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Category: Leadership Thoughts

Diversity Champion: Salam Safi, Vice President Human Resources at Darling Ingredients

Diversity Champion: Salam Safi, Vice President Human Resources at Darling Ingredients

At Darling Ingredients, a global leader in sustainable food production and animal by-product solutions, diversity and inclusion lie at the heart of the company's operations. With agriculture playing a vital role in global food security, Salam Safi, Vice President of Human Resources at Darling Ingredients, advocates for a diverse workforce that represents the multitude of cultures, backgrounds, and identities across the globe, enabling the company to address the complex challenges it faces.

In our latest instalment of HC Insider’s Diversity Champion series, we had the privilege of sitting down with Salam to delve into her journey as a Muslim woman in the corporate world, the value of embracing diversity, and the essential steps leaders can take to support and empower Muslim women in their careers.

HC Insider: Could you please share your career journey leading up to your current role at Darling Ingredients?

Salam Safi: My educational background doesn't directly align with my career path. I hold a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in business. Pursuing biology initially stemmed from the typical aspirations of a first-generation child—I was aiming to become a doctor. However, I soon realized that my strengths didn't lie in medicine. Ultimately, I discovered my passion in business administration. It was within this field that I found my niche. I enjoy the operational aspects of business but also value the human element. I'm not one for the ruthless pursuit of numbers; instead, I prefer considering the well-being of individuals while devising solutions and overcoming challenges to support the business objectives. This realization has shaped my career choices.

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HC Insider: What does your role at Darling Ingredients involve?

SS: As the VP of HR for the US, my role encompasses overseeing the entire HR function. I handle the employee lifecycle, which includes tasks such as attraction, onboarding, retention, training, and development. When I joined the company, the HR department had been without a leader for about nine months. During this time, the team worked tirelessly to keep things running smoothly. When I came on board, I had the opportunity to observe the HR operations from a broader perspective, identify what was working well, and offer suggestions for improvement. I also encouraged the team to share any ideas they had that lacked an advocate to push them forward. So far, it has been a process of learning, listening, and advocating for necessary changes within the group. It has been a really positive experience.

While our headquarters are in Texas, Darling Ingredients has over 150 plant locations throughout the United States. Additionally, it is an international company with offices and operations in the Netherlands, Canada, Asia, and Europe. Although I am currently responsible for the HR operations in the US, we have been working towards establishing a global alignment among regional HR Directors. While legislation and regulations vary from state to state and country to country, it is crucial to address and respect the nuanced differences. Many areas of HR often elicit emotional responses from employees and require careful management from both HR and managers.

HC Insider: What have been some of your career highlights?

SS: Although I've been working in my field for about 16 to 17 years, I still consider myself to be relatively early in my career. I never seem to be fully satisfied with my accomplishments. I’m always feeling like there's more to achieve. However, one standout aspect throughout my journey has been my ability to consistently move up within each company that has employed me. So far, these advancements have often occurred quite rapidly. I also took a few years off to focus on raising my children, and during this time I engaged in consulting work for small companies. Through word of mouth and personal connections, I helped establish their HR functions until an office manager could take over. Each step I took in my career was a step forward. In my previous role, which spanned seven years, I held four different positions. Initially, I was a temporary contractor, informally referred to as "the temp," but within 45 days, I was hired as a permanent employee. A year later, I was promoted. One thing I would have done differently, though, is to have actively engaged in professional networks earlier in my career. At the start, I was primarily focused on my work, influenced by the mindset instilled by my parents to stay dedicated, put in the hours, and keep my focus on the tasks at hand. Networking and spending time conversing with colleagues or peers didn't hold much significance for me during that time. However, in hindsight, I recognize the immense value of building connections, participating in associations, and engaging in conversations with fellow professionals.

Embrace who you are and strive to be the best version of yourself. Trying to maintain facades or just focusing on proving others wrong won't lead to long-term success. When I stopped pretending to be someone else and focused on personal growth, everything changed. Embrace your uniqueness.

HC Insider: What factors have contributed to your career progression?

