In 2020, the unjust murder of George Floyd triggered worldwide protests and overdue reflection about racial injustice. It was during that time that we at EF Education First also stepped back to examine our approach to the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and realized with some pain that we had not been doing enough. It was time to commit to change.
Enter Nayeli Vivanco, the Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) at EF. Raised on the US-Mexico border in Texas, Nayeli has a contagious passion for the world and everything the world has to offer. A polyglot who speaks five languages, she has lived, studied, and worked in six different countries across North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Although Nayeli didn’t start her career in DEIB, it’s easy to see how her path led her there. Her undergraduate education focused on international affairs, public policy, and economics, including her thesis on micro-credit’s socio-economic impact in rural Mexico. While doing post-graduate studies at the University of Cambridge, Nayeli became the co-director of a student-sponsored microfinance program in a United Nations Refugee camp in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where she dispersed over 100 micro-loans to men and women to help them start their own small businesses.
I first met Nayeli when I was living in London, and she was living in Shanghai, while we were both working at Hult International Business School. Nayeli, at the time, was the Director of Student Services, working with an incredibly diverse student body that hailed from over 50 nationalities. She has an incredible ability to connect with and relate to people from all over the world. Her adeptness at cross-cultural communication made her the perfect fit to take on this new challenge with EF.
I sat down recently to chat with Nayeli about EF’s commitment to DEIB, what we’ve achieved over the past six months, and where we have more work to do. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Amy: Thank you so much, Nayeli. I’m excited to talk to you about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) at EF and your role.
Nayeli: Thank you, Amy, for this conversation and for opening up the floor.
Amy: EF’s CEO of North America wrote a letter about our five commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in June of 2020. Can you give us insight into why we prioritized those commitments and why now?
Nayeli: I think it’s important to start the conversation by saying that DEIB has been a topic of conversation at EF for a while. Since 2018, I was part of a task force looking at how we recruit staff, what we were doing right and what we could do better to increase our diversity. We were also looking at how to celebrate the diversity that we have within EF. We were thinking about these things, and then everything that happened in the US in June of 2020 pushed us to prioritize it even more. With that in mind, our first commitment to recruiting diversity at all levels is a priority — it’s also about retaining staff and ensuring that we’re fostering safe environments for people.
We needed to take a step back and make sure that we, as an organization, internally have a good framework for DEIB, and our commitments were a key part of that. We’re super excited that we could make this official, get more people involved, and hold all of us accountable for everything that we want to accomplish as an organization.
Amy: Now it’s a formalized team, and you’re the director of that team. How did the team come about?
Nayeli: Since I had been working on this for a while, before I went on maternity leave in December of 2019, I said, “It would be great to make this a formal role once I come back.” When I came back in June of 2020, and everything was happening, without being asked to, I started voicing my opinion and inserting myself in the conversation. Leslie, now the Program Manager of the DEIB team, participated in a safe space conversation at the time where she very vocally said, “We need a team, and I am here, and I am available.”
Amy: I was in that safe space meeting when Leslie said that, and I was so struck by it — it was true entrepreneurial spirit. So, you both created your jobs, which is very EF.
Nayeli: Very EF for sure! I always tell people, “If you say what you want, it might happen.” Leslie and I were very vocal from the beginning about our passion for DEIB and had already been doing work on this topic — Leslie started Black @ EF, and I was one of the founders of Latinos @ EF.
So, the CEO called me and said, “Hey, we’re going to formalize this team.” I’m pretty sure I screamed on the phone. I was like, “Yes, oh my goodness.” That was that. The learning is always to advocate for yourself and always be vocal and ask for what you want, and you never know.
Amy: How do you think about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging? How would you define it?
Nayeli: Diversity is what makes us who we are. It’s all the things that identify us as humans, the differences that make us unique. Equity is the process that allows all of us to have the same opportunities, the same access to things. Inclusion is our behavior. Belonging is making sure that people feel like they can be their true selves.
All in all, I package DEIB in the philosophy that I live by, Ubuntu, which means, “I am because you are, and you are because I am.” In essence, all of our actions affect one another. For me, DEIB is part of that philosophy of life.
Amy: I love that philosophy — that is so simple, so powerful. How does that relate to EF as an organization and EF’s mission of opening the world through education?
Nayeli: DEIB is an integral part of our mission at EF. It is the whole reason why we do what we do. Bertil Hult created this organization to help us all understand the world a little bit better, to make the world a little bit of a better place, free of racism, bigotry, and hatred.
Amy: The concept of tolerance and the goal of peace is integral to what we do at EF. For us to achieve that, people need to understand each other a little better.
Nayeli: That’s right. DEIB really is an integral part of who we are and why we came to be.
