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A Life-Changing Industry Internship

Dow’s Karen Carter shares what made the experience so unforgettable
Woman leading a team
Image credit: iStock by Getty Images

Key Takeaways:

  1. Karen Carter shares the pros and cons of her time as the newly created position of Chief Inclusion Officer at Dow
  2. Learn why she values roles that make her uncomfortable
  3. Karen emphasizes the significance of internships

You were Dow’s first Chief Inclusion Officer. Any newly-created position has plusses and minuses. What were they in this instance?

Inclusion and diversity are not new at Dow; we have been working to create an inclusive culture for decades. In 2017, Company’s top leadership decided to elevate inclusion and diversity as a business imperative with other key priorities. And that is why when Dow’s top leadership created the position of chief inclusion officer, they sought a businessperson for the role. Inclusion is about business opportunity. Inclusion is about business success. 

I’ve worked at Dow for more than 25 years and I have had a lot of rewarding experiences. And whether I was living in Shanghai, China leading the Asia-Pacific team serving the construction industry, or living in Houston, TX leading the North American team serving the packaging industry, my focus was always on people. And as Chief Inclusion Officer, I am squarely focused on Investing in ALL Dow People, and institutionalizing an Inclusive Culture. And both of these are critical to delivering better business results and social impact.

Whenever you are trying to drive culture change, it is not easy. And there are moments when progress does not seem good enough, or change does not seem fast enough. But then there are these amazing moments that make this work worth it. And one of those moments happened last year at Dow’s all-employee resource group (ERG) conference called EMERGE. 

It was a 3-day experience that brought together more than 500 employees, customers and partners from over 30 countries. It was the most diverse and most energized group that I have ever been in the midst of. This business event, attended by our CEO and entire leadership team, was focused on enhancing Dow’s inclusion culture, and elevating ERGs as true business partners and change agents. To say this was a highlight of my career is an understatement. Our employees showed up with a passion aligned around a common purpose that has sparked a movement in our Company. And that is the same passion and purpose that fuels me every day.

One of your areas of responsibility at Dow is ‘employee experience.’ How has the pandemic most complicated that role?

The pandemic has certainly changed a lot of things. And our focus on people is unwavering and unchanged. As a matter of fact, we know that the way we treat our people right now will make the difference. I’m proud of how Dow has responded during this crisis. To help with the pandemic relief, we:

  • Quickly converted capacity to produce much needed hand sanitizer at 5 Dow locations around the world
  • Collaborated to design a face shield, and then made the design available to the public so other companies could meet the demand
  • Partnered to develop and donate isolation gowns to help front-line workers

To ensure we met the changing needs of Team Dow, we:

  • Implemented additional benefits for those with COVID-19 or those who are helping dependents recover
  • Increased flexibility in work arrangements, as we realize everyone is managing through various personal circumstances
  • Improved access to certain benefits, like childcare options and tele-medicine
  • Elevated the importance of overall wellbeing, with an emphasis on our mental health services

I have found some gifts in this crisis – things that we want to keep doing even when the pandemic is over. And some of those include watching our ERGs lead the way in keeping everyone engaged through virtual events and providing encouragement to our frontline workers that have continued to report into our worksites, and how as a company we are communicating in more transparent and unique ways to our team.

People are also taking more time to connect with and appreciate each other. We can’t let this be a moment, we must make this the way we live going forward. How we treat each other right now, will be the difference.  

Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And that is what employee experience is all about.

In terms of the hiring process at Dow, what impact has the pandemic had? 

We see this as an area where the pandemic has moved us forward in a positive way. It has accelerated our adoption of digital tools. For example, we converted more than 200 internships to a virtual format around the world. These quick adaptations allow us to both meet our commitments to these students and realize the value their unique perspectives bring to Dow.

We have also embraced virtual interviewing, utilizing our already available IT platforms and have developed a guide with virtual interviewing tips for interviewers and candidates. As we look toward the second half of the year, we are converting our in-person recruiting events to virtual experiences and also looking at new ways to recruit campus hires. 

