Kenneth Bonner: A Compassionate D&I Champion Leading with Empathy & Understanding

The Most Prominent Leader in Diversity & Inclusion, 2023

Ken Bonner CEO

As Associate Dean for Inclusion and Diversity Initiatives and Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Kenneth Bonner’s extensive experience has shown him that how success is defined is critical within the vital work of diversity and inclusion. With over 30 years dedicated to fostering equity and access in education through philanthropy and D&I work, Dean Bonner recognizes that creating sustainable cultural change requires moving beyond superficial performative measures and truly transforming mindsets and systems within academia. At the distinguished Viterbi School, Bonner now applies his passionate and strategic leadership to broaden access, cultivate belonging, and re-envision excellence as inclusive by design.

For Bonner, success transcends conventional metrics we’ve come to know — such as quarterly sales revenue quotas.  To him, true success in D&I is measured by to what extent the D&I leader fosters an environment where diverse voices resonate deeply, not merely echo without impact. Success entails creating and nurturing a culture rooted in empathy and equity, where people from all backgrounds experience authentic belonging and see their identities respected and mirrored in every facet of the campus community.

At his core, Bonner believes success springs from a profound empathy for others and their lived experiences – understanding people’s unique challenges and potential. It means advocating for their rights and humanity — ensuring their voices shape decisions. As a D&I leader, Bonner champions these principles daily. His vision is to leverage empathy and mutual understanding to create spaces where every Viterbi community member can thrive.

With strategic purpose, Bonner aims to drive enduring systemic change, not just incremental steps. His goal is to catalyze transformation that will uplift generations of Viterbi faculty, staff and students whose faces and names may never be known, but who will reach their full potential through the fruits of his inclusive endeavors.

Shaping the Next Generation of Inclusive Engineering Leaders

Dean Bonner’s inspiring journey in diversity and inclusion was sparked by the lived experiences of his own marginalized identity as a Black man with family roots reaching back to slavery. Stories from his heritage progressively shaped Bonner’s philosophy of inclusive empowerment.

Recognizing the privilege of his own education and career, Bonner felt called to lift others facing inequality. Throughout his career in higher education, he leveraged success to open doors – volunteering, mentoring, fundraising, and passionately advocating for underserved students.

Bonner’s career ascent took him from Cal Poly Pomona to Occidental College to the esteemed USC Viterbi School of Engineering. In each role he held, he had an enduring impact on others; his North Star was expanding access and opportunity and belonging for all.

“For many, success in D&I is often measured by awards and accolades,” says Bonner. “Receiving external validation is important, to be sure. But as both a leader and servant, I firmly believe true recognition comes down to the story of “one.” One person whom you touch, one life transformed.” Bonner believes that the truest recognition emerges through personal stories of inclusion’s power to help faculty, staff, students and USC Viterbi alumni feel heard, valued and seen. Witnessing people from all backgrounds thriving at Viterbi affirms that diversity and excellence are intertwined – a catalyst for collective achievement,” says Bonner.

These ripples of positive change represent the legacy Bonner celebrates. Knowing he is helping shape the next generation of diverse engineering leaders is a profound honor. Breaking barriers, fostering empathy, and forming connections – this is Bonner’s measure of impact.

The seeds planted through his work – mentoring minoritized students, enlightening colleagues, and elevating marginalized voices – will grow into a more just and vibrant future at USC Viterbi and for engineering education across the country. For Bonner, this lasting cultural change is the greatest recognition of all. “There’s no award that can ever compete with that.”

A Journey of Impact Advocating for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Dean Bonner’s decision to step into D&I leadership was a leap of faith driven by his belief in the possibility and necessity of change. He understood that to create a more equitable and inclusive world, he needed to actively contribute to the solution. While this journey has been marked by challenges, every milestone and success story reaffirms his dedication to this cause.

Bonner finds daily inspiration in the people he collaborates with and the progress they make together. For him, D&I leadership is not just a role; it’s a calling to advocate for equity, celebrate diversity, and promote inclusion. It’s a journey of impact, and he feels grateful to be part of it.