SS: My appearance and being a visible minority has driven me to consistently prove that I defy stereotypes. From an early age, my parents instilled in me the importance of making a strong first impression. They emphasized that as someone who might be the only Muslim or Arab that others encounter, I should maximize that initial impression. Combining this mindset with my personality of always striving for more, I felt compelled to continually prove others wrong. Initially, this fuelled my drive, but eventually, I realized that their opinions held no real significance in my life. There was a pivotal moment about five to six years ago when I had a mental shift. I began questioning why I cared about the criticisms of people who weren't supporting me emotionally or financially. I started focusing on doing things for myself and those who would benefit from my achievements. This shift transformed my perspective and propelled me forward. While I sometimes forget to acknowledge my past accomplishments due to my focus on the next goal, there is a sense of pride in pursuing my ambitions while wearing a hijab. It empowers me to break barriers and inspire others to surpass me in the future. I don't want to be the only one paving the way; I want to see others thriving and pushing boundaries.

HC Insider: What were some of the challenges you faced during your career and how did you overcome them?

SS: Looking back on my career, I recognize that the journey has not been without obstacles. Overcoming stereotypes, biases, and instances of discrimination has demanded perseverance, resilience, and a willingness to engage in difficult conversations. Even after securing a job, I faced the need to prove myself constantly. During the initial stages of a new role, there's this "feel out" phase where everyone tries to assess your competence. I often felt like I had to be a forced extrovert, maintaining a positive and flawless image at all times. Any sign of vulnerability or a bad day could reinforce negative stereotypes associated with me. At one company, I eventually felt comfortable to ask colleagues about their initial impressions of me. I vividly remember one senior member sharing that they had placed bets on how long I would last. They had seen my LinkedIn picture and assumed I would be too soft.

I have also faced more explicit instances of racism throughout my career. One particularly striking experience occurred when I visited a construction site. I noticed someone always hovering around me. After discussing this with one of the leaders on the site, I learned that there was a person who harboured a hatred toward individuals who looked like me. While this individual had personal issues stemming from their previous background, their animosity toward me was triggered by my appearance. Engaging in conversations and establishing a connection with this person became an opportunity for growth and understanding. Over time, he admitted that initially he wanted to lash out at me solely based on what my appearance signified to him. The fact that we could sit down and talk blew his mind. While we didn't become friends, it was a small victory for me. If I could make him pause and reconsider before reacting negatively to someone that looks like me in the future, I considered it a success. Now, I proactively discuss my differences, forcing uncomfortable conversations to take place early on. By doing so, I aim to create an open and transparent environment, where we can move forward more honestly and collaboratively.

There was a pivotal moment about five to six years ago when I had a mental shift. I began questioning why I cared about the criticisms of people who weren't supporting me emotionally or financially. I started focusing on doing things for myself and those who would benefit from my achievements.

HC Insider: How can leaders create a supportive environment for Muslim women in the workplace?

SS: One crucial way leaders can provide better support is by consciously shifting the dynamics and giving Muslim employees, especially Muslim women who may wear visible religious attire, the same clean slate, and opportunities as everyone else. Creating a safe environment is also vital. At Darling, we prioritize safety in our operations. This not only involves providing proper training on equipment usage but also ensuring employees feel mentally safe within the workplace. It's about cultivating an environment where individuals can be themselves, free from derogatory comments, microaggressions, or unwanted physical contact. This type of mental safety goes beyond mere words and requires actively fostering an inclusive and respectful workplace culture.

Leaders should strive to create an environment where not just Muslim women, but all employees can feel comfortable, valued, and able to perform their work without fear of bias or discrimination. This can be achieved through training programs, awareness campaigns, and regular discussions about cultural sensitivity and religious accommodations. Additionally, leaders should be open and approachable, encouraging open dialogue and providing support to employees who may face specific challenges based on their religious identity. It's a collective effort that benefits not only individual employees but also the organization as a whole, promoting diversity of thought and driving innovation and success.

HC Insider: How are you supported as a leader at Darling Ingredients?

SS: I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be working at Darling Ingredients, where I receive exceptional support as a leader. My direct C-level manager has been incredibly supportive, granting me the freedom to take charge and lead my function in the way I see fit. This level of trust and empowerment is a significant factor in my success. In the past, I have encountered varying levels of support, where leaders would ask me to bring my ideas to them for discussion and evaluation before moving forward. This current level of support enables me to lead with conviction, knowing that I have a strong network of leaders who have my back and are invested in my success.

