BASF has been recognized as a leader for its work to become a diverse and inclusive workplace, but Peter Eckes — BASF’s President of Global Bioscience — recognizes that much work remains to be done.
During his keynote at the 2020 Green Chemistry & Commerce Council conference last month, Peter Eckes — BASF’s President of Global Bioscience Research — spoke in-depth about a topic not directly related to chemistry, but, crucially important: Diversity. For a global corporation founded in the 19th century, with operations around the world and more than 18,800 employees in North America, diversity and inclusion have become central to BASF’s business.
Setting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals is one thing; actually achieving those goals — and, more importantly, shifting company culture so that diversity and inclusion become embedded at all levels — is something many companies around the world are struggling with. While BASF has been recognized as a leader — being included in Forbes’ 2020 list of Best Employers for Diversity, and Human Rights Campaign’s Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality — Eckes recognizes that much work remains to be done.
To dive deeper into this subject, we spoke with Eckes; as well as Stephanie Carouthers — a Technical Specialist based in North Carolina, who has been with BASF since 2007 — to better understand the chemical giant’s model; and why reflection and accountability are essential, especially after you’ve made initial progress.
Can you tell me what DEI mean to BASF; and how you actively work to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment across your value chain?
Peter Eckes: We are globally facing huge challenges. In 2050, we expect 10 billion people. 70 percent of them will live in megacities; and we will need 30 percent more food and also significantly more energy. If we want to solve and address these problems, then we need chemistry. Chemistry for me is a key enabler to create sustainable solutions.
Now, if you take this business context, then diversity comes in — because if we want to solve these problems, we only can do that if we have the brightest minds and also allow these brightest minds to develop their full potential. But that’s not enough; and this is where inclusion comes in. We want to draw on the power of our differences; so that we really can be innovative, best anticipate what the market needs are, and how to respond to them.
Stephanie Carouthers: Being someone that worked my way from a technician, now to a technical specialist role, the inclusion piece has always been something that has been a part of what the core values are. More recently, the emphasis on unleashing that talent — making all of our workers feel like we are a part of the company and can bring our whole selves in — is something that is flowing throughout the entire organization.
Can you share a specific example of a project or program that you feel best demonstrates both the goals and impact of your DEI work?
Eckes: Earlier this month, we had a Virtual Innovation Week in North America. This is an event where we really try to pull in BASF people, customers and industry leaders; to drive a greater flow of ideas, and create innovations and inspiration.
We brought in a very important customer of ours from the automotive industry, a leader from academia and also somebody from a scientific association. In this session, we jointly explored the leadership dimensions of diversity and inclusion — how we can create teams in new ways and really leverage the best diverse team, so that we can be stronger in our innovation efforts.
I think what was very important here with this intentional session is how important it is to draw in different voices, to have discussions with people of different opinions and views; and this way, create an inclusive environment. It’s making us think how we have to change in order to create and make use of diversity, be inclusive, and come up with exactly the sustainable solutions that our customers need.
Carouthers: I want to talk about our partnership with the Chemical Educational Foundation. Science sometimes gets a bad rap with students, right? You know — it's hard, it's scary, it's boring. I am a miracle because, when I was in middle school, I hated science. There was nothing about it that I liked. But there was just something about chemistry — and when I was exposed to it, that caught fire. Luckily for me, it was enough that I can now say, hey, I'm a chemist.
The You Be The Chemist program is targeted for kids from kindergarten to eighth grade. It offers free training to teachers to show them how to teach science in a way that will engage students. Because the program is free for schools and teachers to participate in, it's broadening the reach of what kids can be exposed to.
DEI is a learning process. Where has BASF been unable to achieve, or faced specific challenges, in meeting its goals — and how have those lessons informed your DEI programs and goals going forward?
Eckes: Five years ago, we really were failing to make true progress in recruiting diverse talent at BASF. Since our workforce was not so diverse, obviously, then the hiring process was not very diverse.
We have made a substantial shift in the past five years. How? We have recognized this limitation and made a talent and diversity challenge for the entire North American organization. We now require that 50 percent of the people that we interview for new roles, as well as 50 percent of interview panels, need to be diverse. This has led to a complete change in the dynamic of the way we are now recruiting. With a diverse set of talents for interviews and also with the diversity in the interview panel, you come to different results. You're not basically hiring yourself anymore; you are getting different people.
Obviously, this year has seen a surge of awareness about racial injustice in the US and abroad, and shined a light on how many industries are failing to embrace DEI in an impactful way. Can you speak about how the events of this year have impacted BASF, and your programs and goals?
Eckes: I think that the killing of George Floyd was a changing moment for us in our efforts. As a response, the North American leadership at BASF, jointly with members of the Black community, engaged in a new initiative — which we call Courageous and Compassionate Conversations. There were 50 sessions, and 5,000 people participated in these discussions. We basically solicited opinions, views and voices on where we stand as a company — with the focus specifically on aspects of racism and discrimination.
The second phase will also focus on racial inequity and injustice. And we are engaging — not only listening, but also starting to take steps now to really lead into concrete actions.
Carouthers: I participated in several of the Courageous and Compassionate Conversations that were held. Being a Black employee, it was a little strange because here you are talking about race at work and that's one thing that you normally don't discuss. But you could see with these conversations that they were very intentional; and especially the folks that are leading the effort — you can really see that they were engaged on this topic.
It was refreshing and it was encouraging to be heard and felt. You can really feel a connection to the company that they were not just going to be, you know — let's do this one day of activity, check the box and act like we know how it's done. It's really galvanized a lot of energy and optimism within the minority community at BASF.
During his recent talk, it struck me when Peter mentioned the importance of accountability. How will BASF hold itself accountable when it comes to DEI, and why does that matter?
Eckes: We have asked every unit to develop a unit-specific plan. Having unique insight, and specific plans based on the framework that we have established, ensures that these things are also tangible. The North American leadership team has signed a declaration jointly that was shared with the entire organization to make this visible; and also, so that the organization can keep us accountable for what we are saying and for the program that we are putting in place.
Carouthers: The team that I'm on is a newly formed team. We're being very intentional about what we want to look like, what we want to do. What are the goals and the benefits of having diversity; and also bringing that inclusion piece as the foundation for what we're doing, and how we can grow our success? They're very serious about it and we’ll be able to see results. The company is challenging itself to move forward and to make improvements, make it better, and make us a company that's responsive to employees.