Derek Powell, MBA '98: Breaking Barriers and Building Inclusive Workplaces

June 04, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

In a world where diversity often takes a backseat, Derek Powell stands out as a beacon of change. Born during the Vietnam War, Derek’s early life was a series of moves—from the outskirts of Saigon to Southern California, where he grew up amidst diverse cultures and perspectives. These experiences planted the seeds for what would become a lifelong commitment to fostering inclusive environments.

Derek’s journey took an academic turn when he attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, not just to follow in the footsteps of his military family, but to carve out his own path in astronautical engineering. However, it was his transition from military precision to the broad horizons of business at UCI Paul Merage School of Business that truly shaped his mission.

At UCI, he was the only Black student in his graduating class, a stark reality that fueled his passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). His unique background and insights have since become the cornerstone of his leadership style, profoundly impacting the technology sector and beyond.


From Military School to the Business World

Powell searched for the best way to transition into the commercial world. With that goal in mind, someone suggested he consider UCI. “I ended up applying out of cycle,” he says. “Most of the other schools had already closed their admissions window, except for Irvine, so it was a last-ditch effort to get accepted into an MBA program.”

Powell applied and was accepted at UCI, where he decided early on what academic direction to take. “I liked the idea of UCI being more technology-focused,” he says. “I wanted to leverage my strengths, which were mainly in the engineering-focused disciplines, and I wanted to see how I could apply those in the business world.”

He debated whether or not to pursue a master’s degree in engineering or earn an MBA. As a result of the encouragement from a couple of Air Force officers, Powell made the choice to study business administration in graduate school. “Today I wouldn’t have been forced to choose between those two options, but at the time, it was one or the other.”


Soaking Up Every Available Resource

While at UCI, Powell took advantage of every program available. “Whether partaking in the student exchange program where I spent time studying in Hong Kong, interning for an ecommerce company and getting involved in research projects, I did it all,” he says.

Powell also embraced the opportunity to work with many of the businesses in Orange County. He received “great experience problem-solving with companies, whether it was a class project working with a semiconductor company or with In-N-Out or interning with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture).” With each experience, he gained valuable expertise in problem-solving and collaboration.



The Origins of Powell’s Passion for Inclusion

Inclusive excellence creates opportunities for people from all backgrounds to thrive. Powell’s experiences in the technology industry shaped his passion for inclusive excellence, but it started much earlier. “I think it probably started back when I was at the Merage School at UC Irvine,” he says. “Going through the program, I was the only Black student in my graduating class. I received great support from the program but there was no African-American on the faculty or on staff to provide direction, guidance, or the advice I needed from that perspective at that stage of my life.”

Despite the underrepresentation of African Americans in technology, Powell has excelled in implementing technology solutions in various leadership roles. He is also passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives, which he integrates into all his business engagements. “Those who have gone through the process need to help the next generation of leaders and managers tap into their potential,” says Powell. “We also need to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes we did. We need to help them watch out for the pitfalls in their respective careers so they can accelerate.”

This is particularly important to Powell because he didn’t have this kind of support in youth and during his formal education. He wants to guide students and young people early in their careers to help them gain access to opportunities he didn’t have.


Meaningful Results Every Day

For Powell, inclusive excellence is something that drives everything he does on a daily basis. “I define inclusive excellence as more than just being able to participate,” he says. “It’s about more than providing the bare minimum when it comes to recognizing underserved, underrepresented or even underestimated populations within the workforce or student population. Inclusive excellence is more about the ability to have impact.”

Instead of saying you’re an ally to a particular group or signing up to participate with a particular employee resource group (ERG), “it’s really about being able to ensure the effort, the energy and the time you put into these respective programs and groups are truly having meaningful impact and creating results: hiring more people, retaining more people and finding opportunities for growth within companies,” then eventually promoting staff.

For Powell, much of inclusive excellence energy needs to focus on what happens post-graduation. “Graduates need to learn from more experienced, more tenured executives and leaders in the industry,” he says. “It’s about having an overall inclusive perspective around not just being able to have the right level of energy, time and resources, but putting in the effort to make sure the outcomes are meaningful and the needle is moving in terms of where the industry needs to go.”


Developing Creative Global Strategies

Today, Powell works with strategy consulting firm Altman Solon. “We are the largest global strategy firm working exclusively in technology, media and telecommunications (TMT),” he says. “We help investors and private equity firms understand and conduct commercial due diligence when considering entry into a market or an investment in a target company. We also work with corporate clients in TMT in identifying, developing, and implementing strategies, market entry approaches, digital innovation, and global M&A.”

