A sense of family: Whirlpool employees get back to their roots

From left, Diana King, Damita Burton and Ervin Poncho Eddie, pictured Friday, are key leaders in the Whirlpool African American Network (WAAN). (Don Campbell | HP staff)

From left, Diana King, Damita Burton and Ervin Poncho Eddie, pictured Friday, are key leaders in the Whirlpool African American Network (WAAN). (Don Campbell | HP staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Diana King found her place at Whirlpool Corp. when she attended an event put on by one of the company’s oldest employee resource groups.

Years later, the training analyst became one of three co-leads for the Whirlpool African American Network after her first Jazz Night.

“We always try to pull new people in to get them to plan next year’s Jazz Night and that’s how I got pulled into the network,” said King, who is from Illinois. “The network gives me a sense of family. For me not being from the area, it was great having a place to go for dinner or during the holidays when you couldn’t make it home.”

The group, which serves as a platform for the home appliance maker’s African-American employees, was created in 1998.

The whole premise behind the network is to provide an atmosphere within Whirlpool and a culture within the company that supports each demographic.

“We wanted to make sure we are not only providing a driving and engaging atmosphere, but specifically the community,” said Damita Burton, a supply demand manager for top load laundry and co-lead for WAAN. “We are also driving cultural awareness throughout the company.”

Jazz Night is the network’s capstone event for Black History Month. Employees and members of the community are invited to the annual event, which includes a formal dinner, a performance from a jazz band and a chance to recognize a few organizations in the community.

This year’s Jazz Night is Feb. 27 at the Mendel Center. Those interested in attending can email the network’s co-leads at waan_erg@whirlpool.com.

The network sends its information to more than 250 people in the Twin Cities area. From an active member standpoint, the network has 25 involved with its events.

King said one of the main reasons an employee should join WAAN is for the welcome mat it lays out.

“If you’re not from a small town you can very quickly drift away,” she said. “We don’t want to bring in people who leave in a year because they felt like they didn’t have someone to talk to or hang out with after work. The network is good at holding onto people.”

One of the network’s key focuses is community.

Burton said one of the easiest ways of discovering the Twin Cities is connecting with WAAN members – since some members are originally from the area.

Ervin Poncho Eddie, a brand manager for Whirlpool and community lead, said the network was a good place for him to stay in touch with the community he was born in.

Eddie returned to corporate from New York in 2012, after his career with Whirlpool began as an intern. The Benton Harbor native came back and immediately was immersed in WAAN.

“It’s great being a part of this organization because it gives you a place to have an extended family,” Eddie said. “I enjoy all of the events we have and bringing the community and corporate office together. It is vital to become active in this organization and establish those roots in the community.”

As one of the oldest employee resource groups, changes have been made, Burton said. Over the years, they evolved the type of initiatives they have held.

“We would tend to have a strong, primary focus on community bits,” Burton said. “What we noticed is as we would bring in more African-American top talent, we weren’t spending enough time on driving the engagement to those employees. We shifted our focus to make sure we were taking care of employee membership.”

In the coming years, Burton said she wants to see an increase in the network’s membership.

She said it also would be nice to see an increased collaboration with other employee resource groups.

“A lot of the engagement is coming from the newer employees, but we would like to see it from the employee base as a whole,” Burton said. “There are several ERGs at Whirlpool, and it’s easy to focus on one, but what we would like to do now is leverage several networks and their best practices.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 2016)

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