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Ask Sheri Crosby Wheeler to explain her calling as a DEI practitioner, and she’s likely to quote hip-hop. She’s a fan of the Pharcyde, whose refrain “I can’t keep running away” echoed in her mind at a key moment in her career.
Crosby Wheeler, who had been an employment attorney and litigator, was asked to build the DEI function at a leading mortgage company. But fear was holding her back. “There was a time when I was running away from my true calling,” she says. “I didn’t think I was strong enough, I didn’t think I knew enough, and I didn’t think I was worthy enough.”
Ultimately, Crosby Wheeler overcame her inner struggle and jumped headlong into a new career. Today, she works to embed DEI into the fabric of the company at one of the nation’s top retail brands.
Crosby Wheeler joined Fossil Group in 2021 to help the well-known watch, wallet, jewelry, and accessory company build a more inclusive culture. During the interview process, Crosby Wheeler made her intentions clear: she wants to drive meaningful change. “We’re not gonna settle for feel-good D&I. We’re gonna do real good D&I,” she quips.
Ironically, the personal struggles and nontraditional pathways that caused Crosby Wheeler to a pause when considering a career change to DEI work actually make her the right person to do it. She was born in Texas and graduated from a small high school in a rural part of the Lone Star State.
When it came time to apply to college, Crosby Wheeler, who lacked guidance and funds, applied to only two colleges. “I never heard of the concept of a ‘safety school,’” she says. She got into Emory, but didn’t know what to expect. What she found was a world totally different from the one she grew up in, and after one year, she wound up on academic probation.
In what should have been her sophomore year, Crosby Wheeler dropped out and returned to El Paso. It turned out that without a degree, jobs were hard to come by, so she applied for a housekeeper position at a motel. The general manager saw Emory on her résumé and kind of shrugged his shoulders, as if to say “Emory’s great, but here you are—maybe you weren’t cut out for that particular school.”
Crosby Wheeler never forgot that experience, and says she instantly learned to honor and respect every person and every role. She calls cleaning rooms the hardest job she ever had, and now refuses to leave a hotel without tipping the housekeeping staff. But a few months in, she received some important news: all she had to do to get back into Emory was write a letter. She returned with a new focus, joined a sorority, made the dean’s list, and graduated with a degree in sociology.
Although the story has a happy ending, Crosby Wheeler’s resilience would continue to be tested. She got fired from her first job after finishing law school. Later, in the middle of a global recession, she walked away from another position that wasn’t a good fit. “I felt like I got knocked down a couple times, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t get back up,” she says. The experience gave her the grit and determination to weather even bigger challenges later in her career.
It also gave her the confidence to pivot away from a purely legal role after spending thirteen years as an employment attorney and litigator. Leaders at Mr. Cooper, a Dallas-area mortgage company, hired Crosby Wheeler to handle compliance matters and later gave her leadership over the government relations space. Finally, they asked her to do something else new: establish a diversity and inclusion function from the ground up.
At first, Crosby Wheeler hesitated. “I knew there were other people like me out there that just needed an opportunity,” she says. “Examining my own story helped me realize I was ready for the challenge.” She accepted.
Crosby Wheeler worked to transform the culture at Mr. Cooper from the inside and relied on employee input to create new policies, initiatives, and programs. In 2021, she learned about the opportunity at Fossil Group and jumped at the chance to recreate her success in the consumer space.
As she joins the $2 billion company, Crosby Wheeler is aware of both the opportunity to make an impact and the very real danger of burnout. “Trying to expose biases and change hearts and minds is not for the faint of heart,” she says.
Results aren’t immediate, busy leaders often lack time to engage, and employees are susceptible to issue fatigue. Crosby Wheeler plans to combat these issues by prioritizing self-care and networking with other DEI practitioners. She also believes that Fossil Group’s executive team has the sincere desire to advance equality and drive inclusivity.
That buy-in has helped her start off strong. In her first year, Crosby Wheeler elevated what Fossil Group already had in place. Thirty percent of its board positions are held by women and 60 percent of its global workforce is female. New programs will help the company share DEI learning tools with global employees, lead in women’s empowerment, and develop more leaders from underrepresented groups by 2025.
Additionally, the company is promoting equal opportunity for all by coaching partners on equitable pay, providing meaningful grievance mechanisms to company and factory employees, and training women in developing countries about health and wellness. Fossil Group is also adding robust employee groups where colleagues can share their voice to help the business get better, improve the employee experience, and develop in their careers.
As Crosby Wheeler grows the DEI program at Fossil, she’s focused on one word: authenticity. She says her job is to patiently, slowly, and carefully embed diversity and inclusion into everything the company is already doing. The approach takes time, but it leads to “real good” D&I—and for Crosby Wheeler, there’s just no other kind that matters.