Dnika J. Travis, PhD, Vice President at Catalyst: Listen to the ideas of those you may not interact with often

Many believe our family dynamic as a child has a significant impact on our psyche, our ability to build a life for ourselves, and our sense of self. For Dnika J. Travis, this is definitely true: shew grew up in what she described as an ‘inquisitive, empathetic, and social-justice-oriented family. She also had many mentors who challenged and encouraged her to question everything and always dedicate time to self-reflection. Her deep love for academia and an innate desire to understand complex, deep-rooted issues led her to a successful career in research. 

Today, she’s a recognized educator, change leader, and vice president of Catalyst’s research. In her role, she is responsible for all initiatives and content creation, including building the Catalyst Inclusion Accelerator, which helps companies focus on diversity hiring. She’s also been instrumental in Catalyst’s ability to research the emotional tax placed on people of color at work, as well as digging into those uncomfortable, yet vital conversations within the office. 

Travis took time to share her wisdom, experience and guidance with The Ladders:


What are the trends you see within your industry currently?

The COVID-19 global health crises, combined with protests and demands for racial justice, have magnified social inequities. Amid the uncertainty, company leaders ask the tough questions and reimagining how people work to build better, more equitable, and inclusive workplaces and society. It’s awe-inspiring to see that equity and inclusion are elevated as paramount for our future rather than only a trend.


How would you describe your company culture?

Deeply committed. Adaptive. Inspired. Supportive. Driven to make change.


What can a job applicant do to catch your attention? What stands out the most to you?

Showcase critical thinking skills. Speak to both their strengths and evolution of their career journey and reflect the interest of the company’s mission.


What’s the most challenging part of being a leader/manager? What’s the best part?

We don’t have a ceiling on striving for diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s an ongoing journey. The challenges lie in how complex, layered, and reflective this work is. But that’s also the best part.


What’s your advice for tackling big projects at a company-wide level?

Ask a lot of questions. Don’t make assumptions. Listen to the ideas of those you may not interact with often—both inside and outside your organization. Ask yourself and your team members, ‘What I am missing?’ It’s not about having doubt, but rather making sure your decision-making capacity is inclusive, and you have the insights you need to meet organizational goals.


How do you keep your staff motivated? How do you motivate yourself?

I view people in my organization as partners in a mission—not as staff. This means creating opportunities for people to be engaged and involved in decision-making processes. Catalyst research on inclusive leadership highlights trust—people’s ability to be contributors and decision-makers in their organization—as a core aspect of inclusion. I love this! And it motivates me to know team members are involved, taking ownership of their roles, and contributing to the company mission.


How do you find a balance between work and life demands?

Candidly, I don’t find, nor do I aspire to find the balance between work and demands. I don’t want to feel guilt or overburden either way. I aspire to be fully present in whatever environment I’m in and be transparent with my family or team if something unexpected occurs. Then, I can more adeptly switch gears. It seems to work for me, but I don’t’ always get it right. I recognize others may have a different approach.


What are some of the challenges you have faced as a POC in this industry?

As a Black woman, I cannot separate my research topics from my personal experiences or the experiences of my loved ones. This is both a gift and a challenge. At Catalyst, we have been researching emotional tax experienced by Asian, Black, Latinx, and multiracial employees in the US and Canada for several years now. 

One of the hallmarks of emotional tax is being on guard to protect against bias due to gender and race/ethnicity and other aspects of identity. Navigating emotional tax requires vigilance. It has implications on sleep patterns and intent to stay. Throughout my career, not unlike many women of color who have participated in our research, I have my own stories and experiences. But I’ve tried to use those experiences as a gut-check on my research and, most importantly, to connect across differences.


How do you feel about the current climate in America right now in regards to race? Is it changing your work culture?

That is a big question. On some days, I feel despair, fear, and worry. But on most days, I feel a sense of resolve. The health and racial disparities we are bearing witness are magnified, but not new. I’m awe-struck by demands to name and eradicate structural inequities and racism. So many are finding meaningful ways to have their voices heard and looking deeply to create change. I am proud that Catalyst is serving our supporters and doing the work to be part of that change.