Bonner acknowledges that resistance to change is one of the most significant obstacles in this field. He believes that change is inherently difficult for individuals and organizations, especially when it challenges established norms and practices.

Professionals in DEI roles frequently encounter resistance when advocating for inclusivity and equity. To overcome this resistance, Bonner emphasizes the importance of patience, education, and effective communication.

Lastly, he highlights the challenge of quantifying the impact of DEI initiatives and stresses the need to develop meaningful metrics and regularly assess progress to demonstrate the value of these efforts to USC Viterbi constituents. In Bonner’s view, these roadblocks have taught him that with the right mindset, challenges can be transformed into stepping stones. Professionals in this field should view all obstacles as opportunities for growth and use them to drive positive change within their organizations.

An Innovative Approach to Education, Research, and Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering, established in 1905, bears the name of Andrew Viterbi, the creator of an algorithm that revolutionized global communication. Situated in Los Angeles, a prominent hub for arts, technology, and international business at the heart of the Pacific Rim, this institution stands as a center for entrepreneurship, uniting students from 64 different countries.

USC Viterbi is a highly-ranked school renowned for its pioneering work in diverse fields, including the restoration of sight for the blind, the recovery of memory for Alzheimer’s patients, and the development of socially assistive robots to aid seniors recovering from strokes or children with autism.

It is also home to the first operational quantum computing center within academia. Distinguished alumni of the institution encompass figures such as Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon, A.C. Mike Markkula, co-founder of Apple, and Wanda Austin, former CEO of the Aerospace Corporation.

Consistently ranked among the top graduate programs according to U.S. News and World Report, the USC Viterbi School has been guided by the leadership of Dean Yannis C. Yortsos. The school has played a pioneering role in reshaping the image of the 21st-century engineer and introduced the Grand Challenge Scholars Program to educational institutions worldwide.

USC Viterbi has received numerous accolades for the work of its K-12 STEM Center, amazing faculty, and online graduate engineering programs, and is a pioneer of distance education through its DEN@Viterbi program, indicating its excellence in distance education, among many other accomplishments.

USC Viterbi’s overarching mission is to serve California, the nation, and the global community, a commitment they refer to as the enabling power of Engineering+. Recognized for its innovative approach to education, cutting-edge research, and commitment to diversity and inclusion, USC Viterbi became the only engineering school in the nation to achieve an unprecedented gender parity for its incoming class in 2019, a feat it has maintained for 5 years in a row.

The Center for Engineering Diversity at USC Viterbi recently underwent a renaming in honor of Dr. John Brooks Slaughter to become the John Brooks Slaughter Center for Engineering Diversity. This development signifies an opportunity to not only commemorate the contributions of an iconic DEI champion and advocate, but to rebrand while celebrating USC Viterbi’s historic achievements in diversity and inclusion. It also marks the launch of new initiatives under this updated banner.

USC Viterbi’s 2020 Racial Equity-Minded Action Plan, for example, is designed to advance racial equity and inclusion by addressing structural and systemic factors contributing to inequities along three key pillars: representation, engagement and support, and equity and inclusion. The overarching goal is to enhance pathways to attract and retain Black, Latinx, and Indigenous engineering students, with the aim of meeting or surpassing national averages. Additionally, the plan seeks to retain and support these members of the community while fostering an inclusive and equitable environment that promotes the thriving and realization of their full potential.

Transforming Innovative Ideas into Tangible Actions

Dean Bonner has personal aspirations that intersect DEI with philanthropy and grants, aiming to make DEI in higher education self-funded. He also envisions creating a platform for individuals from across the country to engage in ongoing dialogues about these topics to drive sustainable change.

To fulfill this vision, he has established the John Brooks Slaughter Leadership in Engineering DEI Summit. The inaugural two-day national conference, scheduled for February 2024 at USC, will convene professionals from various regions to discuss pertinent subjects at the intersection of AI education and DEI, health and DEI, the games industry and DEI, and student success.

