Jil Littlejohn Bostick: An Authentic, Impactful DEI Leader Creating Inclusiveness with Purpose & Passion

The 10 Most Influential DE&I Leaders Revamping The Future, 2023

Jil Littlejohn Bostick, VP, Corporate Responsibility and Inclusion and Executive Director of the Winnebago Industries Foundation is an authentic, impactful, transformative DEI leader who oversees initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion at Winnebago Industries.

With over 15 years of experience in fostering a welcoming and diverse workplace, she is a prominent, bilingual leader well-versed in adapting DEI best practices into readily consumable resources and programs in line with business needs.

Creating Impact in DEI Work with Purpose

Jil defines success as “achieving a goal that creates an impact, that also allows you to have a purpose in your life.” She believes that if you can’t truly have an impact and marry that impact to the passion, then it’s just doing a job versus having a meaningful career. As she looks back on her career and the work that she does, in the great sense of purpose that she has around her work, Jil feels that it was something that started in her childhood.

“I view myself as a connector, being able to connect to people and engaging with people. Some of the first lessons I learned around DEI were on the playground as a child, always seeking out those who may be isolated and including them. That’s always been a core of who I am, and as my professional career progressed, I had an opportunity to be more engaged and see how to connect the dots on inclusion and belonging and make that my career,” says Jil.

She notes that her career path has been a winding road that led to a glorious destination. Having started her career in manufacturing and accounting, Jil always enjoyed people and connecting the dots from a financial perspective. She then moved on to non-profit leadership and was the first African American CEO of the YWCA in her area, where the mission was eliminating racism and empowering women.

The YWCA gave Jil her first professional role in DEI, a wonderful opportunity to put it into action, and allowed her to connect with corporations. “I was able to provide strategy, support, and consulting to organizations around building out their DEI framework. I went on to lead the Urban League of the Upstate and served as their first female CEO. I then became the Director of Inclusion and Diversity for Hubbell Incorporated, a Fortune 1000 company, before I was recruited to lead the DEI efforts at Winnebago Industries,” Jil recalls.

Working as a DEI Leader Takes Courage

Jil believes that working as a DEI leader takes courage and the ability to step outside the box. “It requires courage because it often involves challenging the status quo and addressing uncomfortable issues such as discrimination and bias,” she states.

Her passion for DEI work is summed up in Maya Angelou’s famous quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Jil notes that showing compassion starts with truly listening to what others have to say.

“Curiosity allows me to actively seek out and engage with perspectives and experiences that are different from my own. It drives engagement to collaborate with and learn from colleagues from diverse backgrounds. And flexibility allows me to adapt to changing circumstances. The needs of our employees and communities are constantly changing and flexibility allows me to adjust plans as needed,” she elaborates.

Appreciating the opportunity to have been the first in several situations, Jil notes that the lack of a blueprint to follow or see others’ successes and mistakes to learn from, sometimes made it difficult.

“You get an opportunity to create your own blueprint and foundation, but it also means there are obstacles in the way. People can be afraid of the unknown and a little hesitant about what they have never seen or experienced before.,” Jil remarks.

She suggests that the best opportunity to move things along is to ask: “How can I build trust? How can I build a connection with the stakeholders within the organization so they can be a part of the journey?” Jil also strongly believes in having a personal board of directors, multiple mentors, and sponsors.

“There have been challenges along the way, being a black female, but thankfully, I had the support of some amazing women and men who were sounding boards to offer advice. They helped boost me up when those challenging moments occurred and understand it is all about how you respond to the challenge,” she maintains.

“Achieving a goal that creates an impact, that also allows you to have a purpose in your life.”

Helping Employees Become Inclusive Leaders

Along with elevating and educating current employees, diversifying the talent pipeline is a high priority for Jil and her team at Winnebago Industries. The company is focused on expanding, retaining, and advancing its talent, enriching the employee experience, and making sure that they are influencing inclusion across the outdoor industry.

