In November 2019, Danielle Civitillo—a Design Technology Specialist at VHB—stepped up to a podium at Autodesk University in front of a crowd and began talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). She knew it was an important moment.
We sat down with Danielle to learn more about the path that led to that podium and how it unfolded.
VHB: How does a PE/technology specialist wind up doing something like this?
DC: My manager, Ryan Noyes, Director of Innovative Project Delivery, suggested that I submit a proposal, and he’s pretty persuasive.
VHB: This was a tech conference. Why talk about DE&I?
DC: I considered several topics, but the idea of diversity and inclusion kept resurfacing. I had been hearing over and over that our industry is behind, and I thought, ‘Let’s do something about it!’ Autodesk University is a huge platform and a great opportunity to raise awareness. DE&I is not solely the province of HR. Our technology is affected by a lack of diversity. How we navigate cities is affected by socioeconomic differences. So our entire industry has a responsibility to address this.
VHB: Autodesk has said that 2019 was their best conference ever, with more than 12,000 attendees. No pressure, right?
DC: When I found out I had been selected, I said, “Oh no! What have I gotten myself into?” DE&I is such a big, complex topic and gets so much scrutiny—I knew I had a lot to learn, and I had to get it right. I also suspected that the presentation would draw a fair amount of attention, so I wanted to make an impact.
VHB: What kind of background or experience did you bring to the topic?
DC: I’m one of the co-founders of our employee-led group VHB IDEAL—Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance. So I’ve spent a lot of time reading, thinking, and talking about these issues. That said, I’m not pretending to be an expert. I did a ton of research for this presentation.
VHB: Given such a broad topic, how did you find your angle?
DC: I knew my audience would be mostly engineers, so I thought a survey would be a good way to connect with logical, data-driven people. I was inspired by a Zweig Group article, which reported that 49% of male principals surveyed had considered leaving the AE field, compared to 100% of the women. I wanted to explore that idea further, so I created a survey. My analysis of more than 100 responses became the basis for my presentation, which I think gave it a lot of authenticity and credibility.
VHB: You didn’t come armed with just a deck, right?
DC: Right. In addition to 57 slides, I also created a 35-page handout. I was pretty naïve about how long it would take! Fortunately, my amazing friends and colleagues were very generous with their time in helping me prepare, including Mike Carragher, our CEO. Mike went through the entire deck with me, which was incredibly helpful (and an excellent example of being an ally). He changed my whole perspective on how the presentation should be set up. Still, I was rehearsing and editing slides in my hotel room right up until the last minute. I couldn’t leave it to chance because I knew people would be paying attention.
VHB: Did the experience meet your expectations?
DC: I would have to say it exceeded them. The talk was very well received, and I definitely felt a connection with the audience. Someone told me they had never seen so many people stay through the Q&A. I was also named one of AU’s top 50 speakers, which was exciting. I even had someone reach out to me on LinkedIn recently because they came across my presentation on the AU website and wanted to tell me how happy they were to know that someone in the AEC industry was talking about these issues.
VHB: What advice do you have for firms that want to dive into DE&I?
DC: All of us—especially corporate leaders—can take responsibility for our own learning so that we can recognize where there is a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusivity. Then start talking, raising awareness, and enrolling others in the conversation. It’s also important to understand that talk alone isn’t enough. Consider policy changes, employee engagement surveys, unconscious bias workshops, coaching on how to be an effective ally…there are many ways to take action.
VHB: Where do you think our industry is headed in terms of DE&I?
DC: I think our industry has a duty to get this right. It’s not just about DE&I in our workspaces, but also how we approach our designs for our communities. We all have the ability to affect real change. I think people understand that we should do something; the question is going to be whether or not it’s made a priority within the industry, both in the work our firms do and in recruitment and promotion practices.
VHB: Thanks for speaking with us and for your advocacy.