With a vast background in both the non-profit and health and fitness sectors, Illyasha Peete is the former Executive Director of Racial and Social Equity at California Life Sciences (CLS). She came to CLS after serving as Director of Diversity, Consulting, and Training for the Center for Excellence in Nonprofits, where she previously worked as Senior Leadership Development Specialist. Peete also has experience in real estate where she held a multi-million-dollar portfolio and continues to serve as a self-employed fitness expert. Earlier in her career, she served as Program Manager for Stanford Health Care – Valley Care. In this position, she was thrilled to lead the Living Strong Living Well Program, a 12-week strength & fitness program for cancer survivors who have recently become deconditioned or chronically fatigued from treatment or disease. This work meant so much to her because of the loss of her best friend to breast cancer.
Highly skilled in executive leadership and management, coaching, entrepreneurship, and sales, Peete has a strong business background, having earned a bachelor’s degree in Human Resources Management/Personnel Administration from Western Michigan University; a Master’s in Business Administration (M.B.A.) in International and Global Studies from Ashford University; and a Diversity and Inclusion Certificate from Cornell University. Peete is intrigued with the idea of partnering with leaders to create healthy workspaces that foster a sense of belonging. She believes this is achieved, in part, by developing a more concrete understanding of intergroup relations and by dismantling current policies, practices, and hiring processes designed to interfere with the values of inclusion, diversity, equity, access, and liberation.
Slone Partners: Your career path can be described more like a winding road than a straight line. Describe the motivational forces that have affected your professional trajectory.
Illyasha Peete: This question makes me think of my late father, who taught me that if you have a career that you love, you will never work a day in your life. I have always been willing to take on opportunities where change is essential, and I find that my varied experiences make it possible for me to honor and appreciate all the gifts of others. I learned early on to be willing and able to complete any task I was asking of others. This helped build mutual trust and respect. I also learned to inspire those I work in partnership with to provide innovative solutions, which in some cases means we find success in the lessons learned.
My varied experiences help me view programs, concerns we are striving to overcome, projects, funding opportunities, resources, and innovative solutions (just to name a few) differently. Throughout my career, I have had an active role in all facets of a business, whether it be for-profit, nonprofit, or in the government, public, or private sector.
Slone Partners: You spent nearly three years at the Center for Excellence in Nonprofits where you led consulting and DEI projects designed to shift the organizational culture and worked with Board Members to support organizational executives in the most effective way. What were some of the most difficult challenges that you faced in that role, and how did you work to overcome them?
Illyasha Peete: Culture change is never easy, and the board, Chief Executive Officer/Executive Director, team, and stakeholders must be fully committed to making this journey even when challenges arise, because they will. Experience has taught me to incorporate team agreements so when a misstep occurs, there is a predefined way to recover and/or repair the damage. This is not an easy task, and the most successful organizations are willing to go all-in and support one another throughout the process. Another key to success is being sure there are people trained within the organization to carry on the work after our departure.
In my opinion, cultural shifts require fearlessness, determination, education, employee resource groups (with decision-making ability), and a willingness to part ways with some supporters, clients, and even staff who are NOT ready for the change. Finally, we must embrace the fact that everyone is on their own journey, and we may reach targets at different times, and that is okay!
Slone Partners: Did you experience a particular ‘a-ha moment’ (or two) early in your career that had a significant impact on your subsequent career development? How did those moments shape your own leadership model?
Illyasha Peete: My parents taught me that I could do and be anything! I have never doubted my abilities to achieve and often exceeded the outlined goals set by others or myself. Growing up, I played tennis, and I remember one day entering a prestigious and exclusive tennis club in Mississippi. When our family walked through the front door, everyone was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The silence was deafening.
About twenty minutes later, a Black housekeeper came to speak with my family and shared that we were the first Black people to ever walk through the front doors of this facility. That was one of the proudest moments of my young life, and it is one I will never forget. At that moment, I embraced knowing that opening doors, ushering others through, and striving to propel them forward was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!