“It is necessary for the future, for us, to build a strong inclusive culture. We want to make sure that our culture has a deep sense of belonging. And that we are making connections targeted towards a future talent. We know we cannot be on this journey alone and are making sure we have strategic partners to accomplish our goals,” says Jil.

To demonstrate their commitment to this work, Winnebago Industries has developed a multi-year internship partnership with Camber Outdoors that connects companies with underrepresented students (Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian and Women) through a summer experience providing resources and training to both students and employers.

“This partnership at Winnebago Industries is the first innovative partnership of its kind in the RV and Marine industry. We are excited to kick off the second summer in June 2023. Strengthening our inclusive culture and increasing inclusive leadership skills are important first steps on the path to ensuring our workplace both reflects our customers’ changing demographics and realizes the innovation advantage diverse teams create,” Jil affirms.

At Winnebago Industries, employees engage in skill-based and hands-on volunteer projects through their CommunityGO—developing leadership skills and building teamwork through experiential learning. Since they began tracking volunteerism in 2019, employees across the company have contributed more than 10,000 volunteer hours.

In the fiscal year 2022, financial contributions, product donations, and volunteer time from Winnebago Industries totalled more than $1.9 million in community investment, a 20-fold increase since 2016. Since Jil started at the company, the percentage of its total funding supporting non-profit partners led by or serving historically excluded communities, such as Black, Indigenous, people of color, and people with disabilities has increased by more than 50 percent.

Spearheading The IDEA Speaker Series

Jil explains that inclusion is action, not a static process; and that fostering a climate of inclusion requires us to go outside of our comfort zone to speak up about things that make us uncomfortable. “In recognizing that inclusion is essential to a successful business, I’ve spearheaded the development of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Action (IDEA) Speaker Series at Winnebago Industries,” she notes.

Winnebago Industries has a wide range of employees, including a large number Amish and Mennonite team members in Indiana and a large Haitian and Hispanic/Latinx population in Florida. The IDEA Speaker Series allows all employees to connect and learn about each other’s varied backgrounds and embrace those differences.

Jil explains that Winnebago Industries refers to DEI as IDEA, a concept that she helped create because it was important to build a strong sense of purpose around inclusion, and also book that with action. “It’s not enough to just have a strategy and goals but know the actions that allow us to move forward within the RV and Marine industry, and the larger outdoor industry,” she declares.

The IDEA Speaker Series engages subject matter experts to share behaviors and actions to help employees become inclusive leaders. These events go beyond racial equity, encompassing education to advance gender and lifestyle equality as well in the outdoor lifestyle industry. Over 1050 team members have already participated from the enterprise and all five of the business units, Winnebago, Grand Design, Chris-Craft, Newmar, and Barletta.

Eliminating Barriers to the Outdoor Lifestyle

Outdoor enthusiasts are increasingly more diverse. In 2021, for example, more than 60 percent of new RVers were people of color, up from just 12 percent in 2012. Winnebago Industries’ motto is to support people where they live, work, and play. It hopes to lead the way in welcoming these new outdoor enthusiasts and meeting them where they are.

“We know that, historically, underrepresented groups have felt excluded from the outdoors. Some of this was through systemic laws or policies that prevented them from being there. A lot of things have changed, but many people still do not feel like the outdoors belongs to them,” she observes.

During Jil’s time at Winnebago Industries, the organization developed and launched its “All In, Outdoors” strategy centered on inclusion, diversity, equity, and action. The key focus area of this strategy is to ensure that the organization supports and welcomes people of color to the outdoor lifestyle.

“All In, Outdoors” serves as a roadmap for creating a better sense of belonging in the workplace and the communities it touches. It requires that all employees, customers, consumers, and stakeholders focus on removing barriers to the outdoors.

Jil points out that it is better to have first-hand experience when talking about why and how people of color can explore the outdoors. While she cannot account for every person’s experience, hers have been welcoming and inviting, and she wants to ensure others have the same experience.

