Lori Sutton, who has led diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at large plastic packaging maker Berry Global Group Inc. since 2019, got her start in DEI more than a decade ago when a previous employer formed a diversity council.
At the time, Sutton was working as an accounting analyst for an energy company and studying for her MBA.
"When we started those initiatives, the term was very new to me," she said. "Even though I'm diverse — I'm a black female — I still didn't have a lot of awareness or education around the topic."
But she was looking for a new direction professionally, and it caught her attention.
"I was very intrigued by what was being discussed and where we wanted to go as an organization," Sutton said. "It was really my passion around the topic that led me to pursue this profession."
Fast forward 13 years and several DEI jobs at Indiana's CenterPoint Energy, Sutton is now head of global diversity, equity and inclusion for Evansville, Ind.-based Berry and its 47,000 employees and 290 locations worldwide.
Inside Berry, that includes employee resource groups for people with disabilities, women, U.S. veterans, emerging leaders, people with connections to Africa and LGBTQ staff to network and support each other. It also includes a council of more senior-level executives to work with top management on DEI plans.
For Sutton, diversity initiatives are about much more than hiring and retention.
While consumer-facing companies like retailers or banks may receive more public attention around inclusion than a plastics firm buried in someone else's supply chain, she sees DEI as vital for manufacturers to create welcoming environments and build innovative cultures.
"With DEI, you're able to bring in diverse backgrounds, and that gives you the ability to attract top talent, which can lead to innovation," Sutton told Plastics News. "There are various ways that you can get to innovation, but you have to start with having diversity within your organization to make that happen."
She said she sees her 16 years in corporate financial jobs as an asset for analyzing how DEI benefits the bottom line. She told a May webinar sponsored by an Indiana business group that it helps to be able to spell out the financial benefits to top management.
"You have to bring the research, and that's really thinking about it more strategically," she said.
It's also about aligning a company around evolution in society, she said.
"The world is changing," Sutton said. "As an organization, if you don't evolve with it, you will be behind. And then that will discourage individuals from wanting to join your organization and even accessing your services. You want to be proactive and not reactive."