Miriam Warren, chief diversity officer of Yelp, which publishes crowd-sourced reviews of businesses (Photo courtesy of Yelp)

For the last year, many companies have examined their internal company culture: diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, employees’ sense of belonging, and mental health. But not as many have examined the unique opportunities they have to foster the same kind of healthy and inclusive cultures outside their doors.

In a one-on-one conversation as part of a From Day One virtual conference titled “Diversity: How Employers Can Match Words with Deeds,” Courtney Connley, a reporter for CNBC Make It, and Miriam Warren, chief diversity officer at Yelp, discussed the ways Warren and her team are cultivating inclusion and advancement inside and outside the company.

Warren’s commitment to creating a company culture where people feel they belong is a deeply personal one. As the only person of color in her family, she grew up acutely aware of race and difference. Warren didn’t start her career hoping to be a chief diversity officer, but she was always searching for a sense of belonging, and she found it in places where others shared her experience, she said. “Because I have kind of a unique background that I don’t really expect other people to mirror, I’ve always just felt much comfort in being in rooms filled with people of lots of different backgrounds. And so while diversity wasn’t part of my lexicon in childhood, I think that’s what I was always looking for.”

That’s the kind of experience Warren’s team members work to create at Yelp. They think about more than just who the company hires, they think about how to make inclusion and advancement fundamental to Yelp operations.

“Not only do I have a team that’s working on diversity, inclusion and belonging, they’re working on culture more broadly,” she said. “They’re thinking about issues of employee engagement, they’re thinking about how we celebrate employees’ work anniversaries, they’re thinking about how we welcome people back after parental leave, they’re thinking about internal communications, how we communicate in our all-hands [meetings] and town halls and what we want people to feel when they come to work.”

In order to implement changes across the organization, Warren said, a culture of equity must start at the top. “I think it’s important for leaders to be fluent in equity, and what that really means is, they have to also look at some of those gaps that exist not only for the company, but also for the team and what they can personally do about it.”

One opportunity Warren’s team identified at Yelp is to use sponsorship to close the leadership gap for employees of color and other marginalized groups. Connley pointed out that this is something companies typically struggle with. “Sponsorship is so crucial,” she said. “And oftentimes people confuse sponsorship with mentorship.”

Warren explained that the difference depends on who holds sway in an organization, who has the power to really make things happen. “A mentor is essentially someone who has skills that are relevant to you and is willing to share those skills with you. The difference between a mentor and a sponsor is that a sponsor may also have those same skills they’re willing to share with you, but they also have power that they’re willing to share with you.”

In conversation: Courtney Connley of CNBC, left, and Miriam Warren of Yelp (Image by From Day One)

Warren’s team works with managers to identify individuals with leadership potential, even if those individuals don’t yet know they have it. Where in the past, Yelp’s managers asked employees to raise their hands for leadership training and advancement opportunities, now they also ask managers to identify high-potential team members, “to help people not only see what we see, but help them really be the architects of their careers, with our power and privilege used on their behalf,” Warren said. Once they went at it both ways, the diversity on their bench of future leaders changed immediately.

 Warren’s team isn’t just working on facilitating changes to its internal culture, they’re pulling levers in their product and in their community involvement to impact larger cultural change.

“I think what the last year has offered us the opportunity to do is really consider how we can use our platform as a force for good and be able to not only make changes that are completely necessary inside of our workforce, but also to make changes in the world,” Warren said.

With the mainstream embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, Yelp saw a desire among users to support Black-owned businesses–searches for “Black-owned” increased 6,400%–so the company created a feature that helps users find such businesses using their app. Yelp is creating a similar feature for Latino-owned and Asian-owned businesses too.

Warren also mentioned Yelp’s commitment to the 15 Percent Pledge, an organization that calls on retailers to commit at least 15% of their shelves to products made by Black-owned businesses. Connley pointed out a common misconception about this movement: “I think when a lot of the companies look at that pledge they do think, if I’m not in retail I can’t be a part of it, or I can’t join or sign a pledge like that.”

Yelp is not a retailer with shelves to stock, so the company applies the pledge elsewhere–15% of events are hosted at Black-owned businesses and nonprofits, and products from Black-owned businesses comprise 15% of any care package the culture team sends out.

Warren said they’ll continue to search for new ways to affect the culture inside and outside the doors of the company, but they can’t affect change like this alone. “One of the reasons why I’ve been successful in this role is because there are so many people behind me in so many different roles,” Warren said. “Most senior leaders not only see these issues as a business imperative, but more importantly, as a moral imperative.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.