NAkisha Henry often has found herself in situations in which she was the “diverse person.” The marginalized one. For her entire life, she has fought to have her voice heard, her thoughts valued, and to convince others she belongs at the table—despite having a different background to those already seated.
Henry started in HR at age eighteen when she stepped into the career center at her Brooklyn, New York, high school looking for summer work. “The job happened to be in human resources, and I kind of just never left,” Henry says. She transitioned to the benefits side of human resources twenty-two years ago when joining a large construction firm.
Now, as director of benefits at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a top-ranked college of art, design, architecture, liberal arts and sciences, and information studies, Henry brings a passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion. With two direct reports, she strategically plans and implements Pratt’s benefits and ensures they align with the Institute’s broader goals, especially in recruitment, retention, and inclusiveness.
Having worked at Pratt for nearly twenty years, Henry says the school’s success hinges on its ability to employ individuals from diverse backgrounds, who bring a wide variety of viewpoints. “We want to maintain our world-class status, and we won’t if we just have the same type of thinking and the same type of people in these positions,” she says.
To foster a more diverse faculty, staff, and student body, Pratt created and implemented a five-year strategic plan on diversity. Built on four pillars, the approach first guarantees that Pratt provides a welcoming environment, ensuring all feel physically and psychologically safe and know that their opinions and views will be heard and considered.
The second pillar guarantees that Pratt recruits and retains individuals forming the most diverse student body possible, including those from underrepresented groups. “Whether it’s from a racial perspective or whether it’s from a socioeconomic class,” the director says.
The third pillar commits to the recruitment and hiring of a diverse faculty and staff, one reflecting the community Pratt serves. “Looking [at recruitment] through the lens of racial and sexual identity and different abilities, we ensure to place ads in publications where they will be seen by more diverse candidates,” Henry says. For those jobs requiring search committees, HR appoints advocates to ensure the committees consider diversity when selecting applicants.
Henry cochairs a committee seeking to retain and support a diverse faculty and staff, the fourth pillar of Pratt’s strategic diversity plan. “[It’s] one thing to get the people here, but how do you make sure you’re providing the support and opportunities for them to want to stay here?” she says. Henry’s committee ferrets out research opportunities for faculty and cultivates interactions between academic disciplines. “We support our staff and promote their work. Many of our staff members also are artists, and we give them opportunities to showcase their work,” Henry says.
At Pratt, diversity is not just about race, gender, sexual identity, and socioeconomic status. Hiring committees also consider neurodiversity. “No two brains are wired the same . . . Perhaps someone is on the autism spectrum, they have dyslexia, or a medical condition. All these can cause their brains to work in a way deemed not typical,” Henry says.
This range of differences in brain function and behavioral traits, called neurodiversity, present challenges and opportunities for both the employee and employer. Pratt, Henry says, values and supports neurodivergent individuals. For example, employees on the autism spectrum can wear noise-cancelling headphones in areas in which noise distracts them from functioning. Additionally, individuals sensitive to being “stared at” during Zoom calls are permitted to keep their computer’s camera off during meetings.
In mid-2022, Henry noticed some employees were experiencing mental challenges requiring attention, but that did not rise to the clinical level. “Some just needed guidance and coaching on how to deal with a specific issue and how to manage it going forward,” Henry says. Pratt introduced Nivati, a supplemental app focusing on therapy and life coaching. So far, says Henry, the benefits team has received numerous positive responses.
The self-proclaimed “servant leader” focuses on employee growth rather than institutional growth. For Pratt to progress and expand, Henry needs to care for those comprising the institution or it’s not going to grow, she says. But it’s a challenge creating a package that satisfies the needs of a population with such a wide age range. “You can easily find five generations of employees,” she says.
To accommodate such variables, Henry and her team talk with Pratt employees to gauge their needs. “It’s one thing for me to say, ‘I think the employees need this’ and give it to them. However, if you don’t actually speak to those who will be impacted, you could be offering benefits that don’t have a positive impact and even a negative impact on those people,” she says.
“Our benefits management team has worked closely with Kisha for years to help improve the health and well-being of Pratt Institute employees, and we are proud of our successful partnership. Kisha is a passionate leader devoted to ensuring employees have access to diverse and inclusive programs that she has strategically evolved to meet the holistic needs of employees and their families. Together, we’re creating a healthier workforce with the resilience and vitality to help Pratt grow and achieve their business goals.” –Anthony Contessa, Regional Vice President, Cigna NYNJ