To achieve this, Winnebago Industries has expanded multiple partnerships with organizations working to make the outdoors more inclusive and ensure that everyone feels welcomed in the outdoors. These are led by people who have been historically excluded from organized outdoor activities groups, including LGBT+ Outdoors, National African American RV Association (NAARVA), Outdoor Afro, Melanated Campout, Together Outdoors and many more.

“I work with all of our non-profit partners, but I also trust their expertise. After all, they are the experts. When possible, Winnebago Industries provides general operating funds, and works to establish multi-year commitments,” she explains.

CommunityGO is an important aspect which encourages employee volunteering and Jil is proud to work alongside her co-workers to enhance a culture of giving and community engagement. These volunteer teams inspire colleagues, family, and friends to learn about local community issues and act to support community-led solutions with their time, talent, or giving financial contributions.

Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk

When Jil first joined the company, she was not a camper. Now she’s had the opportunity to travel cross country in an RV and participate in Melanated Campout. The experiences helped her embrace the outdoors and first-hand enjoy the true health and wellness benefits.

“I was not an RVer before joining the company. Now I’ve taken multiple RV trips and want to learn more about our operations and products. I make it my priority to visit our business units, and host opportunities where I can hear first-hand from our employees. I’m constantly taking in information from our employees to better inform our strategy. Others have told me that this hands-on approach highlights my passion as a DEI leader. To ensure all people especially people of color feel welcomed and experience the joy of the outdoors, I must walk the walk and talk the talk,” she insists.

Jil notes that Winnebago Industries wants its employees and customers to #BeGreatOutdoors. She appreciates the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors and see the U.S. up close, as she travels to its facilities and industry events, and most importantly, enjoys its products, whether that’s on a Chris-Craft boat, Barletta pontoon, or one of their three RV brands.

An Authentic & Hands-On Leadership Style

Jil believes that the core leadership strengths from a diversity perspective are active listening, patience, courage, compassion, curiosity, and flexibility and that uncomfortable conversations are essential to get to an inclusive place.

“One of the things I’ve been recently complimented on regarding my leadership style is my ability to truly listen to those who have challenges with accepting our diversity focus and goals,” she reveals.

When Jil speaks with her co-workers about their concerns, her patience helps her figure out ways to bring them along. This is especially critical as she works with multiple business units across multiple states. “These efforts are not just for others’ benefit. I have grown as a person in listening to these concerns. It has been equally rewarding to me when co-workers understand the inclusion aspect and become more open to diversity and equity. This is why I believe in being hands-on with all our efforts at Winnebago Industries,” Jil says.

She also connects with different business units to ensure they have the tools and resources needed to move forward, and connects the dots on the business imperative, as it relates to diversity and inclusion.

“We see ourselves as an innovative organization and innovation is truly important to us. Diverse organizations have higher percentages of innovation and creativity, and I have the opportunity to not only work on the people side but also to connect with the businesses on the product side,” Jil states.

The Challenges in Implementing DEI Initiatives

Jil looks at the evolution of DEI in terms of “pre-murder of George Floyd,” “post-murder of George Floyd,” and current DEI activities. She notes that there was a huge surge of organizations who wanted to show that they were supportive and committed to this work. Some were sincere in their efforts, while others just wanted to make sure that they were not a target for non-action.

“We’re starting to see some of the fallout, articles, and information around organizations and companies that made commitments and promises that they couldn’t show action on or achieve their goals. We’re seeing companies’ layoff and reduce the team, the budget, and the DEI department,” Jil observes.

She notes that organizations that are more compliance-regulated, wanting to have a DEI role with a small budget, small team, and minimal go, still struggle to move forward with their goals and priorities.

“Then you have organizations like ours that have always been committed to this work. We know some things must change, but what we’re not going to do is cut our DEI efforts, because we truly believe that this is core to who we are and our business. Organizations like ours will continue to move forward and make improvements,” Jil maintains.

