

What advice do you have for young pros to develop their leadership presence?

The best advice I can give is: Find a mentor. Never stop challenging yourself and learning. Work through difficult situations. Look for the one thing you can learn from everyone you work with.