Mahammud Hirsi was a hard-driving young manager at when he and a half dozen other Somali supervisors started a monthly lunch meeting three years ago and invited some top managers to join them.

Hirsi had been part of an effort to establish prayer rooms and breaks for Amazon's growing ranks of Muslim immigrant workers in the Twin Cities, and considered himself something of a cultural ambassador. But what he and his East African lunchmates wanted was an open channel to human resources managers and other senior leaders who could help them break out of lower-tier management roles and bring more diversity to the top.

The bigger idea, Hirsi said of the group now known as the Bridge Builders, was to develop a "culture of understanding" with senior leaders. "We asked them questions, they will ask us questions and we will learn from each other," he said.

After a summer of racial protests sparked in part by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many corporations are re-examining diversity goals and workplace structures that have made it harder for minorities and women to land jobs and earn promotions.

Amazon has been trying to overcome those obstacles as it added more employees than any other large company in the U.S. over the past half decade. And in the Twin Cities — a market in which it became a sizable employer just four years ago when it opened a fulfillment center in Shakopee — executives point to Hirsi and the Bridge Builders effort as a key part of that work.

"Being exposed to those perspectives was new to me," said Chad Fifield, general manager of the fulfillment center, which employs 1,500.

Fifield was a few months into the job when the Bridge Builders invited him to lunch at a Burnsville restaurant in February. The frank conversation made an impression.

"An area manager, relatively new to Amazon, had the courage to ask me directly: What are we going to do to improve the diversity of the senior team?" Fifield recalled. "It was clear that we had an opportunity and I took that to heart."

Fifield has since established diversity targets for leaders in all departments and across multiple shifts, aiming to better reflect a workforce that has ties to 64 countries. Senior leadership reviews that progress each week.

Four years ago, Amazon had just one Somali manager among its Twin Cities facilities. Now, there are 25. The company also promoted its first East African woman to an operations manager position in the past year.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Fifield said. "Amazon is growing extremely fast. New buildings, new business lines are opening up weekly across the country. That's a good problem to have. We've got our work cut out for us just to attract the right level of talent to meet the business needs. On top of that, how do you also accomplish that while achieving your diversity targets? … I can say that we're not there yet."

Key player

Hirsi emigrated from Somalia in 2009, and later moved to the Twin Cities from Chicago to be near his mother and siblings, who had settled here.

He took a part-time job at five years ago while he was still in college and swiftly rose up the ranks by moving to full-time jobs at several of Amazon's Twin Cities facilities.

Hirsi, 37, now is an operations manager at the fulfillment center in Shakopee, overseeing other managers in several areas of the building. "A leader of leaders," he said.

But early in his career Hirsi realized that while three in 10 workers on the production floor were Somali, life was lonely as one of the few East Africans in management. Aside from the normal learning curve, he and other members of the Bridge Builders were learning on their feet how to navigate tricky and sometimes racially charged situations. They encountered staff who perhaps had never been led by a woman in a hijab or whose boss took five prayer breaks a day.

The small band of developing leaders leaned on each other for support but realized they needed more direct access and coaching from higher-ups, especially if they hoped to become role models and pull others into leadership positions.

"I was a manager, but I wanted to get beyond that," Hirsi said. "The question was how can I get there? What can I do to get there? The intent was to create and provide a focus group for supporting people like me and embrace diversity and inclusion as a valuable asset."

Yet as a rising leader, Hirsi has sometimes been thrust into the limelight. In July 2019, when a group of Somali workers went on strike to protest working conditions at the Shakopee plant, it was Hirsi who spoke to reporters as a countermeasure.

"Almost all the issues that some of them are claiming we're already doing that here," Hirsi told WCCO-TV at the time. "I do know that there's inclusivity, there's diversity. If you want to progress in your career, it's available."

'He flipped'

And rising through the ranks has put Hirsi in conflict with some of the Somali workers he once befriended. Hibaq Mohamed, who is part of a group pushing for change at the Shakopee plant, recalls being surprised by Hirsi during a meeting with executives on the idea.

"We tried to talk to management. When we were seated at the table, Mahammud was there," she said. "He was on the side of management. He was friends with management. Mahammud, he flipped. He completely changed."

Navigating such workplace complexities is one of the values of Bridge Builders, said Bashir Aidrus, who landed a leadership role at Amazon little more than a year ago right out of Southwest Minnesota State University, where he majored in supply chain and operations management.

The son of Somali parents, Aidrus grew up in Uganda before coming to Minnesota for college in 2014.

The Bridge Builders network can help supervisors work out the best approach to defuse tensions or help keep potential confrontations from going sideways, he said. Because of his experience with the group, Aidrus doesn't hesitate to seek daily advice from his direct manager, who has 30 years of retail experience, or other senior leaders.

"It's natural for us to ask for help from those who are more like us," said Aidrus, an area manager. "Having this platform has enabled a lot of individuals to ask for help and share their concerns and get the support they need from others that might not necessarily be like them in terms of their role or race or religion."

More work to do

The coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to Bridge Builders' monthly off-site lunch meetings with top managers, and it has been several months since the group held a remote meeting.

But in the years since it launched, Bridge Builders members have stepped up their own work as mentors to front-line workers with leadership potential. The group also includes managers who are Hmong, Hispanic, Native American and those from other parts of Africa. As members have left Minnesota for other states, they have taken the basic ideas of the group with them.

In the next year, Fifield hopes to make it an official affinity group, such as those for women and LGBT workers. And he believes the approach, pioneered in Minnesota, could help promote understanding and increase diversity of leadership at other Amazon facilities.

Hirsi knows there is still work to be done but is hopeful.

"I would love to believe we have made some changes, some progress," he said. "Three years ago, there were no East African leaders in any of these other buildings. We have seen a lot of promotion from associates to managers and also from assistant managers to senior managers. We have seen a lot of development that has happened within those three years."