A conversation with GitHub’s senior director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging strategy, Demetris Cheatham

‘Diversity and inclusion impacts the entire business strategy.’
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· 4 min read

Demetris Cheatham’s path to HR was anything but typical—she worked in politics, finance, and at the National Bar Association along the way. Now senior director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging strategy at open-source programming platform GitHub, she spoke to HR Brew about how she came to HR and the ways in which the field needs to change.

How long have you been in HR and why did you choose this career path?

I [previously] ran the National Bar Association. While I wasn’t in HR, I had to manage the HR function. The chief human resources officer reported to me—same thing when I served as a chief of staff to a DC government official. But it was when I joined Red Hat…that I actually sat as part of the HR function…That’s when I got to learn more about how diversity and inclusion impacts the entire talent lifecycle from employee branding and recruitment, all the way through to succession planning and even exit interviews.

What are some of your biggest challenges as an HR professional? Which are the most rewarding?

The most challenging and rewarding [issue] is this whole concept around scale versus impact. We started a pilot [of an online program for underrepresented students in tech] with 30 students. I knew the students and their résumés by heart…We were able to get all of those students internship opportunities, and many of them got full-time offers. But we had to scale the program. This year, we are at over 300 students in the program. Next year, we’re going to 1,500 students, with a goal of reaching 5,000 students within a span of three years…It’s amazing that we’re able to touch many more students, but is [scaling] at the expense of making a meaningful difference in their lives and really making sure that we’re able to measure the impact that we’re having?

Have you ever thought about leaving HR? If yes, why and what compelled you to stay?

The reason why I’ve thought about leaving HR primarily is because diversity and inclusion impacts the entire business strategy. I’ve seen that here at GitHub. Instead of me just focusing on that talent lifecycle, I work with marketing, with our events team, on our platform and how equity shows up there. I’m sometimes working with financial decisions, in our communities. To really have a diversity and inclusion strategy that actually makes a difference, that has the impact, I think [my role] needs to sit outside of HR. That’s a school of thought that research agrees with and supports. Still, a lot of companies still have it inside of their HR function for a whole host of reasons. So, that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t totally left it.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.

Are you a member of any ERGs?

I am, and I have to be very careful about that, because in my role I’m supposed to be a little bit neutral. But I’m very active in our Black ERG the Blacktocats, which is the very first ERG started here at GitHub.

In what ways does the HR field still need to change?

From a diversity and inclusion lens, we should get responsible about the language that we use. We’ve tried to build an umbrella big enough for all things that we’re not focusing on anything. Whether we’re talking about racial equity or accessibility and disability—are we talking about physical disability or neurodiversity? Instead, we just want to couch it under “persons with disabilities,” and then we’re not solving for anything. I’ve learned that from our new head of accessibility here at GitHub, who is blind…when we talked about disability, we were looking at it from neurodiversity perspective, mental disability, intellectual disabilities, and it took me traveling with him to understand that there’s a whole population that we are not talking about under the umbrella of disability.

It’s easy for us to just rely on nomenclature, that’s a catch-all. But we’re just not addressing the unique concerns and the unique challenges, as well as stepping into the unique opportunities when we call it by the name and what it is.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.