Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union made a striking change in 2020. To expand the pool of job applicants and promote a more diverse group of leaders, the St. Paul-based credit union removed the requirement of a college degree as a minimum qualification — right up to senior management.

"We stepped back to take a critical look at who we exclude by only looking at those with college degrees," said Julie Cosgrove, chief talent officer at Affinity Plus. "We came to see [the degree requirement] as shortsighted. It can lead to unconscious bias and discrimination and leaves out qualified people with the skills, experience and knowledge to add to our organization and be exceptional."

Nicole Gorny began her career at Affinity Plus as a part-time teller. In the following 18 years, she attended college while earning multiple promotions. She's still working on a business degree, but even without it, she was named controller for the credit union in April.

"A college degree is not just a piece of paper, a lot of hard work goes into it. But there are other paths with on-the-job experience," Gorny said.

During a year of unprecedented upheaval and change, many of Minnesota's Top Workplaces expanded and deepened their initiatives to promote workplace DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion.

In the racial reckoning following George Floyd's death, that meant re-evaluating and rooting out practices, policies and programs that were forged in a different era. Top Workplaces sought fresh and innovative ways to recruit, retain and engage BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) employees. A number of employers also placed emphasis on creating a workplace culture that was intentionally friendlier to LGBTQ and female employees. This year Affinity Plus updated its employee handbook to use gender-neutral pronouns and added guidelines and resources to support staff members going through gender transitions.

"We have three employees who transitioned in the past 18 months," Cosgrove said. "What we do in these pivotal times — when there's a birth, a death, a transition — gives us a chance to showcase who we are to our employees. We demonstrate that we care."

Walking the walk

Minnesota's Top Workplaces shared numerous ways, large and small, that they are improving when it comes to DEI.

A number of employers reported that they are conducting pay-equity audits to flag discriminatory practices, are offering new gender-transition leave and are excluding questions about criminal history on job applications.

The Ovative Group rolled out three additional paid holidays for all employees — Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Juneteenth and Mental Health Awareness Day. UCare developed a new tool to assess the health and racial-equity implications of all business decisions. Construction company Kraus-Anderson launched its Carpenters in Action program to fast-track diverse apprentices from Minneapolis' Lake Street community.

Edina Realty Home Services launched a Spanish-language version of its website in May.

The website will make it easier for Spanish speakers to research the housing market and connect with real estate professionals. In the past year, Edina Realty also added Spanish-speaking loan officers and customer-service agents.

"Our bilingual agents are enthusiastic about what we're doing. We think the website will help us attract even more Latino and Hispanic agents who will better connect with those communities," said CEO Greg Mason. "This has been an underserved group when it comes to homeownership and we want to close the gap."

Building loyalty

George Floyd's death left Puja Shah feeling "shattered."

A creative director at Colle McVoy and a member of the Minneapolis-based ad agency's inclusion council, Shah brainstormed with co-workers about how to take meaningful action in the aftermath of the tragedy.

"A neighbor was putting up a Little Free Library and I thought about my 8-year-old daughter who will walk past it every day and never see the face of a brown girl in books there," said Shah, who is from India.

So Shah and her co-workers partnered with the nonprofit Little Free Library to create Read in Color. It became Colle McVoy's employee-led campaign that promoted and distributed volumes with diverse characters or perspectives on racism and social justice to the book-sharing boxes.

"It was a tough year. A number of our clients were minimizing their budgets. But when we took this idea to our CEO, she didn't hesitate. She supported our passion to do something to help the community heal," Shah said.

The partnership has now placed 20 Read in Color libraries in the Twin Cities, sourcing more than 5,000 books from local BIPOC and independent bookstores. In the coming year, 100 additional Read in Color Little Free Libraries will be installed in nine cities.

Shah said she and her co-workers experienced a surge of pride and satisfaction in their accomplishment.

"Advertising is a field where people often jump to new positions," Shah said. "But this experience makes me want to stay; it's built my loyalty."

5 diversity standouts

The Star Tribune and Energage sought to take a closer look at what Minnesota companies are doing to support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The effort was an attempt to go beyond employees' opinions. We looked at what companies are doing.

Energage sent a more detailed questionnaire to 98 companies with high scores on the DEI survey question, examining areas such as recruiting and hiring; compensation and benefits; professional development; employee involvement; and visible commitment.

Five companies stood out, listed here alphabetically:

CLA (CliftonLarsonAllen LLP)

Colle McVoy


Ovative Group