HC Insider: How can companies effectively retain diverse talent based on your leadership experience in employer culture, employee relations, and talent acquisition?

SS: Retaining diverse talent within companies requires a top-down approach. Even if middle management is supportive, it ultimately doesn't matter if the higher levels are not aligned. Middle management cannot retain talent or drive cultural transformation on their own. The commitment must come from the top, with leaders who vocalize their support and actively demonstrate it. If the C-level, for example, does not openly support  the initiatives that are important to their teams, it sets a precedent that undermines any expectation for others to do so. Retention in employee relations and building a supportive culture necessitates a widespread commitment to change. It's important to note that this shift cannot be solely HR-driven. Even with the best DEI professionals, their impact will be limited if they are not empowered to make a difference. They can provide strategic guidance and act as champions, but without the willingness of leadership to drive change, their efforts will be futile.

Salam’s top tips for career success 

  1. Be Your Authentic Self: Embrace who you are and strive to be the best version of yourself. Trying to maintain facades or proving others wrong won't lead to long-term success. When I stopped pretending to be someone else and focused on personal growth, everything changed.
  2. Find Personal Fulfilment: Prioritize your own fulfilment and accomplishments. You can't pour from an empty cup, so focus on activities and goals that bring you joy and a sense of achievement.
  3. Focus on Impact, Not Hours: Success is not solely determined by the number of hours you put in but by the impact you make. Meet deadlines, but also consider the broader impact of your work. Strive to deliver results that create a meaningful difference. Hard work and proving yourself is still crucial, especially for women who often face higher expectations. Don't underestimate your capabilities and push for what you deserve.
  4. Embrace Confidence and Ambition: Don't limit yourself by being overly cautious or self-critical. Studies have shown that men are more likely to apply for jobs even if they don't meet every requirement listed in the job description. Take inspiration from this. Believe in yourself, aim high, and be relentless in pursuing your goals.

I proactively discuss my differences, forcing uncomfortable conversations to take place early on. By doing so, I aim to create an open and transparent environment, where we can move forward more honestly and collaboratively.

HC Insider: What advantages have you discovered through fostering talent in an inclusive and globally diverse workplace?

SS: The most significant benefit is undoubtedly the diverse range of perspectives. It's as simple as considering the tools available to people before we implement a training program. While many of us have smartphones, we need to recognize that not everyone has access to the same resources. Some individuals may only have Wi-Fi-dependent phones or limited connectivity due to their marginalized or socio-economic circumstances. We often take such privileges for granted, assuming everyone has the same access. However, having individuals from different backgrounds and experiences in the room broadens our understanding. When you come from a place of privilege, your perspective tends to be influenced by that background. Similarly, those who have faced struggles view things through their unique lens. By involving multiple perspectives, I have been able to implement more successful programs.

HC Insider: The pandemic has exposed significant challenges faced by diverse employees, both in their work and personal lives. Can you shed light on some of these difficulties?

SS: I was working for a different company during the pandemic, and it became painfully evident that employees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were ill-prepared for a successful work-from-home setup. It wasn't due to a lack of motivation or desire on their part, but rather the absence of necessities such as a dedicated workspace, a quiet environment at home, and reliable internet access. We recognized that a specific group of individuals would not have been able to cope if we didn't find a way to support them. To address this, we had to keep our offices open. We created a system where people could be physically present, maintaining social distancing in huddle rooms or arranging their workstations in isolated cubicles surrounded by empty spaces. This allowed them to continue their job responsibilities. The pandemic has underscored the immense gaps in resources and circumstances that individuals face. As leaders, it is crucial for us to acknowledge these disparities and continue working towards creating a more equitable and supportive environment for all employees.

HC Insider: What ignites your passion and drives your achievements?

SS: It may sound cliché, but I'm truly driven by the desire to make a positive impact. The values instilled in me by my parents have shaped this passion. I belong to the generation that craves the feeling of making the world a better place in some way. This extends beyond work. I constantly ask myself, "Whose mind can I change today? Whose life can I impact?" It's about challenging perspectives and shaping how people think about the world. In my role in HR, I have the opportunity to be a partner to operations. It's not just about traditional HR tasks; it's about bringing a unique perspective that combines my operational experience with HR knowledge. I find fulfilment in offering insights that might shift their thinking or contribute to problem-solving in areas beyond people management.