Overall our skills assessments have not changed, as we can continue to use behavior-based questions, and exercises. And we continue to use this time as an opportunity to ensure we are applying our inclusive hiring practices, such as diverse interview teams.  

For a truly global company like Dow, how do you normalize diversity and inclusion work practices within larger cultural contexts? 

Our commitment to inclusion and diversity starts at the top with our executive team and is woven into the fabric of our entire organization. It is embedded in our company’s ambition, which is to be the most customer-centric, innovative, inclusive and sustainable Materials Science Company in the world. We are positioned and organized to engage employees at all levels globally and leverage insights across the company to ensure organization alignment and optimum implementation of our global Inclusion & Diversity Strategy. And we have an organization that translates our strategy locally, ensuring those plans are built on the foundation of our core values – including Respect for People.

My responsibility as Chief Inclusion Officer and Chief Human Resources Officer, and a woman of color who has worked in this industry for more than 25 years, is to ensure that we continue to elevate this conversation and ultimately increase the diversity of our representation because it is both the smart thing to do and the right thing to do.

Before assuming your current responsibilities, you served as North America commercial vice president, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics (P&SP). What do you miss about that career track? 

Yes, after working in businesses for more than 20 years I am now the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Inclusion Officer, but I don’t see it as a completely different career track. I have a seat at the table where we are making strategic decisions for our Company related to business and people.  So, I see my role still as a business leader, because I am still charged with helping the Company prosper and thrive. Now I just do it through the lens of our people and culture.

Many groups are committed to increasing the numbers - and success - of women and underrepresented minorities in the physical sciences. What’s the optimal age in which to initially intervene to make progress in this area? And what does that intervention look like?

At Dow, we believe that continuous engagement throughout the learning journey is the key to sustained interest and success. And our efforts begin at an early age, through our STEM Ambassadors who visit elementary schools and conduct experiments to show how exciting science can be. Our Ambassador program continues that engagement throughout middle school and high school. And the ultimate goal is that these students pursue STEM careers, including at Dow. Peaking interest in STEM is one thing, but we also know that there are other barriers in our society that negatively impact underrepresented minorities. And the recent events in the U.S. have elevated the long-standing issues of racism and racial injustice. 

That is why this week, Dow announced our commitment through a series of strategic actions; and to pledging $5 million over the next five years to help advance racial equality and social justice. With this strategic framework, we recommitted to existing actions, outlined a set of new actions we will take to move the needle, and put forth further actions that will accelerate us towards our ambition globally. 

We believe that equal access to education and opportunity can be a catalyst that drives success across communities and industries.

In February 2018, you participated in a fantastic podcast hosted by Whitney Johnson. Among other things, I was struck by how life-changing your college internship with Dow turned out to be. Do you think industry grasps how important these internships are?  

My internship was a gateway to a better future. And we have to open that gate for many more people than we do today. Applying for that Dow internship many years ago really did change my life. When I look at the number of countries I’ve traveled to, the number of businesses I’ve worked in, becoming the first African-American female officer at Dow, it truly has been a worthwhile journey. But most importantly, I think about all of the things I’ve been able to do in my family and my community. That is what is most important to me and that first internship at Dow made all of this happen. I encourage young people all of the time to explore internships. They are an opportunity to experience a company over a period of time and find out if it aligns with your personal purpose and career aspirations.

How have your parents influenced your leadership style?

I am proud to be raised by an amazing mother who raised three successful women on her own after our father unexpectedly died when I was 12. She not only encouraged all three of us to do great things, but she expected us to do great things. At an early age – I learned how to be honest about my strengths and weaknesses and reject the messages I knew weren’t true. 

As a leader, I am passionate about helping people achieve even more than they think they are capable of. I strive for excellence and hold myself to a high standard, even if I don’t achieve it all of the time. And I hold others to the same standard...not striving for perfection, but for continuous improvement. And like my mom, I love to celebrate other’s successes. 

