“Innovation and collaboration are happening all around us, which is thoughtfully addressing key social issues, in particular inequality within our businesses and communities,” she said. “NGOs, think tanks, policymakers and businesses are pulling in the same direction more than ever. I think because of COVID-19 and the lockdowns we are much more conscious of how businesses can drive positive change for individuals and society more broadly.”
Supporting global businesses in enacting meaningful change
In her role at DLA Piper, Johnson and her team work to support a range of global businesses, NGOs and charities to transform how they engage with DE&I – a vocation that closely aligns with her own interest in invoking meaningful change. She first joined the global law firm in 2011, from an NGO called ActionAid Australia. She was always interested in learning about how businesses make decisions about their community investments, she said, and really wanted to understand the funder’s perspective after working in the third sector for five years.
“In my current role as head of social impact, I collaborate with our partners and staff, our clients, NGOs, UN agencies and charities to define and improve the impact we can have on people, communities, and social systems,” Johnson said. “This can be anything from developing a programme with a local charity to support people who are homeless, to long-term multijurisdictional programmes which aim to diversify the legal profession.
“I have been very lucky to have had the chance to co-create education and legal empowerment programs in 25 countries, working closely with key stakeholders to understand the local barriers and opportunities faced by underrepresented groups, developing activities to challenge these barriers, and then evaluating the short-, medium-, and long-term impact of these initiatives.”
Johnson noted that from the very early doors of her career, she was resolute that she wanted to work “with people and for people”. Social inequality is bad for individuals, communities and businesses, she said, which is why she is passionate about finding ways to create better opportunities which can drive equality.
“During my studies, I worked in Uganda and when I graduated, I got a job working in fundraising for a charity in Australia,” she said. “I enjoy working with people to understand what motivates them and what positive impact they want to have on the world. We all have so much to offer, it is often a matter of connecting people to a relevant cause or organisation. In many ways, that is still what I do today, I try to influence and encourage DLA’s people, clients, and other stakeholders to engage in key social issues.”
What are some standout DE&I programmes?
Her career to date has offered Johnson multiple opportunities to fulfil her ambitions of supporting individuals and communities – with two standouts that she’s especially proud of being DLA Piper’s Global Scholarship and Head Start Programmes. The Global Scholarship Programme supports law students in 18 of the world’s least developed countries, as defined by the UN, she said. Through the two-year scholarship the firm offers tuition payment, work experience, mentoring and multiple learning and networking opportunities to empower participants to define and pursue their goals.
“Our Head Start programme tackles social mobility, which is a challenge in most countries,” she said. “Through Head Start, we nurture talented young people who meet locally relevant social mobility criteria, for up to five years. We offer work experience, mentoring, career planning support and many opportunities to develop peer and professional networks.
“I created these programmes with fantastic colleagues and bold and dynamic leaders. We started with the premise that we can leverage the skills and experience of our people, as well as our networks, to transform lives. These programmes have also helped our firm to recognise that talent is everywhere, opportunity is not, we are lucky to interact with such exceptional young people through these programmes, and it makes our people proud that we invest such a lot in ensuring our firm and profession truly represents our communities.”
Johnson highlighted that it has been fascinating to see how attitudes have changed towards social impact initiatives since she started work 17 years ago. Businesses are much more invested in the ecosystem in which they operate than ever before, she said. The evolution which has seen businesses consider stakeholder groups, including customers, employees and communities is exciting.
“Unpacking social impact is crucial for business, it helps maintain links to communities and customers, to attract and retain the best talent and have a keen sense of purpose and strong values,” she said. “Having a good understanding of how a business impacts people’s lives and social systems, and how it directly and indirectly is making the world better (or not!) is crucial to a business’s social license to operate.”
In what areas is the most progress being made?
The advance of progress around social impact initiatives is not a binary consideration, and movement is happening faster in some areas than others. There has been a lot of progress on the diversity agenda, Johnson said, especially around really understanding who gets in and makes up an organisation.
“We are all still working towards defining and achieving inclusion and belonging, being the experience of all people at work, getting under the skin of who stays and who is promoted, and at times being proactive to ensure everyone can thrive and has equal access to opportunity,” she said. “People Networks can be an excellent resource for the inclusion agenda, as they are an effective sounding board for how a business tackles internal or external issues. Empowering rights holders to share their experiences and ideas is a powerful way to develop an authentic social impact agenda.”
Industry-wide initiatives such as Dive In have been critical to creating meaningful engagement with DE&I, she said, as collaboration is key for driving change, and Dive In is a fantastic opportunity to learn from peers and find ways to drive the agenda faster together.
“Each year the topics and conversations become more nuanced and interesting,” she added, “and having the opportunity to participate in the Dive in Festival is an important check in for the insurance and professional services to share best practice, challenge each other and create new ways to promote belonging and positive impact.”
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