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Beyond diversity

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Tolcha Mesele is living his dream as a builder in Sioux Falls, but what he’s building can’t be seen by the naked eye. As Senior Manager of Community Development at Smithfield Foods, Mesele builds community and connection.
His role is focused on establishing and strengthening relationships with area nonprofits, businesses and governmental organizations. “Sometimes that means financial donations, but a lot of times, it just is reflecting what the interests of your employees are and making sure that everybody has a chance to live a good life, to raise a family, to pursue their dreams and their goals and make sure that nobody is left out from those conversations,” he said.
Smithfield is one of the largest employers in the Sioux Falls area, with thousands of employees who speak dozens of different languages. With those numbers, diversity is no longer a goal in itself. Part of Mesele’s role is to ensure Smithfield’s leadership is in touch with issues that are important to its employees. Mesele explained that informal figureheads often speak for a group of employees to relay their current concerns. Mesele then connects with area nonprofit organizations that may help address the issue.
“We’ll learn from there and then go back to our employees to see if that matches up with what they need,” he said. “But there really isn’t a shortcut to it at all.”
In recent years, Mesele was hearing from a lot of employees that their kids were falling behind when they got to kindergarten because they had not attended preschool. To narrow that gap, Smithfield joined forces with the Hope Coalition, a local organization that works to ensure all children have the opportunity to attend preschool.
“It has made a huge impact,” said Mesele. “But you don’t get that information unless you talk to the employees to find out.”
Mesele serves on various boards, like the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, Lutheran Social Services and the Sioux Empire United Way, as a way to prioritize relationship-building with area service agencies and business organizations.
“I see how [these organizations] make a concerted effort to make sure Smithfield’s voice is represented and that our employees feel that resources are being effectively deployed in areas such as education, economic development, health and human services, resettlement, literacy, family services and overall happiness,” he said.
While the larger community connections are important, Smithfield has independently developed several powerful programs to integrate equity into their company culture.
Mesele believes that developing programs in response to employee concerns is important for building trust and showing the company cares about its employees on a personal level. One such program is their scholarship program with the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University, which awards significant college scholarships to dependents of employees.
“It came about from just talking to a lot of employees,” said Mesele. “It’s a big unifier, no matter where you’re from, what language you speak, what your religion is, all parents want their kids to have a better life than they did.”
In addition to identifying shared values and concerns among employees, Smithfield takes care to ensure employees at every level feel included and valued. One of their favorite ways to create community is by having potlucks.
It’s a chance to show pride and talk about different cultures and what that food means to them.
“Every potluck is amazing with dozens and dozens of different countries represented,” said Mesele. He sees how much it means to employees that management takes time to celebrate with them, meet their families and learn about their cultures. “It’s a chance to show pride and talk about different cultures and what that food means to them.”
Mesele knows how important cultural insight can be to a work setting. He came to the United States as a refugee when he was a child, and he identifies as Ethiopian. One day, a colleague came to him for advice about how to address conflict between groups of employees who were all Ethiopian, but from conflicting tribes. Mesele explained that because coffee originated in Ethiopia, it can be a powerful unifier in Ethiopian culture. “No matter what tribe you’re from, that’s something you’re very proud about,” he said. Taking Mesele’s advice, the colleague brought his employees together over a pot of Ethiopian coffee and found a common connection, leading to open conversation and a lasting resolution.
Like other area businesses, Smithfield is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, ensuring everyone has a seat at the table. Mesele believes it goes beyond what we can see and hear at work. “We need to make sure we’re engaged in all parts of our employees’ lives,” he said, “not just their work lives.”
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