In January 2020, Instacart, the popular grocery pick-up and delivery service, had nearly 150,000 employees. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and governors across the nation started issuing shelter in place orders. Grocery delivery was more popular than ever, and Instacart was suddenly in high demand.
On March 24, CEO Apoorva Metha announced in a blog post his plans to hire three hundred thousand full-service shoppers over the next three months. That aggressive ninety-day goal was met in four weeks. On April 23, company leaders shared their intention to hire 250,000 more workers to accommodate surging order volumes.
Iris Birungi Peña stepped into a fast-moving company in the middle of a hiring spree when she joined Instacart as the tech company’s director of diversity recruiting and hiring equity in April 2021.
Peña is originally from Nairobi, Kenya, but has lived and worked in New York and Toronto. The cross-cultural experiences showed her the importance of diversity and inclusion, and those values entered her professional life at the start. She graduated from the University of Windsor and studied human resources management at Humber College before joining Goldman Sachs. Over her seven-year tenure, Peña managed divisional D&I initiatives and diversity campus recruiting pipeline programs.
In 2014, Peña moved to Bank of America. She was championing similar campus efforts when a huge opportunity presented itself. In response to a Forbes article on diversity in leadership across financial services, the chief diversity officer built out a strategy on how the bank will focus on increasing Black and Latino/a leadership. As result, Peña was asked to lead strategic efforts on attracting and hiring Black and Latino/a executive talent across the bank.
“Buy in from the top always helps diversity efforts succeed,” Peña says. As head of underrepresented minority executive recruiting, she created a program designed to recruit and retain minority executive talent. In her work, Peña created responsibility and accountability measures for current senior leaders to support the external talent pipelining. By the time she left the bank in 2021, diversity was infused into key stages of the recruiting life cycle and activities at every level.
That’s how Peña believes every company should operate, and it’s the philosophy she brought to Instacart. “Diversity isn’t something that only a few people do,” she says. “It shouldn’t be handled by a group, or a committee, or a small team. Diversity is everyone’s job.”
Diversity is an important concept that can and should shape corporate vision, and Peña knows her strategies can never impede business objectives. That was especially true when she joined Instacart in the middle of its COVID hiring push.
“Even in a period of unprecedented growth, it’s important to stop and think about whether you’re creating a diverse workforce that reflects the communities you serve because that’s ultimately going to drive how your customers engage with you,” she says.
Instacart was indeed reflecting its communities in the field, as many in its new shopper population were women and people of color. Pena, however, noticed opportunities for improvement on the company’s corporate side.
“We need better representation in leadership roles,” she says. “Black and Latinx people and women are underrepresented in the tech industry, and looking at our shopper population, we can use our existing talent pool to change that.”
Instacart doesn’t use D&I or even DEI. Practitioners at Instacart prefer DEB, an acronym that stands for diversity, equity, and belonging. “We’re all diverse, and we know it’s important to include everyone, but belonging is what matters,” Peña says. “We really make an impact through diversity measures when we create a sense of belonging.”
That starts with a willingness to have hard conversations and fix systemic problems. With charge from Head of DEB Jennifer Sutton and the chief human resources officer, Peña set out to build a robust diversity recruitment program by creating strategies and recruiting interventions aimed at tackling systemic barriers to entry for underrepresented talent.
It was important for Peña to have accountability across the recruiting organization. As a result, inclusive hiring training is now mandatory for all recruiters and a diverse candidate slate for all manager roles is required. Peña came to tech from financial services and says her new industry is not far from where her former one was. The tech space is booming and filled with opportunities—but people in her position need to make sure they are helping all candidates discover these opportunities.
“Many Black and Latinx students simply don’t have easy access to, and schools. Companies who only recruit from top schools and Ivies, which are predominately white institutions are closing the door to people who need a chance to show what they can do,” she says, adding that her peers need to revisit their overall recruiting strategies and consider creating a path to roles for those who gained their education in a non-traditional way—and remain open to candidates with nontraditional backgrounds.
Right now, Peña is thriving as a leader in the DEB space, and she envisions a world in which diversity becomes second nature to recruiting. Where leaders and recruiters are held accountable for building a representative workforce.
Thoughts from Guest Editor Christine Vanderpool
“Creating a sense of belonging has never been more crucial, and Iris Birungi Peña’s program at Instacart is making a true difference for diversity. It is true that to drive a successful diversity program, you must first be willing to have hard and open conversations.”