Champion of diversity: How Gale King changed Nationwide — and Columbus – The Columbus Dispatch

champion-of-diversity:-how-gale-king-changed-nationwide-—-and-columbus-–-the-columbus-dispatch

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Gale King

Coming from a modest upbringing in the Jim Crow south, Gale King’s dream to attend college seemed out of reach.

Today, she has two degrees from the University of Florida, where she established endowment funds.

After starting her career at Nationwide Insurance in an entry-level claims job, her highest aspiration was to be a claims manager.

Now, as executive vice president and chief administrative officer, she oversees human resources for approximately 26,000 employees, as well as corporate real estate and corporate aviation. And after 37 years at Nationwide, she has announced plans to retire in July. She will be succeeded by Vinita Clements, who joined the company in 2004 and brings a wealth of HR experience to her new role.

King, 64, is celebrated for leading diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Nationwide, creating an engaging work culture and mentoring leaders in the company and beyond.

“I was a little girl in which all of the statistics would have said that there was no way that I would have arrived at this place,” said King, who grew up in Gainesville, Florida. “We all hope to make a difference and be impactful in our lives. To hear from people that you've worked with that you were [impactful] has been heartwarming for me. It's been beyond what I could have even imagined.”

Gale King

Leading on diversity

Nationwide is widely recognized as a leader in the DEI space. The company has been listed among Fortune’s 50 Best Workplaces for Diversity, and consistently achieved 100% on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index, a national benchmark for the LGTBQ community.

“I believe that each of us should be a voice for the least of us,” King said. “It's about whether or not you're going to have an organization that says all people matter, and that all people can see themselves being able to realize whatever their dreams are.”

King said she is proud of Nationwide’s advances in diversity. C-suite officers are 20% diverse and 20% female, according to the company's 2020 corporate sustainability report. 

“I think I've played a role in that,” she said. “We don't care what you look like or what you believe, as long as you operate within (our) values.”

King has empowered executives to increase DEI efforts on their respective teams, said John Carter, president and chief operating officer of the financial services business.

“We both have always believed that inclusion drives performance,” he said. “Diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t something that you should have to do. It should be something that you want to do to beat your competitors. And Gale helps me every day so that I have what I need to recruit, develop and retain great leaders of all backgrounds.”

Carter also praised King’s efforts to help the company process the death of George Floyd and subsequent racial justice protests of 2020.

“I appreciated how she used her talents and her experiences help us lean in on our approach as leaders and as a company during a very difficult time,” he said. “These courageous conversations are ones that our leaders are becoming more and more comfortable with, and that starts at the top. I’ve got to give Gale a lot of credit for that.”

As part of its DEI strategy, Nationwide supports associate resource groups. King is a regular presence at group events, said Tim Kasper, president of the Pride group.

“She spends a good bit of her time engaging with us, consulting with us, asking us questions and updates,” he said. “I've been an out gay man at Nationwide since I started, and I've never once felt like I needed to hide that. I think Gale sets a standard of being your true, full self at work.”

Kasper said King has been an advocate of gender-inclusive restrooms, company participation in the Pride parade and other forms of support for LGBTQ associates. 

“Gale makes it personal,” he continued. “She’s always had this way of making you feel like you're part of something bigger, but you're also the only person in the room. I don’t even know how she does that.”

Gale King

She does it in the smallest ways, said Crystal Files, vice president of marketing.  

“When she would walk down the hall, she would make sure that she made eye contact with everyone because I think she wanted people to know that they mattered," Files said. 

As one of King’s mentees, Files said she felt seen and valued, even when she was in the “hot seat” in King’s office.

“Her willingness to tell the truth, even when it wasn't easy to hear, is one of the things I appreciate about her most,” she said. “You knew it was coming from a place of personal care, that she wanted to help people be successful.”

Donna James, former president of Nationwide Strategic Investments, said King will impact the company long after she is gone.

"It's about the systems that she put in place," said James, who once had King's title as CAO at the company. "You have to be intentional about making diversity, equity and inclusion stick through systems, policies, who you hire and how you develop people. And she knows how to touch all of those points. It was very gratifying for me to see her step into that role. I couldn't have been more proud." 

Putting Columbus on the map

One of King’s most notable accomplishments was bringing National Urban League and Black Enterprise conferences to Columbus. Former Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman partnered with her on those efforts.

“She’s a positive force to be reckoned with,” Coleman said. “I always liked to be in the foxhole with Gale because I knew that she would be the one to get the work done at the highest level. Her fingerprints are everywhere, and she’s modest about it.”

And her reach extends beyond Columbus, as Coleman discovered on a visit to the office of former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis in Washington, D.C.

“I look on her desk and there’s a picture of Gale King,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s Gale King!’ She said, ‘Yeah, I know,’ like, ‘Of course I know Gale King.’ ”

Back in college in Gainesville, King originally wanted to be a journalist, which is ironic considering she shares a name with broadcast journalist Gayle King, who happens to be Oprah Winfrey’s best friend.

Nationwide’s King is often mistaken for the TV star, who spells her first name with a "y." Once, before giving a commencement speech, Columbus' King was informed the audience was expecting the other woman. But she was not deterred.

“(Onstage), I said, ‘Well, first of all, I do want to acknowledge that I know that many of you came to see the other Gayle King,’” she recalled. “And they just broke up laughing, and then they loved me from then on.”

The two women have met, and Gayle King even introduced the Nationwider at a National Urban League event.

Standing up for women

King said she pivoted from journalism and started her career at Nationwide after meeting a representative at a career fair. It wasn’t long before she was inspired to move into human resources.

“I really felt that Nationwide was a company that valued people,’ she said. “I felt that I would be able to help them do all the right things.”

As King advanced in her career, she brought others with her, especially women. In 2016, Mayor Andrew Ginther appointed her to the inaugural class of the Columbus Women’s Commission, which advances the economic well-being of women in the community.

Ginther said King was a key voice in launching The Commitment, a pay-equity pledge for employers. An impressive 270 companies signed on.

“She is a really strong voice for women in leadership, and she's been such an amazing mentor,” Ginther said. “I know that she’s impacted the lives of thousands of women.”

Although YWCA President and CEO Christie Angel wasn’t a formal mentee, she was still inspired by King.

“She's just there for you, cheering for you and reaching out to you,” said Angel, also an inaugural member of the Columbus Women’s Commission. “You're being mentored by her just by being in her presence.”

As a Black woman at the top of her field, King has been a powerful source of inspiration for women who look like her. It’s a responsibility Yvette McGee Brown knows all too well: She was the first Black woman justice on the Ohio Supreme Court and now works as partner-in-charge of diversity, inclusion and advancement at Cleveland-based law firm Jones Day.

“It is very hard to be a Black woman in corporate America because people assume that you are there for reasons other than sheer talent,” said McGee Brown, who calls King a friend. “(King) didn't get caught up in people's rumors about why she was there or people's low expectations of her. She always excelled.”

McGee said both she and King have been shaped by their underprivileged backgrounds.

“When you have that experience, you don't take anything for granted,” McGee Brown said. “You know that when you show up, you have to be excellent on day one and that there isn't margin for you to make a mistake. For some people, that can be crushing, but for Gale, it pushed her forward.”

Many of King’s associates and friends said they expect her to continue to make a difference after retirement.

"What I want to do is figure out how to continue to add value,” said King, who lives in New Albany and enjoys playing and spending time at her second home in Charlotte. "How can I be impactful? How can I make the world better for somebody? I’ve been so blessed.”

Gale King

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