One other example I am reminded of occurred just recently during CLS’ NexGeneGirls program. The program is designed to provide opportunities for BIPOC high school girls to engage in scientific research, lab work, and presentations. I was attending one of the sessions and learned that a mentor voiced how proud they were of one of the young women. The young lady replied by saying, “No one has ever told me that before.” She was 18 years old, and I was torn apart that she had not experienced the support and positivity I experienced. I left that session understanding yet again how words have power, and we all can provide support in a way that makes space for the young to step into their own greatness!
What I shared did veer slightly from what you asked, but for me, the important moments came very early on in my childhood and young adulthood while playing sports. These experiences and others shaped the feisty, transformational, and compassionate leader I am today.
Slone Partners: The past two years have seen organizations in all sectors making serious efforts toward fostering greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace. How do you assess the success of those efforts so far?
Illyasha Peete: Roughly 70% of these DEI efforts fail. This occurs because so many organizations subscribe to the same playbook even though they are all so different. A good friend of mine once said, “When you have seen one org you have seen one org!” To me, that suggests that as professionals, we must customize the work for each organization. I truly believe when consulting is executed in this manner, the success rate drastically increases.
Further, for DEI /IDEAL efforts to be successful, it is not a short-term project or a box you can check. Rather, it must be incorporated in every aspect of the business! When taking part in this organizational shift, if the goal is to check the box, it will be evident, and the effort will be unsuccessful and even harmful to the very people we are trying to serve.
Slone Partners: As a follow up question, what can, and should organizations be doing better to achieve DE&I?
Illyasha Peete: I am a true believer in IDEAL rather than DEI because without access and liberation I feel the DEI can never be achieved. I defined the acronym as follows:
- Inclusion is belonging, agency, and ownership.
- Diversity makes room for ALL the ways we identify.
- Equity is NOT Equality; Equity is about people getting what they need.
- Access is an open door to information and decision-making.
- Liberation is freedom from oppression, allowing one to be their authentic work self.
Further, organizations must realize if the goal is to have a more diverse workforce, you cannot simply bring historically excluded individuals into the current cultures. Instead, you must create a joint or new culture that provides space to celebrate the differences, ideas, and experiences of everyone in the workforce.
Finally, when hiring a new member of the team, I think it is vital to understand that lived experience, in many cases, is just as valuable if not more valuable than education. Think about making changes to your current job description requirements. Do you think that could help encourage more diverse candidates to apply?
Slone Partners: You have a 25-year history of board service, and in 2021 served as the Vice President of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access for the Association of Fundraising Professionals. How has that network and other professional connections you have formed along the way helped you achieve success?
Illyasha Peete: It was such a pleasure to serve on a board that is truly committed to IDEA. While the organization is still growing in this area, I have seen tremendous strides in the programming and the commitment to continue recruiting historically excluded people into an industry (development professionals) that in the past was very homogenous. The new Chair of the Board, Vinney Arora of My Digital TAT2, has become one of the people who is part of my professional circle. He is innovative and has served as a tremendous thought partner and co-conspirator. Sharon Navarro of Acknowledge Alliance is another tremendous leader who continues to offer support and advice when requested. The fellows I had the opportunity to mentor have also joined my network, and while I shared experiences with them, they shared a great deal of knowledge with me and one another.
This past year, for the first time in the history of AFP, the IDEA fellow produced and delivered an outstanding IDEA fireside chat with Aubrey Merrimann and Michele Lew. The conversation centered around the challenges fundraising poses for people representing historically excluded populations. This event was unlike any other, and many voiced that it was one of the best they had ever witnessed.
I have just listed a few individuals by name, but there are too many to list. I feel thankful for the opportunity to be part of such a wonderful organization.
Slone Partners: What are the things you make time for in your personal life that bring you the most joy?
Illyasha Peete: I am a fitness enthusiast, and I enjoy Pilates, yoga, and fitness classes of any sort. I recently took up hiking which presents me with the chance to “shut out the noise” and become more closely connected with and to nature. I find these activities help me keep my cup full, so I can continue in this line of demanding yet rewarding work.