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Journey to Inclusion 

An Italian family-owned company at Catalyst

By Eric Garcia

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When Claudio Colzani became CEO in 2012, he planned to bring his corporate experience to family-owned Barilla. Founded in 1877, the world’s largest pasta company is based in Parma, Italy with 8,500 employees in 100 countries. But insensitive remarks by Barilla’s chairman in 2013 presented an opportunity for the entire company to embark on a cultural transformation.

“The diversity journey begins internally,” Colzani recalls. “What matters is having the will and patience to do things differently.”

The result of this journey has been described as the “Barilla Miracle.” From 2013 to 2020, women's representation grew in direct reports to the CEO from 8% to 28%. Globally, the number of women in leadership positions at the company increased from 33% to 38%. In 2020, Barilla achieved global pay equity for all employees. It also became the first Italian company to support the United Nations Standards of Conduct for Business Against LGBTQ+ Discrimination in the Workplace.

In recognition of this, Barilla received the coveted 2021 Catalyst Award, the premier award for organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, in particular for women. Since 1987, Catalyst has recognized 103 initiatives at 91 organizations around the world. The theme for this year’s award ceremony was "Progress Won't Pause–Equity Can't Wait." Also recognized was the Royal Bank of Canada.

Barilla’s winning program was called “An Italian Family-Owned Company’s Journey to Global Inclusion.” At a virtual ceremony on March 17-18 which drew over 5000 participants, Barilla executives pulled back the curtain to reveal how this transformation took place. “As any cultural transformation, it has to start from the top,” said Talita Erickson, the company’s General Counsel (Americas) and CEO of Barilla Restaurants, who participated in an online panel at the virtual event. “My CEO gets it.”

A native of Brazil, Erickson is one of the top-ranked Latinx at the company. She recalls that one of the first things Colzani did was establish a Diversity & Inclusion board which included Barilla employees as well as outside advisors. Erickson was seven months pregnant when asked to join. One of the guiding principles was holding the company’s leadership accountable. “It was about coaching leaders and developing individual skills, so that leaders are prepared and given opportunities to show commitment,” said Erickson.

Another was learning from each other, and the company created a D&I survey to measure gender diversity. Barilla also developed a strong network of employee resource groups (ERGs) which provided feedback from employees. Currently, there are 25 ERGs around the world at Barilla.

“I’m really proud of the impact we had,” said Erickson, who is active in Barilla’s outreach to the Latinx community, and serves on the board of the Hispanic Association for Career Enhancement (HACE).

Another participant in the panel was Kristin Anderson, Barilla’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. She explained Barilla’s global approach and the challenge of engaging with race and ethnicity in all the countries it operates in. In some countries, this involved mentoring refugee women in the workplace.

“It’s about progression, not perfection,” she said.

Anderson agreed with Erickson about the need to enlist company leadership to achieve transformation. This involved getting executives to be sponsors of ERGs, many of whom became allies. “Leadership is very important,” she said. “Engaging top leaders is one way to change things.”

One interesting topic of discussion was the impact on intersectionality. According to Erickson, Barilla empowers different ERGS to work together to enhance their complementary perspectives. She recalls it was a learning process to understand the barriers that confronted her peers. But the hard work paid off for individual employees as well as the company.

"We applaud Barilla and RBC for these initiatives that have proactively cultivated inclusive cultures for women and everyone within their organizations," said Lorraine Hariton, President and CEO, Catalyst. "Their singular commitment to increasing the representation of women in their leadership ranks—and holding themselves accountable to develop and empower talent in the face of challenges—demonstrates that progress won't pause."

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