Update: Daboh is now Director of Diversity and Engagement at ESPN. She recently talked to radio station KMOJ about her work. The interview below was conducted last year.
Wokie Daboh graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2004 with an individualized degree through the Inter-College Program (ICP); her areas of focus were communication, business, and African American studies. Since graduation, she committed herself to becoming, as she calls it, a “master builder” in her craft. And Daboh’s craft has everything to do with cultivating and celebrating diversity and inclusion. She was named one of the Twin Cities’ Top 40 Under 40 for 2018 by Mpls/St. Paul Business Journal.
We sat down with Daboh to ask a few questions about her ICP experience, her career, and tips she has for today’s college graduates.
First, tell us about why you chose to be an ICP major and how it has played a role in your professional experience.
One of the things I loved about doing ICP was that it gave me a roadmap to success, which I think a lot of students didn’t necessarily have. I understood the courses I would be taking, when I would be taking them, and how they would shape my experience. When I think about my career today, every course that comprised my ICP major is applied to my job at Medtronic. In my ICP proposal, I talked about diversity and inclusion, and it’s what I’m doing today, more than a decade later. That proposal, to me, was my constitution of how I would attain my goals at the University of Minnesota. And it stands true about the work that I’m doing today. From the time I was a sophomore at the U, I had a plan and I understood what the end goal was. I had a chance to diversify my learning in those four years, and that was because of ICP.
What is it that drives you to make diversity and inclusion your life’s work?
A lot of it has to do with the environment in which I grew up, where I often was one of the only African Americans in a class. I went to a predominantly non-diverse middle school and high school. I also started high school at a time when the district started to see many diverse students entering the schools, and there was an increase in the number of African American and Hispanic students at the same time. These students were at the school, but they weren’t integrated into the school. We’d go in the cafeteria and there would be a table of African American students, a table full of Hispanic students, and a table full of all white students. We had an opportunity to build a diverse community, but it wasn’t happening.
I’ve always been a student of history, and I morphed into someone who wanted to create spaces where people could find success, regardless of where they came from. As the child of two immigrant parents, that’s something that’s important to me when I think about my own family’s experience, as well. When you don’t have support because you’re not like the majority, the outcome of that is that you don’t have the tools to set you up for success.
What does your role at Medtronic include?
It’s about tapping into the true potential of our employees, creating a culture of inclusion and diversity, looking at all the levers that impact our ability to be a successful organization. I look at how we attract our talent, making sure we have diverse pools of talent and that we’re creating an inclusive culture where individuals feel like they can authentically bring themselves to work and find success. The workplace is more than just a place where people pick up their paycheck: for a lot of people it’s a sanctuary. It’s where people spend most of their time. Leveraging diversity is about perspective. It’s not just about textbook diversity or watchdogging—it’s really about inclusivity, making sure that all employees know that this work is inclusive of them. It’s more complicated than that, but high-level, that’s what the work is. I’ve been in this role three-and-a-half years, and I love it.
Congratulations on the 40-Under-40 Award! Can you tell us a bit more about this recognition?
The award has been an honor and recognized my work at Medtronic as well as externally. I have a nonprofit organization called Project Blackboard that rehabilitates classrooms in West Africa. My mother was born and raised in Liberia. I’ve been working with a school in Liberia for about four years. We’ve shipped 30,000 books in partnership with Books for Africa through the rotary club of Northfield. We’ve rehabilitated two classrooms, we did a teacher training workshop during Ebola in 2014, and this past December I went in and got to see the library of the 30,000 books.
Will you share a message about diversity and inclusion for the students at the U of M?
We all benefit from being able to harness the diversity of thought perspective that everyone brings to the table. It drives better outcomes, it drives best practices, and it truly drives innovation. Diversity is not a problem to be solved: it’s an opportunity to be had.
Think of the critical mass of people at the U of M. There won’t be another time in your life when you can create a diverse network like that. Learn about yourself and other people. Take advantage of the differences we all share. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn about cultures and places that you haven’t seen before. Be an advocate and a champion for importance of inclusion and diversity. There are so many ways that you can learn about other cultures, celebrate your culture, become integrated in other cultures. I remember walking across the Washington Avenue Bridge and seeing all the different signage from the student groups. A lot of schools don’t have that. It’s up to students to take advantage of those opportunities, to leave with a diverse group of friends and a diverse perspective.
In closing, can you share advice for new graduates?
Failure is okay. Fail forward. I was really hard on myself when I was younger, and I would wear my failure like a piece of clothing. The thing is, failure is a natural order of life, especially when you think about graduating from college and evolving your career and interests. If you know where your passion lies, I think it’s important to become a “master builder.” Master your craft. If your craft is journalism, master that craft by reading the articles, going to workshops and conferences, and staying ahead of the curve.
I would also advise students to give back to the U. Pay it forward. The U is a great community, and there are alumni everywhere. I’m a big-time alum. I bleed maroon and gold, and I’m still connected to my friends from college. The college experience should not simply be transactional; students should know what it means to be part of the campus community even after graduation.