Melody Vanoy & Gayla Thomas-Dabney: Women Leaders Working Better Together to Promote DEIA

The 10 Most Inspiring Diversity and Inclusion Leaders to Follow in 2023

Melody Vanoy & Gayla Thomas-Dabney are CEOs and women leaders who connected over their work at Trinity Health and happened to have their separate DEI consulting firms working for small organizations on the side. They came together to collaborate and achieve specific initiatives or outcomes depending on client requests.

Their collaborations developed outside their primary work as a result of the reduction in effort at Trinity due to COVID. Since they had different geographies with different needs, they kept their organizations separate with a business model to support each other with a “better together” mindset.

Gayla takes the lead when there are EEO/ AAP clients and provides support with any training needs while Melody supports her with OD and leader coaching, taking the lead with organizations that need broad change initiatives.

Since they each now have full-time priorities in the field, they feel fortunate to have gained the staff they need to continue the support GTD and AmorX offer to organizations in need of partnership approaches to solving their DEI and other organizational development needs.

Melody and Gayla have worked with clients like Ascension, CapEd, Healthwise, United Way, and the Catholic Health Services of Long Island, and are now planning to create another organization together that will specifically focus on community-based health equity and ESG organizations and efforts such as the ones below.

From the Art World to Diversity & Inclusion Work

Now the Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at GHX, Melody’s DEI career journey began when, as an X-ray tech at the University of Michigan Health System, she volunteered to be a Department of Radiology DEI representative. In this role, she was the liaison between the official work of DEI that came out of HR and their department.

She believes that this role was crucial in landing her first formal DEI role as DEI coordinator within HR several years later. After being in the coordinator role for several years, Melody was promoted to a DEI trainer role and finally a senior consultant role before joining Trinity Health in a system-wide director D&I role.

She remained in the director role for several years before being promoted into a more regional role where she had more hand on responsibilities in helping local hospitals in her region foster inclusive environments by ensuring they had the resources and consultation needed to sustain efforts over time. In 2022, Melody’s joined GHX as the VP of D&I where she’s now responsible for implementing and managing the DEI & Culture strategy.

“I didn’t plan to be in this field at all,” Melody recalls. “My career journey started on a road to all thing’s art history. I saw myself as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and still to this day love everything about art. Though I loved art and particular genres, I always found myself interested in the people and culture of that genre.”

At the time, Melody had no desire to get a Ph.D. in any field and one was required for art history, so she made a left turn and went into business by obtaining an MBA. This was where her passion crossed paths, in that the program allowed her to learn about organizational development, effectiveness, and diversity. She was hooked and has never looked back.

Melody explains that, ironically, Amor X started as an art consulting firm before her business transition. She first provided art consulting to local businesses and individual clients from a decorative point of view. She also curated items from local artists and provided a means for them to showcase their work.

Once she moved into business, Melody transformed Amor X into formal DEI and business strategy work, both to help small organizations on their DEI journeys, as well as to obtain crucial experience in the field that supported her primary work.

“It is quite simple. When it comes to ANYTHING in life – relationships friendships, the work you do, the art you make – when it comes to ANYTHING, if it does not move you and inspire you, if it does not come from the DEEPEST part of who you are, it is not for you.” – Bianca Sparacino

Leveraging a Military Background as a DEIA Leader

As the Division Chief of the Strategic Planning Division at the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, ODEIA, Gayla was inspired to take the leap of faith into D&I leadership when she retired from the military in 2005 and transitioned to the culture of civilian life.

Before establishing GTD Enterprise LLC, her career path was about serving and honorably retiring from the military. Additional diversity of work included working with the City of Gainesville, the Department of Defense (DOD), Higher Education, Healthcare, and the Federal government.

“I quickly realized that the culture I was transitioning from was culturally different in many ways. Growing up as a military kid, I knew one way to understand D&I as a kid, you just did it! My background informs the way I lead the work of DEIA, with extended grace to others. My team invites everyone to the table – inclusion is not one-sided,” Gayla insists.

GTD Enterprise LLC has a group of professionals that work with clients to provide consultative services related to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA), Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, and Americans with Disabilities (ADA) strategic planning and solutions to culture change. GTD Enterprise LLC clients have included: Healthwise, United Way-Boise, CapEd, Ascension, and INL.