Powell primarily runs the Los Angeles office of Altman Solon, focused entirely on the media and entertainment industry. “I’m always working with broadcasters, streaming platforms and film studios around how they produce, manage and distribute content,” he says.


Leadership Challenges: Exclusion vs. Inclusion

Surprisingly, instead of leaning into inclusive initiatives, some business leaders are making efforts to further segregate their workforce. “When I talk to organizations that have considered abolishing the concept of ERGs, it’s usually because they feel like it excludes more than includes their employees,” says Powell. “In terms of communication and networking, relationship-building is no longer there, and the work culture suffers. On the flip side, the fear of some ERGs is they lose out in having a safe space to express ideas, discuss issues, and or concerns. Obviously that’s not the intent.”

There are always ways to become an effective ally, he says. “For example, my heritage is both Asian and Black, but it doesn’t mean these are the only two groups I spend my time with. There are ways diversity presents challenges to all involved and these blind spots can be overcome with everyone contributing.”

At the end of the day, Powell says it’s about leadership. “Sadly, there are people in leadership roles who just don’t believe in this,” and he thinks they cannot be convinced. “This is why I encourage leaders and managers at all levels to seek ways to give back outside of their organizations, outside the workplace. There are ways to do that, for example, by getting involved with industry organizations, alumni clubs, non-profit organizations, and special interest groups.”


Creating a Culture of Complete Inclusion

Powell argues that inclusive excellence is about much more than showing a training video from the HR department and putting up posters in the break room. “It has to be at the cultural level and has to start at the executive level so it’s not just something they’re saying, but something they’re actually practicing—not just in the workplace, but outside of the workplace,” he says. “It has to be cohesive. It’s about the inner drive, and it’s that motivation and enthusiasm to see the potential of these underrepresented, underserved and underestimated populations that will bring greater success for the organization overall.”


Recognizing Inclusive Excellence

Last year, the Los Angeles Times recognized Powell as a DEIA Visionary Award for his terrific work in inclusive excellence. “That was quite a surprise to me,” he says. “A friend nominated me because they knew I was doing a lot of work with student organizations on campus at UCLA, USC, and UCI. I am involved in industry groups, such as SMPTE and NSBE, promoting diversity, trying to get organizations to develop initiatives or provide access and opportunities for more diversity for their respective events and conferences.”

Powell was nominated for the award, not only for his work with schools and other national organizations, but also for his nonprofit work. “I sit on the Debbie Allen Dance Academy nonprofit board, focusing primarily on helping Black and Brown students gain access to affordable performing arts training,” he says. “We were able to get Debbie Allen and her team to a better facility with more accessibility for parents and students to take part.”

Powell is also involved in A Thousand Joys, another nonprofit, “which is focused on providing supportive services and guidance to community-based organizations, primarily in the urban parts of the city here in Los Angeles to help kids cope with trauma related to violence, drugs, verbal abuse and physical abuse.”


Perseverance in the Face of Adversity

While Powell finds his work extremely rewarding, he’s concerned about the people who aren’t on board with diversity, inclusiveness and equity. “Some people don’t believe in inclusive excellence,” says Powell, “but don’t let that stop you. You have to keep going and hope others will follow as well. It gives me hope that there has been such great progress over the last 20 years, but we need more people who are able to lean in. Frankly, it’s tough because this requires a lot of time, energy and effort. It takes a village, as they say, and I hope this village continues to grow.”


Five Ways You Can Foster Inclusive Excellence on Your Team

Build Social Connections: Help others feel like they belong. Share your goals and purpose with colleagues and embrace differences to enhance communication and awareness.

Mentorship and Sponsorship: Implement active mentorship and sponsorship programs to ensure diversity is integrated into the daily operations of your organization. Encourage others to view diversity as an asset rather than a barrier.

Review Business Processes: Take the initiative to reevaluate and restructure your team’s business processes. Ensure diversity considerations are embedded in recruiting, mentorship, and career advancement activities.

Promote Diversity Training: Advocate for and invest in diversity training and education for all employees, starting at the senior level. Help expand the definition of diversity and hold everyone accountable for their role in promoting inclusivity.

Celebrate Diversity: Create and support initiatives that celebrate diversity and promote inclusion. This can include celebrating holidays, heritage months, and observances, spotlighting employees' achievements, and encouraging the use of inclusive language.