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Unicorns, Open Spaces, and Relationality: How I Found a Culture of Belonging at 2U

Written by Elizabeth-Wede Fahnbulleh on Feb 26, 2021

Related content: Diversity And Inclusion

My human capital is the standard by which I assess organizational culture. In other roles before arriving at 2U, I often found my educational background, social standing, and title at the very least on par with my colleagues—yet I felt hopelessly alone in belonging. All the passions, aspirations, and identities I had worked so hard to cultivate for myself over the years had me pouring tirelessly into these organizational cultures, but somehow those cultures had failed to pour back into me.

Throughout my experiences in higher education and the global workforce, I have indeed found unicorns—i.e., consciously diverse allies devoted to embracing and working to strengthen a culture of relationality alongside me. With the goal of bringing humanity together through a kinship of shared purpose, the concept of relationality transcends title, tenure, and trade. But delineating the difference between how an organization thinks about its culture of belonging and how it actually creates it goes far beyond strategizing how to help an organization grow for the sake of its business.

At 2U—and across all realms of education and enterprise—we must ask ourselves: Are the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) metrics and initiatives we’re implementing tangible not just in “3-D,” but in as many dimensions as possible? In other words, are we assessing organizational culture beyond race, ethnicity, and gender to embrace identities of origin, growth, lifestyle, and knowledge for the ultimate betterment of our people? For me, the answer is “yes.”

People-First Leadership

I was only a few days into working at 2U when I wrote a panicked email to 2U’s Co-Founder and CEO Chip Paucek asking him to help me save my kids’ school from shutting down. It was a bold move on my part, and one I’m proud to have taken, but I didn’t necessarily think anything would come from that out-of-the-blue attempt at contact. I was pleasantly caught off guard, and so grateful, when Chip immediately responded. This is just one example of 2U’s “secret sauce” in action: strong leadership engagement in matters of people.

Across the C-suite, 2U’s leadership team is omnipresent in all forums, organically engaged in the people-centered discussions of business transparency and collective goal setting. They make clear through their actions that they possess an unrelenting desire to strengthen inclusive cultures of diverse groups of people.

That’s how our Business Resource Networks (BRNs) came about—affinity groups within 2U that foster the company’s organizational momentum to attract and retain one united value mission of diversified experiences, perspectives, ideas, and walks of life. Everyone is invited and encouraged to be their authentic selves and find a home at 2U. The Black Engagement Network (BNet) is where I found my home.

Discovering an Open Space for Sharing and Belonging

Joining the company as a member of the inaugural “COVID cohort,” I came to 2U already stressed about missed opportunities to meet and mingle with potential mentors. My sense of company culture was limited to my immediate team as I learned how to do my job from the confines of my home at the peak of the pandemic.

I was onboarding remotely while juggling homeschooling in quarantine, all while the U.S. was in the midst of a racial reckoning following the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. I felt like everything was collapsing around me. It completely broke me down. I needed a way to connect with others and feel like I belonged when the rest of the world felt like it was toppling down. That’s when I discovered BNet.

My first experience with BNet was through attending an Open Space—a safe, weekly forum for Black 2Utes to come together and connect amidst a challenging time of civil injustice. I was far too overwhelmed with pain, exhaustion, and Zoom fatigue to do anything besides listen. But in listening, I found many of the Black stories shared—the fears, the heartaches, and the frustrations —to be identical to my struggles in the global workforce over the years as an African-American, plus-sized woman with a strong personality, wit, and presence.

I take up space, on purpose; it's a birthright and reparation I am in full control of now after years of toning myself down, trying to belong in my craft and my own human space. Through Open Spaces, I felt like I had found my people and a sense of belonging, so much so that I reached out to many individuals shortly after the first meeting to set up personal check-ins, request resources and coaching, and learn more about what it’s like at 2U.

Moving Beyond Listening to Activating

Inspired by my experience with Open Spaces, I joined BNet as a full-time member and immediately found opportunities to contribute. I volunteered to discuss healing and resilience-building activities with BNet leadership. I also found myself feeling comfortable and confident enough to contribute to conversations with HR about the hiring and retention trends of Black 2Utes. I conducted informational interviews with leaders across departments to inform future HR DEI strategies, all while fully engaged in curating the first 2U virtual variety show, the BNet Freedom Fest.

I finally found what I had been searching for: an organization willing to entrust in me the ability to challenge and adapt cultural norms while also providing me with the bonding, sustained inclusion, and pathway to increased allyship, mentoring, training, promotion, retention, and human capital replenishment that I haven’t found elsewhere in my career. A true sense of belonging.

The Glue that Binds Us

2U is an organization that invests in DEI to ensure that everyone can bring their whole authentic self to serve, learn, and lead. As companies compete to attract and retain talent, it’s clear that building cultures that inspire motivation and happiness—cultures where all voices are acknowledged, validated, and all ideas are encouraged to flow creatively—will be key to their success. In fact, findings from this year’s Global Human Capital Trends survey support this theory: belonging is the most critical human capital issue within the current workforce.

Working toward a state of relationality leads us to objectively forge connections and bonds that ultimately strengthen and teach us. The process encourages us to develop and exhibit greater compassion for others, and also for ourselves, throughout an organizational culture of belonging. It’s transformative, promising, and the glue that binds.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.