Gayla observes that, while leading is not an easy road, it is rewarding and she felt inspired to take the step of faith into D&I leadership because she believes that love conquers hate.

“We’re all uniquely and wonderfully made. As leaders in D&I, we oftentimes have to train’ our leaders, and that’s okay. Military senior enlisted trained our division officers to become Naval leaders, responsible for many lives while in command. Leading sailors and junior officers were challenging at times. At the end of the road, the good far outweighs the bad. I love leading DEIA,” she declares.  

Success in DEIA is About Empowering Others

In terms of defining success, Melody believes success is reached when you see your efforts come to fruition. “Often one can get bogged down by the doing, and the project itself. However, in this field when you see individuals become more open to the work and feel like they’re included in the work and support the work, this is success for me,” she elaborates.

Serving as a leader in the United States Navy for 23 years, Gayla defines success by the success of the teams she leads and by empowering her team to learn, be innovative, and serve alongside them.

“Success is observing my team promoted into leadership roles if so desired. I define success as taking care of your team, and they’ll take care of you. Words to live by from my experience in leading many sailors while serving in the U.S. Navy as a Senior Chief Petty Officer (Surface Warfare),” she maintains.

For Melody, her major roadblocks centered on getting in her own way. She feels fortunate to have gained her first formal DEI role on a team that was responsible for not only diversity, but employee engagement, change management, and leadership development.

“I didn’t see great buy-in with this work until I worked on myself. Being on a team like this enabled me to receive wrap-around development. I worked on myself, and my biases, and always used the materials we used on this team on myself. Thus, I feel having a robust personal development plan helped me not only face external barriers but accept and work through them,” she explains.

Melody feels that the best recognition she has received was when a client told her that her services were highly valued and that Amor X really helped them along on their DEI journey. “Each time I receive a repeat client, that’s all the recognition I need,” she says.  

The roadblocks that taught Gayla valuable lessons throughout her professional journey pushed her further into her destiny as a successful DEIA leader. They taught her to present the opposite (roadblocks) for others, as others had presented to her.

She notes that the best recognition she has received as a leader has been that of being trustworthy and having her work become well-recognized across the DEIA industry by other leaders and colleagues. She has also won two DEIA awards of excellence for GTD Enterprise LLC’s work.

“The unique personality which is the real life in me, I cannot gain unless I search for the real life, the spiritual quality, in others. I am myself spiritually dead unless I reach out to the fine quality dormant in others.” – Felix Adler

Integrity Is Doing The Right Thing Even When Nobody’s Watching

In terms of redefining the industry, Melody ensures that Amor X meets clients where they are and that she levels the services offered accordingly. She also treats each client as an individual organization, no matter what industry they’re in or what their competitors are doing.

“The main challenge is ensuring the client understands that no matter where they may be on their journey, the journey is still important and valuable, and it is my job to ensure they have a strategy that takes this into account and moves at a pace conducive to their organizational needs,” she states.

As a leader, Melody ensures a culture of integrity on her team by being accountable for her actions and requiring her team to be accountable for theirs. “I think integrity builds by both, being able to admit when something goes wrong as well as creating space for others to do the same,” she insists. “I also ensure that all efforts are inclusive, and when I receive pushback on something I know may be a best practice hard pill to swallow, I respectfully acknowledge that point of view and explain the reasoning for such action.”

Gayla points out that GTD Enterprise LLC has significantly contributed to the DEIA industry by working with clients to ensure recent best practices, trends, and analysis are available to assist with strategic planning, learning and education, and outreach and engagement. It provides each client with great engagement and personal attention to the organization’s culture.

“As the CEO, I empower my team to provide subject matter expertise and technical assistance in all areas of the work. My goal is to always empower my team to personalize the client’s portfolio using a model which provides our work through the lens of culture, change, and transformation. We hope to create DEIA change agents across the organization at all levels of responsibility,” she says.

For Gayla, integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is watching. As the CEO of GTD Enterprise LLC, she practices and believes in doing the right thing. “My background and career paths could not have been successful without integrity. As a leader, one can go above and beyond for a team, but without integrity, all will eventually fail because there will be no trust. My reputation in general and in the DEIA industry is important to me,” she affirms.

