Michele C. Meyer-Shipp faced an intriguing dilemma last spring. An attorney then leading the Employment and Labor Law Group at Prudential Financial, she was offered three major opportunities all at the same time.
The first job was as the company’s chief ethics officer. The second was as its chief diversity officer. The third was heading diversity in one of the business units.
After meeting with Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld and senior executives, Meyer-Shipp knew what job to take: chief diversity officer for the entire company. “This was a no-brainer. I never even asked what the salary was,” she says. “I felt their commitment to D&I was very real.”
What impressed her was the passion and commitment of the leadership and their eagerness to evolve their D&I efforts even though Prudential already had a well-established history as a diversity leader—it has had a spot in the DiversityInc Top 50 every year since the list started in 2001.
“The company decided it was time for a refresh and this is very important,” Meyer-Shipp says, noting three foundational pillars: people (creating an inclusive workplace), market (connecting with key customer segments) and community (philanthropy and branding). Her job is to implement this strategy and gain increased collaboration and connectivity throughout the organization to increase employee engagement.
“There is a refocused look at making sure that we’re education managers at the senior-most level on the inclusion piece and on appreciating differences,” she says. “I intend to connect the dots internally so we can do what we do better.”
Why Leave the Law?
Meyer-Shipp’s career has taken an interesting turn after a strong legal career. The daughter of a former military man who worked his way up to bank vice president with just a high-school degree, she grew up in New York.
“We were three girls and I’m the oldest. My middle sister is an OB/GYN. My baby sister is a stay-at-home Air Force wife whose husband just returned from his third tour in Afghanistan,” she says.
“I thought I wanted to be an FBI undercover agent, but it wasn’t for me,” she recalls. A job as a paralegal led to law school and a seven-year stint as a litigator. “I hated the process of litigation—the discovery, the fighting over documents. I’m a people person and I wanted to be proactive,” she says.
She went to work at Merrill Lynch but was let go when Bank of America took over. “I was downsized three days after my divorce was final and a month after I moved into my home with my three young sons,” she recalls. “But I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.”
She had met former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine previously and he offered her a position as general counsel for the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor. She left that position to work for Prudential and was immediately impressed with the company’s culture and values.
“When I got to the law department, I wondered, What does this company do around diversity? I went to the intranet and the website and I found out. The law department had a very active diversity council with best practices and it was acknowledged by John Strangfeld,” she recalls.
She decided to get involved and quickly found herself the chair of the council. Through that position, she met the D&I staff and furthered her interest in diversity management.
“When I decided to pick this job, people said I was foolish to leave the law. They said D&I comes and goes. They said it depends on who wins the election,” she says.
But Meyer-Shipp knew that D&I was where her passion lies and where she could have the most impact. The new strategy was rolled out by her new boss, Sharon Taylor, Senior Vice President, Human Resources and chair of the Prudential Foundation. “It’s a perfect time to take on a new role and implement the strategy,” Meyer-Shipp says.