National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems

The Voice for Public Pensions


Public Pension Profiles: CalPERS Chief DEI Officer, Marlene Timberlake D'Adamo

“What distinguishes our approach is the deliberate integration of DEI across all our processes, spanning our five pillars and throughout the organization. DEI isn't an isolated initiative; it's ingrained in our work,” says Marlene Timberlake D'Adamo, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at CalPERS.
NCPERS Public Pension Profiles: CalPERS Chief DEI Officer, Marlene Timberlake D'Adamo

By: Andy Muthoni, NCPERS
Continuing our series of public pension executive profiles, NCPERS had the privilege to engage in a conversation with Marlene Timberlake D'Adamo, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at CalPERS. The discussion revolved around the profound impact of CalPERS' DEI framework and its intersection with various aspects of the organization, from investment strategy to employee satisfaction.

Tell me a little about your philosophy when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
DEI is not an insurmountable challenge. While it can be complex at times, I believe that at its core, it's straightforward – it's about people. It's about understanding what's important to each individual and building strong relationships that benefit everyone involved. DEI should encompass all people, not just a select few, and it should create an environment where everyone wins. It's about treating every individual with respect, actively listening to their voices, and ensuring their inclusion in all aspects of our organizational life. It's about nurturing relationships that make people feel valued and central to the decision-making processes and activities within our organization.
How has your more than 25 years of finance and investment experience informed your approach to DEI?
Building relationships and working with individuals has been a common thread throughout my career. Whether it was collaborating with others on successful projects or addressing challenges and setbacks, these interactions have been pivotal. What I bring to my current role is a profound understanding of how people are motivated and the ability to forge meaningful connections.
In essence, my experience has allowed me to recognize that beneath the surface, everyone is striving to fulfill their needs. It's not just about addressing what individuals want, but also understanding and addressing their core needs within the context of these experiences. This perspective informs my approach to DEI in a way that focuses on the human element, relationships, and the fundamental motivations that drive us all.
Since becoming CalPERS' first Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer in 2021, you've implemented a number of innovative practices that align with the organization's DEI framework. Can you provide an overview of the framework and some of the successes resulting from these practices?
When we were developing our DEI framework, we really wanted it to be rooted in our mission: to provide pension and health benefits to members and beneficiaries. This mission forms the foundation for our DEI framework, comprising five core pillars - investments, health equity, culture, talent, and supplier diversity. These pillars are central to delivering on our mission.
What distinguishes our approach is the deliberate integration of DEI across all our processes, spanning our five pillars and throughout the organization. DEI isn't an isolated initiative; it's ingrained in our work. Rather than focusing on one area, we've ensured that DEI is integrated into all aspects of our operations.
Our unique strength lies in this holistic approach, making DEI an integral part of our identity and mission. In fiscal year 2022-2023, we had 17 initiatives that were DEI-related, which I think shows just how embedded it is in our processes. To share a few specific examples, we did a rapid recruitment effort over the summer, where we hired over 100 individuals. And as part of that, we did mandatory DEI training for every person who was on a panel. Another example with our HR work is the implementation of neutral language software. We're evaluating our collateral for recruitment to ensure materials are written in a way that appeals to a broader audience. This doesn't reduce the qualifications, but rather it orients the materials in a way that we're hoping opens up the pool of potential applicants.
Is there an initiative you're most proud of?
I'm particularly proud of the way we've approached our DEI initiatives at CalPERS. One key aspect that stands out is our commitment to a foundational and iterative strategy. The foundational element of our approach ensures that DEI is deeply ingrained in our organizational culture and operations. The iterative aspect is equally crucial. We acknowledge that DEI is a dynamic process, and there's no definitive endpoint. We're continually moving forward, taking the next step, and measuring our progress. It's about assessing the impact of our actions and making necessary pivots when required. This iterative approach is rooted in the understanding that none of us possesses all the answers. Therefore, we must be comfortable with the idea of continuous improvement and adapt our strategies as we learn and grow.
