November 23, 2017

Nicole Roach continues diversity and inclusion legacy with non-profit

Webster University’s expert on diversity and inclusion does not care how many students of color attend Webster. Nicole Roach said the numbers are irrelevant if Webster does not have the appropriate culture to retain the students.

Roach said the sustainable way to approach diversity and inclusion is to build an inviting culture, and then the numbers will come. She said inviting minorities to Webster is one thing, and making sure they stay is another.

“[Webster] can do better in some instances, but what people fail to realize is you don’t just show up somewhere and just say ‘Hey, we want you to work here because we need more of you,’” Roach said. “That’s not how it works.” 

Roach said people often think diversity and inclusion only involve race and skin color. As the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Webster, she said diversity is not just about bridging the gaps between racial groups. Diversity is the way people differ in identities, abilities and beliefs. Inclusion is harnessing and using these diverse resources to advance the community.

Establishing an inclusive culture is how Roach describes her position. This culture contains cognitive diversity where different points of view, different experiences and seeing life through different lenses are welcomed.

“Diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance,” Roach said.

She said the difference is significant in that people can be in the same room, but they will not take part if the environment is not inviting. Therefore, an environment can be diverse but not inclusive.

The act of inclusion needs a great level of emotional intelligence, according to Roach. She said her position requires her to control her actions and words. She said she needs to be sensitive and mindful of people’s needs and wants.

“If I’m not being able to check what it is that I’m doing to make sure we get the best outcome for this institution, then I would be very unsuccessful,” Roach said. “Because most of what is dealt with is crisis, it is an issue, it is a high concern and I can’t be in my feelings.”

Emotional intelligence also means having people skills, which help Roach navigate through situations where she needs to be a mediator. If there is a situation where individuals are in disagreement, she has to shift the environment and invite all parties for a conversation.

Roach said conversations are important to build communities that then build inviting cultures. She said people need to be willing to sit down and listen to one another to come to an understanding and a solution.

The nature of her job requires work behind the scenes. For example, a group of students came to her asking for more handicapped-accessible bathrooms on campus. She worked with facilities and project management teams to bring the student needs to reality.

“We have old buildings, we can’t just wave a wand and it happens,” Roach said. “So all those little bitty things that have to happen, I’ve had to learn, going back to being adaptable about how we can best meet the needs of the students.”

Early Career

Roach arrived at Webster in 2002, when she started working an entry-level position in the collections office.

Pam Robinson, the Collections Supervisor, said it was an easy choice to hire Roach as an accounting assistant. Robinson said the professionalism Roach carried around made her stand out from other candidates.

“She was very impressive,” Robinson said. “You can tell right away with her that she is incredibly well spoken, sharp and classy.”

Robinson nominated Roach for the August 2006 Employee Spotlight Award. In her letter of recommendation, Robinson wrote, “I appreciate how invaluable she is to our department, our team and our university.” Roach received the award.

As an accounting assistant, Roach dealt with student finances and past accounts. Robinson said Roach was able to communicate effectively and use diplomacy and diligence to perform her job. Roach is a “top-notch” employee, according to Robinson. 

“She drove me nuts because she was so good,” Robinson said.

Eventually, Roach applied for a coordinator position in the Academic Affairs office in 2007.

Beth Russell,the Assistant Provost for Graduate Studies in the Office of Academic Affairs, said Roach is a problem solver and good at thinking “big picture”.

“[Roach] thinks about what needs to be done and gets it done,” Russell said. “She’s very good at taking the micro and looking at it in the macro sense.”

After the office realized the amount of information Roach obtains about the business side of Webster’s system, the office shifted her position. She became the coordinator for Webster’s extended campuses. During that time, directors worldwide under the umbrella of Webster came to St. Louis for a training workshop. Roach facilitated open sessions with questions about systems and procedures.

“Now I get to actually see with my naked eye who’s all apart of this group,” Roach said. “An impressive and huge group, and heavily Caucasian men. Again, not realizing diversity and inclusion.”

After the workshop, Roach started paying more attention to diversity and inclusion. This attention reached its peak once Roach became the assistant director of the Downtown Gateway campus in 2008 and then moved to director of the campus in 2009.

The teams she worked with were still primarily white.

“Not many, internally, look like me,” Roach said. “That’s when, for me, the bell really went off in regards to diversity and inclusion.”

She took it upon herself to host events at the downtown campus to promote diversity, inclusion and the professional development of people of color. She organized summer camps for kids and 8-week workshops for high schoolers.

Webster’s administration named her the first Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and Senior Director for Community Engagement in 2013.

Webster had a change of leadership in 2009 and 2010 and the new administration worked with staff to find gaps in need to be filled within the school’s system. As a result, the administration asked Roach to provide similar diversity initiatives for the institution at large.

“It’s been a privilege to serve in this capacity,” Roach said. “I get to touch so many parts of the institution.”

Roach said Webster has made progress toward its diversity goals. She said the fact that African American students make up a plurality of the graduate student body makes Webster unique.

“There is no final destination. We are just constantly working toward equity, justice, difference, inclusion,” Roach said. “It’s a constant fight. It’s a constant learning.”

Roach cofounded the Mosaic Ceiling nonprofit in July of this year. She said the mission of Mosaic Ceiling is to empower women “one ceiling at a time.” Roach is leaving Webster in May 2018 to dedicate her time to the nonprofit and pursue an EED degree. She said her sole purpose of leaving Webster and moving forward is to provide resources for women of color to get into leadership.

“At this point, it’s time for me to rip the bandages off and to step into the wound of one part of diversity and inclusion that I’m mostly passionate about, which is women of color and culture,” Roach said.

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