Supporting, Encouraging & Promoting Women in The Workplace

Jil shares that, as a 65-year-old organization, what’s exciting about Winnebago Industries is that it was started by a husband-wife team, Luise V. Hanson, and her husband, John Hanson. Even in starting this organization in the late 1950s, there was a strong level of support and desire to have women be prominent in the RV industry.

“As early as the late 60s and early 70s, we had a sense of supporting, encouraging, and promoting women, and that’s still in place,” Jil notes. “In my role as Head of DEI, I carry on the legacy and the traditions started in the 60s and expand that to a larger audience to include different cultures, races, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+, and working to create a greater sense of belonging and authenticity within our organization.”

“I am proud to report that this work, along with years of support at Winnebago Industries, was recognized with the RV Women’s Alliance, and in 2022 the inaugural Champion of Women Award was awarded to our company’s commitment to elevating, educating, and promoting women in the RV industry,” Jil declares.

The Satisfaction of Seeing People Connect to The Purpose of DEI

When Jil thinks about her greatest achievement, she recalls many programs and initiatives that she had the opportunity to lead and successful programs and initiatives that had an impact. However, her greatest achievement is seeing “people truly connect their head and heart to the purpose of DEI and make it a part of who they are.”

She feels her greatest achievement is when individuals have a strong desire matched by actions to move the needle. This includes people she’s mentored while advancing their own careers, or business leaders who’ve built opportunities to discuss DEI issues into their normal cadence.

“In all of my efforts, I try to make sure I don’t treat every situation the same, even if it’s been experienced at another organization. I listen to what’s being said, what’s not being said, and engulf myself in the cultures of our people,” she says.

Make The Best Use of The Time We Have

For Jil, most days start around eight a.m. and end around six or seven p.m. Every day is different, allowing her to be innovative and creative. She has meetings with business unit leaders, HR business partners, employee resource groups, and external partners.

“The key is work-life integration. We spend the majority of our time at work, so making sure that I’m building relationships internally with my teams, where there is a stronger sense of psychological safety and trust, but then also, honoring the time we take to enjoy the outdoors,” she explains.

Jil has a firm policy that when she’s on PTO, she’s enjoying it, and unless it’s an emergency, she doesn’t bother her team and, for the most part, they don’t bother her. That allows them to take a half-day or care for a loved one when required. “When I lost my mother, I kept up with my work because of the relationships I’d built within the organization. I also spent the time I needed with her because it’s important to make the best use of the time we have,” she reflects.

Dream Big and Take Small Steps

Jil shares that making an impact keeps her motivated. She believes that it’s all worthwhile if she can help one employee, one customer, one dealer, or influence one community to understand the benefits of the great outdoors. “I look forward to the day when a DEI officer is not required, and I work myself out of a job because it’s so ingrained into the fabric of organizations that it’s just the way you do business,” she says.

It motivates Jil when people who haven’t been exposed to inclusion and belonging, diversity, equity, and racial justice, tell her that they’re committed to being lifelong learners on this journey. Her team feels motivated when they receive feedback from people who they’ve helped along their journey.

“You’ve got to have big hairy audacious goals, or you will stay on the hamster wheel of life. My goal is to dream big and take small steps to achieve big goals. Part of my mission is to give back and share the lessons I’ve learned along the way, to help build a path to move forward. I’ve achieved more than I thought I would have, but I have so much further to go,” she reflects.

In her parting advice to aspiring DEI leaders, Jil offers the following suggestions:

“For aspiring DEI leaders, it’s important to make connections. Most leaders in this space are passionate about their work. We want to be the first one, but we don’t want to be the last. An aspiring DEI leader should not be afraid to reach out to those who are doing the work, to learn from them, and to read case studies. The Harvard Business Review is a great source of information.

Several DEI practitioners have written books; read them. Take courses and acquire certificates that allow you to distinguish yourself from others. If this is important to you, don’t be afraid to take a chance on yourself, pivot from your current position, and apply for a role that might be outside your field. The best advice I’ve received is: Don’t be afraid to fail forward; learn from your mistakes quickly.”