These are my best days, when I can witness someone achieving something they may have thought impossible. That is what leadership is about – walking alongside someone, nudging them through support, feedback and opportunity towards their personal definition of success.  

What’s the one trait that has been most instrumental in your career success?

Another gift that I received from my mom was resilience, which is critical in business and in life.  What is certain is uncertainty. But what you control is how you react to it. And this lesson has served me well over many years, including right now as we deal with a global pandemic, an economic crisis and civil unrest. What is important in this moment is to focus on controlling what we can control, reimagining opportunities and prioritizing self-care.

You have said, “The jobs where I grew the most were the ones where I’ve been the most uncomfortable.” Can you share an example of such an instance? And how you overcame your discomfort?

There is a quote that I heard from one of my colleagues and it keeps coming back to me again and again: “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” What a powerful quote. 

Growth requires experiences that stretch people’s thinking. Note the word “experience.” And one of the biggest “stretches” in my life was the opportunity to live abroad in Shanghai, China. Every day was an adventure. There’s a difference between being put in a situation and being passive, and purposely moving out of your comfort zone. My husband and I chose to take full advantage of as many local experiences as possible. We lived in a building with both expats and local residents. We shopped at local places. We learned as much Mandarin as possible, which by all accounts wasn’t very much. And there were uncomfortable days. But every day, even if it was uncomfortable – was an opportunity to learn, grow and stretch. This experience has had a significant influence on my career and life.  

Duty. Service. Giving back. Can you talk a little bit about how they came to be so foundational to the person you are, and seek to be?  

One of my favorite quotes is from Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. She said, “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth”. I would much rather give than receive. That has always been a part of who I am. Service is a gift, and to me it is an awesome responsibility and privilege. If we all just gave one thing and served one person, imagine the impact.

In a Spring 2019 profile published in Howard Magazine, you said, “If I can get home and sit on my mama’s front porch—that’s my happy place.” How did that porch in Wichita, Kansas grow to be so important to you?

Most of my family is still in Wichita, KS particularly my two sisters and my mom. And while I’ve been all around the world, my absolute most favorite place on the planet is my mama’s front porch. Why? Because that is where the people I love the most congregate. That is where time seems to stop, and stress does not exist. And that is where I invest the most precious thing that I time. It is the destination that I am working towards arriving at. And I cannot wait.

Karen Carter, President, Packaging & Specialty Plastics, Dow Chemical
Karen Carter, President, Packaging & Specialty Plastics, Dow Chemical

Karen Carter is the President of the Packaging & Specialty Plastics business unit at Dow Chemical Company. When originally interviewed for this article, Carter was the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Inclusion Officer. As Chief Human Resources Officer, Carter was responsible for developing and implementing human resources policies and practices to support the company’s global workforce, which includes talent, recruiting, compensation, benefits, and employee experience. As Dow’s first Chief Inclusion Officer, she guided and directed the company’s efforts to create a more inclusive environment and diverse workforce while integrating inclusion as a key driver for business success.

Carter has more than 25 years of experience with Dow. Before assuming her current responsibilities, Carter held the role of North America commercial vice president, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics (P&SP). While serving in that role, Carter was a member of the global business leadership team and was responsible for the overall profit & loss of P&SP’s North America region. Carter has held a variety of global business positions throughout her career.

Carter is on the board of directors for the Great Lakes Bay Region Boys and Girls Clubs of America and is a member of the Executive Leadership Council and is on the Catalyst Board of Advisors.

Carter has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Howard University and a master’s degree in international business from DePaul University. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2022 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

Karen Carter, President, Packaging & Specialty Plastics, Dow Chemical

Karen Carter is President of Packaging & Specialty Plastics at Dow Chemical. When interviewed initially, Karen was the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Inclusion Officer for Dow.

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