Amy: Tell me a little more about your personal perspective and what this role means to you. What was your priority as you joined this team?
Nayeli: My initial priority was to get us all on the same page as an organization to foster that understanding of each other and make DEIB part of our every day. Not a separate project, but rather part of our daily conversations and integrating it into whatever we’re thinking about. That’s the foundation that’s going to help us become a more diverse organization organically.
My overall priority is to help harness the diversity that we have so that we can learn from our differences. I’m also focused on how we can offer equal opportunities and give everybody the same start, and fostering a safe space so people can bring their whole selves to work.
Amy: One thing I’m always so struck by is that EF is a place where you can bring yourself to work, whatever yourself is, whoever you are. I know that that’s something our CEO is so passionate about and believes in. What about you? What about your background — how do you bring you to your role?
Nayeli: It’s very interesting. When people used to ask me to introduce myself, I would always start by saying, “I’m a first-generation American.” That changed recently after I had the opportunity to lead a critical conversation on indigenous groups. After doing some research, I changed my narrative and now say I am a Texican, not first generation. I am a person of this land that never crossed any borders. Borders really crossed me. I have come home to that identity, and it’s helped me with my DEIB role.
I’m a Latina woman, so I’ve lived and breathed diversity my entire life, having been raised on the US-Mexico border, having been told I’m not American enough, I’m not Mexican enough. I’ve fought for my own sense of belonging and created my own space where I’ve taken the best of both worlds. I’ve had to work a little bit harder to get things accomplished — my education, my experiences, really everything. Now I’m a new mother, too. I’m embracing my ancestral roots and the new roots that I’ve anchored, thanks to EF, traveling and being exposed to many different cultures.
Amy: You’ve had so many roles at EF over the past 11 years, from teaching in China to being the Administrative Director for the CEO. From your experience and perspective, what do you think EF’s values are?
Nayeli: It’s been an amazing opportunity to have the career that I’ve had within EF. I started on the ground as a teacher and then worked so closely with the CEO. Genuinely, EF’s mission is so true to the Hult family and who we are as an organization. We have a passion for the world and each other. We want to learn from each other, embrace our differences, and be better, and that’s happening through very candid conversations.
Amy: I’ve heard you describe EF as an organization of dreamers and doers. Have you seen that come into play with staff in terms of EF’s DEIB initiatives?
Nayeli: We have done so much as an organization for DEIB because we wanted to get something accomplished. We spoke up, we said, “Hey, this needs to happen,” and it happened because we’re a group of people that are going to get things done. In the past six months, we’ve created a global DEIB team, and in North America, we’ve delivered 13 professional development sessions on DEIB. Within our various businesses in North America, we’ve done over 200 hours of DEIB training.
It’s incredible that as an education organization, we said, “Hey, we’re going to understand, we’re going to try to learn from each other, and we want to educate ourselves.” That’s been huge.
Amy: What are some specific ways that staff have become involved in DEIB initiatives across the organization?
Nayeli: Staff have been eager to be part of anything and everything — they are asking, “How can I help? What can I do?” We have DEIB ambassadors within each of our businesses and associated organizations. One DEIB representative per business joins us in a biweekly call, and then within the businesses, they also have their own task forces. Staff are also attending the trainings and sessions, doing guided learning, and educating themselves.
Amy: What about the overlap between the commitments we’ve made to staff and the commitments that we’ve made to customers and the experiences that they have with us?
Nayeli: One of the biggest overlaps is fostering safe experiences and opportunities, ensuring that our staff and customers feel comfortable and in a safe environment. We’re looking at our operations, at how we operate our tours, and asking, “Are we being inclusive? Are we making sure that students can be their whole selves in that tour?” We want to make sure that everyone feels a sense of belonging.
Amy: What about EF’s culture? Have you seen a shift since this effort has started?
Nayeli: Massive, a 100% shift. People have been updating their pronouns, making their pronouns visible on LinkedIn or Zoom, and just having the conversation. We’ve had high attendance in all of our DEIB trainings. Usually, we would expect that it would be very high at the beginning, and then it would dwindle, but it’s been pretty consistent. I think that reinforces that this is not a trend, that people are committed to this. We’re committed to seeing change and a culture shift, and we’re seeing progress all the time. It’s super exciting and encouraging.
Amy: What has the DEIB team accomplished so far that you’re most proud of?
Nayeli: We’re proud of every single little thing because every little win is a big win in retrospect. Still, two areas stand out. One of them is in the way that we recruit. We’ve shifted from focusing on schools to focusing on people. We have been able to get exposure to outstanding candidates that we wouldn’t have gotten exposed to otherwise. Big shout out to our central recruitment team; they have done a fantastic job.
