With the Supreme Court currently ruling on landmark legal issues including affirmative action this year, the issue of diversity has yet again become a hotly contested political and cultural debate.  Like some prestigious institutions of higher education, diversity in corporate America is still very much lacking, but certain companies are leading the way when it comes to recruiting diverse applicants, cultivating that talent and moving them up the corporate ladder.

Several companies that truly value diversity spoke with EBONY.com to explain why it is essential to their success—and what young graduates looking to enter the fields of technology and innovation should focus on as they plan their futures.

Rosalind Hudnell, the Chief Diversity Officer for Intel Corporation says, “Diversity is important in all environments. In the home as well as in schools and that’s because that is where we form our beliefs and value systems.  [Diversity is also important because it helps to] innovate and create diverse points of view to support your mission and organization.”

Google’s staffing business partner for their Global Business Staffing Organization, Nava Yeshoalul says, “Diversity is more than a feel-good notion; it’s a business reality. It’s important because, on the macro-level, it helps facilitate specialization, invigorates problem solving, and balances biases.”

According to the recently updated report released by Calvert Investments, “In the last two years, S&P 100 companies have made some movement towards increasing board diversity. Since 2010, the overall percentage of women serving on S&P 100 boards has risen from 18 percent to 19 percent. In addition, 30 companies have added at least one woman director, and 25 companies have added at least one minority director.” The numbers are moving in the right direction, but the pace of change is slow because of the lack of qualified applicants, as opposed to a lack of desire on the part of companies to hire historically underrepresented groups.

And certainly, diversity means something different depending on who you ask. Jill Zimmerman, Vice President of Human Resources, Talent Acquisition, Development & Diversity at Discover Financial Services says, “To me, diversity means the presence of differences that make each person unique and can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another; and inclusion means the process of involving others or leveraging the power of the many dimensions of diversity – such as gender, ethnicity, communication style — to achieve common objectives.”  Diversity is more than having a particular number of women or people of color in the company. For companies to truly excel, they must have a diversity of perspectives and skills. The lack of graduates, particularly in tech and computer science, that meet this need is something that needs to change in the near future or else the United States will continue to be less competitive in these industries.

Hudnell explains that diversity is about making certain that when it’s “a group of people that has been historically underrepresented” [including women] there is a deliberate effort for companies to ensure they are “fully represented in the workplace” progressively over time.  For Hudnell, diversity is when “I can see myself reflected there.”

“From an organizational perspective, diversity is everything that you can see and beyond that there are things that you can’t necessarily see.  That includes historical terms, but Intel is also looking at LGBT veterans, age, and other protected classes. Inclusion is how you are utilizing the skills of your diverse work force.  How are they being included and are their ideas being heard?”

One of the struggles for many companies beyond recruiting diverse applicants is retention.  “Employee retention is something that companies have to work on for all of their employees.  Employees stay because of the work they are getting, work that they enjoy doing, and work that they are doing in an environment in ways that are creative and flexible,” says Hudnell.

Discover Financial Services also prioritizes retention.  We “support retention efforts by providing [our] members, as well as all employees, with opportunities to acquire and develop professional and leadership skills and to network with others who they may not normally interact with on a daily basis,” says Zimmerman.

For new graduates, Hudnell suggests young people begin to, “build your networks early. And build your relationships deeply. Build you skills sets so that you can be set apart.”  In many ways, your network is there to advocate and sponsor you career goals if necessary.  “It’s just like in high school when you were a college senior looking for letters of recommendation for college.”  This is even more important in an industry like technology because Hudnell notes that there are only 40 Black students graduating this year with a doctorate degree in computer science. 

“Don’t put your head down, put your head up," says Hudnell.  This allows you to observe those in your field who are more successful and try to get them to support and help cultivate your success.

Zimmerman agrees, “[C]reate relationships – network and interact with established, successful people in the organization you are interested in joining. Find a mentor.  And once you’ve entered corporate America – pay it forward by doing the same for another young professional.”

Certainly, many young professionals know this is a smart strategy but don’t necessarily know how to do it in practice. 

Yeshoalul boils down her advice to, “Know Thyself.” Ask yourself what you want, what you need, and go get it.

Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and soon-to-be attorney. You can follow her on Twitter @ZerlinaMaxwell.