Recruitment and retention has been a growing focus for many organizations. How has CalPERS' DEI framework—and related practices—impacted the organization's success in this area?
The impact of our DEI framework and related practices on recruitment and retention at CalPERS is a source of pride. Our approach to engaging and nurturing our people has significantly strengthened our recruitment and retention efforts. We've focused not only on retaining existing talent but also on expanding our outreach to individuals who may have never considered joining the state service before.
We've implemented numerous initiatives to enhance engagement and inclusion, which are key factors in retaining talent. We take our engagement survey seriously, using the insights gained to develop action items. We organize team speaker events, provide training opportunities, offer programs like the Emerging Leader program and upskilling, and we've even created a DEI certificate program. To ensure that we meet people where they are, we offer multiple pathways for engagement, recognizing that individuals have different preferences in how they want to interact. Our goal is to make everyone feel actively heard and catered to, addressing generational preferences and various communication modalities.
CalPERS recently became the first pension system to join Out Leadership. Can you tell me a little about this organization and why CalPERS chose to join?
Our decision to join Out Leadership was a significant step in our commitment to supporting diversity and inclusion, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community. Out Leadership is an organization dedicated to fostering allyship and growth among LGBTQ+ members in their respective organizations. Their mission is to empower LGBTQ+ individuals to excel within their roles and contribute to the success of their organizations.
We saw this as an opportunity to engage with our LGBTQ+ team members in new and meaningful ways. Out Leadership hosts conferences, summits, networking events, and conducts research aimed at advocating for the LGBTQ+ community. By aligning with Out Leadership, we sent a clear message to our LGBTQ+ team members: we see you, we hear you, and we want to provide you with the resources and support to thrive both personally and professionally. This is part of our broader commitment to create an environment where everyone can be their authentic selves. We believe that by joining forces with Out Leadership, we can offer our LGBTQ+ team members valuable opportunities to connect with peers and access resources that can help them on their journey to success.
Do you have any advice for public pensions (particularly smaller funds) that may be struggling with developing their own DEI framework?
Developing a successful DEI framework requires a deep understanding of the organization's unique culture. Culture sets the tone for DEI efforts, and it's crucial to identify how your culture can be the foundation for progress. To establish trust, open and honest conversations are necessary, and creating a safe space for sensitive discussions is important. Authenticity is key, as DEI initiatives must be driven by a genuine commitment rather than mere checkboxes. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to DEI, and it's essential to start with culture, build relationships, and be patient and intentional. Authenticity builds trust and creates an environment where DEI initiatives can truly thrive and make a lasting impact.
What initially drew you to working in the public pension space?
What initially drew me to working in the public pension space was the mission that it offers. This is a field where we have the privilege of shaping the retirements of countless individuals. I come from a middle-class background, with a father-in-law enforcement and a mother who was a nurse. I understand the value of contributing positively to the community and doing meaningful work. During my time in the private sector, I engaged in various roles aimed at assisting families in safeguarding and growing their wealth. At CalPERS, I can apply those same principles to benefit our approximately 2 million members, providing them with pensions that will support them for decades to come. 
What do you enjoy most about working at CalPERS?
I absolutely cherish my time at CalPERS, and there are several aspects that make it a remarkable place to work. Firstly, the mission is incredibly fulfilling. Knowing that each day I'm contributing to the well-being and financial security of countless individuals brings a profound sense of purpose. Secondly, it's the people. Public service isn't just a job; it's a calling. It's about making a positive impact on the lives of many, even those we may never meet personally. When I mention where I work, I often hear, "I'm a CalPERS member, thank you for my retirement." It's incredibly rewarding to receive that gratitude. And of course, the work itself is fantastic. Prior to taking on my role in DEI, I served as the Chief Compliance Officer here at CalPERS. The diversity, equity, and inclusion work we do is deeply meaningful, and it aligns seamlessly with our broader mission.


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