Our careers website has also been updated to be more inclusive, and our Equal Opportunity Employer (EOE) statement has been updated. We are one of the only organizations that have included caste systems as part of our EOE statement — we’ve identified and acknowledged that it’s a form of discrimination. Those are big, big wins on the recruitment side. And then our training and development, I’m proud that we’ve delivered 200 plus hours of training in six months.
Next, we’ll be looking at the interview process and the hiring process as well. We want to understand where we need to improve. Is it at the interview phase? At the offer stage? At what stage are we losing candidates, and who are we losing? That will be huge to help us move the needle.
Amy: This past year has been interesting in so many ways. Are there any moments that stand out to you?
Nayeli: I think it was the moment that we established this team. That was the moment when it was like, YES. It was like, “Let’s do this.” Getting that call, getting that planning and action going, that’s the highlight because it was the start of something, the beginning of a long road ahead. We keep saying this — it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint.
Amy: Looking ahead, what commitment do you think we’ve made the most progress on, and which one still needs the most work?
Nayeli: We’ve made the most progress on internal training and education. That will be continuous; we can never stop learning. We have a good start on recruitment, but we won’t see tangible results for a while. Moving into 2021, we’re focusing on our programs for customers. We’ll be looking at our operations, looking at our programs, making sure that our teams are prepared to encounter questions, and addressing how we can be more inclusive in the field. That’s where the work will be for 2021.
Amy: EF is a global organization, and you’ve worked in multiple countries with EF. Are there different DEIB challenges in different parts of the world?
Nayeli: Yes, absolutely, that has been an enormous learning curve for us. We have a DEIB global team, and the first time we got together, we all spoke a little bit about DEIB issues within the different regions. For example, learning that in Latin America, a mother’s room isn’t common. One of our colleagues said that she would have to pump in her car, and as a new mom, I couldn’t stop thinking about that, realizing we have a long way to go still globally.
Then in Asia, it’s a whole different set of parameters. Racism in Asia is very different. It’s not necessarily embedded in the history the same way as it is in North America; it stems from a gap in education. It’s been a learning curve, but we are making progress. We understand what the needs are in different regions, and we’re trying to cater to those specific regions.
Amy: It’s been so interesting working with your team and remembering that we’re a global organization that’s all about cultural understanding. Even internally, how do we understand what our colleagues are thinking about in various parts of the world? It’s the benefit and the challenge for us as a global organization.
Nayeli: One of the things that we need to focus on is cross-cultural communication because things get lost in translation. In our global DEIB module for managers, one conversation is remembering and acknowledging that you’re working across different cultures. For example, if someone doesn’t look at you in the eye in Asia, it doesn’t mean that they’re not honest. It means that they respect you. That’s learning that we have to do internally.
Amy: Now that you look back, what lessons has this job taught you?
Nayeli: The two biggest lessons are persistence and humility. At the beginning of all of this, a lot of people were saying, “We just need an unconscious bias training. That’s all we need. We just need a training.” We stood our ground and said that a one-time training is not going to change anything. We need to think about how we can be more strategic and change our mindset across the organization. That was hard at the very beginning, standing up to people. We’re solutions-oriented at EF, so people just wanted to solve the problem right away. We had to reassure people that we’re going to get things accomplished, but hear us out and listen to us. Then humility in the sense of acknowledging that I don’t know the answers to all of the questions, and that it’s okay to not know.
Amy: What advice would you give to leaders who are thinking about this topic?
Nayeli: I would advise leaders to be humble. It’s okay not to know everything. It helps when you say, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Or, instead of avoiding talking about DEIB topics, ask what something means or how to approach it. That builds respect for leaders. When you create a safe space and show vulnerability, people will respect you. I would also say that sustainable change and impact takes time. Be patient and be persistent. It will be a long road ahead.
Amy: Is there anything I’ve missed that you think is relevant as we look back on this past year?
Nayeli: I want to say thank you so much, Amy, for being such a champion. I know that we are going to be a leader in the DEIB space, I know that. It’s taken us a while to figure it out. For a long time, we assumed that it’s part of our DNA and our mission, therefore it was a given. But it wasn’t clear enough, and it wasn’t visible enough. Now we’re showing visible commitment to DEIB; that’s the difference.
Amy: It’s been such an honor to work with and learn from you and Leslie. I agree that you can’t take making real change for granted. We know our heart and what we believe in at EF. You’re right, though, that we need to make it clear and show progress every day.
Nayeli: That’s right, making progress every day and talking about it. It’s not justifiable to not talk about it anymore. These topics are part of the culture we live in and our everyday life. We’re doing this together, and that’s the most important thing. It takes a village and a team of dreamers and doers, and that’s who we are.