As the global director of equity, diversity & inclusion (EDI) at HKS, Yiselle Santos, AIA, LEED AP B+D, WELL AP, LLSYB, promotes inclusive work environments and develops equitable opportunities for architects of all backgrounds on a daily basis. We asked Santos to share her experience, best firm practices, the value of diversity and equity in the profession, and advice for those interested in making a difference at their own firms.

What inspired you to pursue architecture?

I have been intrigued by architecture since childhood. My parents would frequently tell their friends I was going to become an architect, especially when arriving home after a long day of work to discover the house turned upside down and converted into a miniature village of couch cushions and blankets with a town church and “working” ATM included. Even though architecture lived clearly and securely in my heart, in high school I would choose genetics as my academic pursuit. It was not until a professor pointed me back toward architecture that I found a new love for architecture. Architecture frames the world we live in. It creates and builds our communities and defines our shelters and homes. Architecture is the backdrop to our lives, and when we design communities that exemplify our uniqueness and celebrate all cultures, we help everyone thrive.

Can you tell us a little bit about your current role at HKS?

Currently, I divide my time as a medical planner and firmwide director of EDI. As a medical planner, I help identify and design required spaces in a healthcare facility to provide the best patient care experience, promoting healing and wellness for all patients while also supporting the people who provide that care. As the global director of EDI at HKS, I help identify challenges and opportunities at my firm by creating a path for all employees to achieve success equitably through the promotion of a belonging culture, psychological safety, and ultimate well-being. Although both roles may seem disparate, I believe at their core they share similar values and are defined by a similar process: understand the system, understand the people being served, provide contextually appropriate resources that facilitate success, and create environments in which people can excel. At HKS, my EDI role also fits within two structures: the environmental social governance framework in support of the United Nations Global Compact, as well as the talent team comprised of our human resources, talent acquisition, professional development, operations, and internal communications departments. Overall, I define, create, and lead the justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) strategy for my firm.

How has your background and experience prepared you to take on that role?

I believe that my diverse academic background, empathy, drive to serve, and desire to empower the next generation of leaders have prepared me to take on a role as diverse as my lived experiences. Yet, as prepared as anyone can be, my role as director of EDI is as ever-changing and dynamic as the times we live in. Every decision is contextual. Every big challenge is also experienced at an individual level. Every solution needs to be inclusive of all. There isn’t space for “one-size-fits-all” remedies. Each decision should be transparent and every outcome paired with authenticity. I learned quickly that my biggest constant would be change. Among all things, forgiveness and vulnerability have been at the forefront of my career, allowing me to thoroughly understand one ongoing lesson: we must be comfortable with mistakes.

What tools have you employed to encourage diversity in your office?

In order to encourage diversity at the firm, a crucial first step is to determine where we are as an organization. At HKS, we’ve gathered baseline metrics and defined the common language to even begin discussing diversity. We use industry metrics to understand our progress, set goals, and critically think about the pipeline to our profession. Increasingly, clients seek firms that mirror the communities they serve. Not only because a firm that provides diverse representation within their team can create more authentic solutions, but also because studies show how well-managed, diverse teams can often outperform homogenous teams, and are 30 percent more profitable. We also celebrate our equity and diversity through office and firmwide activities, as well as by providing various platforms for engagement and encouraging storytelling.

Do you have any suggestions for people who may be working in an environment that’s diverse but not inclusive?

Diversity is inherently the categorization of things that are different from one another. For me, diversity defines all things that make up who we are. But it is also crucial to recognize that the intersection of all of those things is what creates and drives our unique perspectives. Diversity cannot enhance an environment by itself. True innovation flourishes when diversity is celebrated and valued. If we want to create better projects and build stronger teams, we must be inclusive of all. If someone is working in an environment that is not inclusive, it may prevent creativity, efficiency, and resiliency at firms and the profession as a whole.

How do you think other architecture firms could benefit from having someone in a role similar to yours?

I believe every firm can benefit by having someone focused on overlaying the JEDI lens in all processes to build a sense of belonging for all individuals. The JEDI mindset brings new voices to the table and provides greater agency for everyone to find and define their own path to success. In this role, I am often involved with hiring and recruiting to increase diversity at HKS. I work collaboratively with our professional development team to support the creation of programs that build awareness, develop inclusive leaders, and remove unconscious biases. I also work with the sustainability and social impact design leaders to align internal JEDI strategies with projects and foster designing livable communities. Given our current climate, I believe there’s a need for equitable access, as well as a need for helpful resources. JEDI leaders can help affirm the need for inclusive workplaces and support firm goals on creating healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities locally and globally.

Do you have advice for architects looking to start or grow their own employee resource groups aimed at fostering an inclusive environment?

Understanding what your employees need is paramount to define if and how affinity groups may support your overall goals of inclusion. Most firms may find that these groups already exist internally and others may feel that developing a structure is necessary. As with everything JEDI related, people are the center. To get a sense of what employees need to succeed, culture assessments may be useful. Providing varying means of received feedback is also very important (e.g., surveys, listening sessions, group activities with anonymous polling, etc.)

How do you get employees excited about and engaged in diversity and inclusion efforts?

Getting all employees engaged in JEDI efforts can be challenging. Some may feel that they do not have a place at the table and others may feel uncomfortable sharing their voice. But most importantly, leadership input is essential. JEDI efforts must both be driven by leadership and higher platforms for support to be effectively provided at the employee grassroots level. Firm values must also align with JEDI efforts. We can all get behind a common goal that allows each and every employee with the opportunities to receive the proper resources needed to succeed equitably at the firm. More importantly, this is about celebrating who we are. Everyone must have a seat at the table and everyone must work with shared values toward the common goal. We all want to be heard, invited to the party, and asked to dance.