“Justice delayed is justice denied.” – William E Gladstone

To Succeed In DEIA Surround Passion With Concrete Business Knowledge

Melody points out that, though fulfilling, the DEIA industry is not an easy one as one must consider all the collective cultures an organization has to offer, and having a passion for this work is only the beginning. To navigate this journey successfully, one must surround passion with concrete business knowledge to be able to speak the language of executives.

Organizational leaders need to first understand that DEI is no longer just the right thing to do, but rather a business imperative. “I don’t think my innate passion alone would have enabled me the ability to navigate various industries. Thus, everything I’ve learned from formal business education to the robust informal mentoring I’ve received over the years has also contributed to my success in this field,” she remarks.

Currently writing her dissertation on the future of Christian leadership, Gayla believes that the future generation requires an organization that practices inclusive leadership, inclusion, equity, accessibility, and psychological safety and promotes a workplace of innovation.

“If an organization’s culture can adapt to these essentials, diversity will follow. The work of DEIA is not difficult, in my opinion. If you know how to build relationships with others, create change agents, and listen to the next generation of leaders by inviting them to the table – everyone wins! That’s what I believe,” she maintains.

“Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard”- Unknown

Creating Balance In The New Normal Of Remote Work

“The one word that defines me is ‘execute’,” says Melody, noting that her work at Amor X consists of simply approving client requests for work and delegating accordingly since she currently has a formal position as VP D&I at GHX, where she’s implemented a DEI framework and roadmap and manages this work daily. Currently, she has several levels of DEI professionals that take on various client needs consisting of consulting and strategic planning, as well as both in-person and virtual DEI education.

As a work-life balance advocate, Melody enjoys spending time with family, baking, her cats, and traveling with her son Jaden, who loves to travel as much as she does. The new normal of remote working has allowed her to work from almost anywhere.

“If I need a change of scenery, I love having the ability to pick up and work from many of my favorite cities across the US. I also inquire about work-life balance whenever I chat with my team. I want to know how they’re doing really; if their workload is manageable; and what they’re doing to decompress,” she elaborates.

Defining herself as a ‘Transformer’, Gayla notes that her primary role at the current time is with the Department of Energy as the Chief of the DEIA Strategic Planning Division, which includes oversight of the DEIA Workforce Development Specialist, DEIA Business Partners, and DEIA Strategy Specialists.

Her day-to-day work at GTD Enterprise LLC consists of empowering her team of DEIA Specialists to oversee her client’s needs and provide technical assistance to ensure their needs are met. “I’m a spiritual believer, not a religious person. I’m equipped to accomplish the plan that’s been destined for my personal and professional life. My motivation to continue to do this work is the future generation of leaders who will be leading in the areas of DEIA,” she declares.

Gayla enjoys spending time with her family, running, and traveling with her husband to places that have their bucket list of food places to try out. Working remotely continues to afford the flexibility needed to reflect and exhale from the workday because it allows for a quiet office space at home to think through each day’s work and provide sustainable solutions.

Keep Learning, Lead Boldly, Trust & Empower Your DEIA Teams

Melody aims to see Amor X continue to grow its clientele, move into the global space and help organizations in other countries that have very different DEI needs on their journeys.

“I consider myself and the industry I’m in as continuous. Thus, I’m a lifelong learner and always looking for ways I can improve. I encourage aspiring leaders to do the same. Never consider yourself an expert, because when we become an expert at one thing, this fosters blind spots in other areas. Keep learning,” she advises.

Gayla’s plan for the future of GTD Enterprise LLC is to hire more employees and launch a comprehensive training program. She also aspires to work with global clients in the coming year and her personal goal is to complete her doctoral degree and continue traveling the world.

“My message to aspiring leaders is to do your best to understand the culture of your organization. Walk the talk when it comes to DEIA efforts and initiatives. Your employees are your best assets who significantly contribute to the company’s bottom line,” she maintains. “Remember, you cannot change people. DEIA is a heart-changing work of humanity, in my experience. Make the work approachable for everyone to have a seat at the table. Lead boldly, trust, and empower your DEIA teams.”

“If a man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.” – Gene Roddenberry

Show More
Back to top button