Known for his compassionate leadership, Bonner brings his unique lived experiences and interpersonal approach to interactions with people from all walks of life. His distinctive contribution to the industry stems from his extensive 30-year background in philanthropy. He views the art of relationship management as a crucial skill, which he adeptly utilizes to engage individuals and corporations interested in supporting D&I initiatives through philanthropy.

These exceptional skills introduce a fresh perspective to the field, setting him apart in the industry. Kenneth believes that this unique perspective enables him to collaborate effectively with Dean Yortsos and the fundraising teams. Together, they transform innovative ideas into tangible actions, enriching the growth, vision, and impact of USC Viterbi.

Within his team, Kenneth Bonner establishes clear expectations for ethical conduct and inclusivity. He emphasizes the non-negotiable principles of integrity and respect for all team members. To set a positive example, he and his staff consistently strive to exhibit inclusive behavior and uphold high standards of integrity. Open and honest communication is encouraged, with staff members feeling empowered to voice concerns and provide feedback, promoting transparency, inclusivity, psychological safety and a sense of belonging.

Focusing On the Positive to Influence People’s Lives

Dean Kenneth Bonner believes that the concept of “difficulty” is subjective, and one’s ability to thrive depends on their mindset. He doesn’t perceive the inherent challenges in this line of work as hardships. Instead, he focuses on the positive, considering the incremental impacts of positively influencing an individual’s life. This perspective fuels his sense of thriving.

As a member of Dean Yortsos’ leadership team, Bonner plays a pivotal role in developing the overall strategic plan for inclusion and diversity initiatives encompassing faculty, staff, and students at Viterbi. This multifaceted role includes crafting and sustaining opportunities for faculty and staff engagement and recognition.

He collaborates closely with the student affairs team to address student success issues and designs educational programs on DEI to foster awareness, understanding, and an inclusive environment. Working alongside his HR partners, he engages in discussions about recruitment strategies aimed at attracting and retaining a diverse faculty and staff.

Bonner actively seeks ways to implement retention strategies that provide support to underrepresented individuals. His collaboration extends across various university departments and stakeholders to advance DEI goals and initiatives at USC. He also establishes metrics to assess the effectiveness of programs and initiatives, ensuring their impact can be measured.

Finding Inspiration Through Rhythm and Relaxation

One of Dean Kenneth Bonner most significant challenges is finding a balance between his personal and professional life. While he acknowledges this struggle is common, he emphasizes the importance of his family, which includes his wife and three Gen-Z children, at the core of his life. They serve as his source of inspiration, grounding, and sharpness.

Kenneth Bonner sees the balance between personal and professional life as an ongoing journey. Devoting quality time to his family is a non-negotiable priority, and he also possesses a deep passion for music, particularly drumming, which he finds rejuvenating and enjoyable. It offers him a creative outlet, stress relief, and a source of inspiration through rhythm.

To motivate his team, Bonner leads by example. He encourages them to prioritize their work-life balance, highlighting the significance of personal time, hobbies, and relaxation. The team collectively embraces wellness and self-care strategies, celebrates achievements, and expresses gratitude for each member’s hard work and dedication. By humanizing their work and recognizing the importance of well-being and gratitude, they strive to achieve both personal and professional success while serving as an inspiration to those around them.

Success Is Sweeter When Shared

In his parting message to all the aspiring leaders in the D&I field, Dean Bonner says: “Embrace and learn from the differences in others. Continuously learn and adapt to our ever-changing world. Celebrate every win whether big or small. Stay humble. Success is sweeter when shared — as you reach the pinnacle, extend a hand to help others climb the ladder of success. Pay it forward.”

“Finally, remember that DEI work isn’t just about numbers or checkboxes; it’s about touching lives and making a difference. Each step you take in this field has the potential to change someone’s life for the better, and collectively, we can transform society into a place where everyone has equal opportunities and chances to thrive.”