MLT Blog

MLT Women in Leadership: Melissa Peña’s Journey as a DEI Professional at Bain & Company

The concept of racial equity has garnered increasing attention in corporate America over the past four years. In 2020, following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, organizations began to recognize the importance of fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces. However, the journey of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives has been marked by a cycle of both rise and fall, with periods of heightened focus followed by a decline in momentum. 

Despite these fluctuations, the significance of DEI programs and jobs in organizations cannot be understated. These initiatives and roles play a pivotal part in driving cultural change, dismantling barriers to equity, and ensuring that all voices are heard and valued. As DEI continues to evolve in the corporate landscape, the role of DEI professionals remains essential in leading efforts to create a more equitable and inclusive work environment for all employees. DEI champions and leaders, like Melissa (Meli) Peña, step into such professional positions in order to make a lasting impact. 

Melissa Peña is a proud MLT Alum and the Global Manager for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Bain & Company. As a woman in leadership, she plays a pivotal role in advancing learning and development initiatives at Bain’s Global Center of Excellence for DEI. We had the privilege to sit down with Melissa to discuss her journey and perspectives on DEI in the corporate world. Dive into the conversation as her insights provide a valuable perspective on the significance of racial equity in corporate America.

MLT: Thank you for joining us to talk more about your experience. What are the functions of your role at Bain and what led you to the position?

Melissa: As a Manager in Bain’s Global Center of Excellence (COE) for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), my primary focus is on advancing DEI learning and development initiatives. I am tasked with seamlessly integrating our learning programs into existing systems, operations, and broader training programs. Additionally, I am responsible for ensuring that our learning and development offerings align effectively with our global DEI ambitions, contributing to the achievement of business outcomes.

My passion for DEI has been a constant driver in my career. I’ve actively engaged in initiatives within my communities and organizations, focusing on diversifying the talent pipeline and fostering connections among employees from varying backgrounds. While initially working in another function at Bain, where I supported the delivery of cost transformation projects and commercial efforts for a few years, I was eventually drawn into the DEI COE to focus on this work full-time.

You’re a proud advocate for Bain. Why did you choose to work at the firm?

I sought to be part of a firm committed to all stakeholders, encompassing clients, employees, and the community, and Bain exemplifies this commitment. Before joining Bain I kept hearing this slogan “A Bainie Never Lets Another Bainie Fail,” which is part of our global operating principles. For an element of an organization’s operating principle to circulate outside of its four walls, I knew that the sentiment must have been felt on the ground. 

Once I joined, it was confirmed- I felt the culture was one that focused on teamwork and collaboration. I don’t ever feel like I’m working on anything in a silo, as I know I have a broad support system to reach out to for help, input, or feedback in either my immediate team or broader internal network. Similarly, it is common to receive a ping from a team member asking for help thinking through a question or problem and then wind up in a live call brainstorming solutions.  

At Bain, we’re also proud to have developed a workplace and culture that values inclusion and diversity – DEI is at the heart of our talent strategy to help attract and retain the best talent. We are transparent about our data and progress by releasing annual DEI reports

Melissa’s leadership in action at Bain & Company

Amidst political changes like affirmative action, how critical are DEI roles in our current climate?

Although advancing DEI in the workplace and in our communities is always critical, we’ve seen cyclical rise and fall in DEI prioritization. I believe the system maintains itself, but it becomes harder when there are elevated threats to the validity of our work.

In conversations I’ve been part of, some of the questions raised are around if DEI is dead or if DEI is viable but companies fail financially, yet no one questions, “Do we need a CFO?” Operational failure doesn’t cause us to ask if we need a COO. When DEI efforts are integrated into the business, there is no single DEI role to blame for any collective systemic failure.

Recent decisions that have affected affirmative action, defunding DEI programs, etc., all validate that systemic barriers, discrimination, and bias still aren’t fixed in the larger world. It’s critical to continue showing up for ourselves and each other by sharing our stories – similarities and differences, and in organizations, by delivering quality offerings that educate, encourage, and inspire.

What are the problems that keep you up at night regarding DEI?

I try to maintain a balance between reactivity and proactivity in this role. It is easy to feel that our focus is bombarded by the need to react or respond to an event that has occurred externally. While it’s important to act and acknowledge when there is a threat to equality and peace, I try to remember that, again, the issues at hand are bigger than us. Sometimes what we need is to pause and ensure our foundational structures are built strong enough to support us when needed. This means having community within and across our affinity groups, having the right resources and guides to help folks manage difficult conversations, and ensuring our leaders are ready to provide their teams with what they need to feel safe and heard.

How is Bain leading the charge? In what ways has Bain bought into DEI?

Our operating principles underpin our culture. Last year, I was part of the team that helped define how to live up to our principle of “Diverse Teams, One Bain.” This is defined as ‘we believe diverse and inclusive teams are our strength and together we accomplish more than we can alone’, through a set of five behavioral themes.

I saw firsthand how our leadership team prioritized and ensured we sought the most representation of voices across the firm (across talent pools, tenures, etc.) to help shape the behavioral themes that help us live up to that principle by being inclusive leaders and teammates day-to-day at Bain.

Melissa representing Boston Partners in Education as a Big Cheese Leader

Delving into the nuances of your journey, what are some challenges and advantages you face as a woman of color in Corporate America? in a DEI-centered role? 

The advantage of being a woman of color in these spaces is the opportunity to tap into our lived experiences to inform our work. Each of us has stories and memories that have made us aware of the consequences that come from not feeling a sense of belonging and fairness; feelings that motivate us to charge forward even when times feel challenging. 

At my first corporate job, I discovered that I hadn’t been staffed by a government client because it was assumed I was not an American citizen, based on my cultural background. As a first-generation American, I raised this concern to remind leadership to treat staffing policies equitably to avoid potential biases such as this one. Although the experience did not feel good at the time, it allowed me to provide the feedback needed to hopefully prevent future harm and this experience reminds me of what I push for every day.

This example also reminds me of the challenge we have in taking a DEI-centered role. There is an emotional load to carry when external factors and rulings feel personal and/or affect lived experiences and communities. Self-care is incredibly important for DEI leaders and practitioners. I prioritize my self-care by practicing yoga, cooking, and occasional binges of classic sitcoms – find what works for you!

Melissa posed proudly alongside fellow MLT Alumni

How has MLT made an impact on you as you strive to make a difference in your work community?

MLT is an organization that does not shy away from taking a stance and speaking up to defend the communities it serves. 

When powerful social justice movements were happening across the nation in 2020 and organizations were making visible DEI commitments, MLT reached out to their people and partners offering support and extending compassion. They also started building a strategy to ensure organizations were living up to those commitments through the Black Equity at Work Certification.

 After the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, MLT published a full statement on social media and on their website expressing their disagreement and why.

Seeing an organization boldly commit to what it believes in and the population it serves inspires me to elevate my contributions and strive for meaningful change in my work community. 

MLT serves as a great community builder too! I thoroughly enjoyed participating in every seminar as a Career Prep Fellow. The program provided me with the opportunity to connect with amazingly talented and wonderful individuals. Plus, it allowed me to form lasting relationships with some fantastic folks.

Bain & Company is a Career Prep and MBA Professional Development partner at Management Leadership for Tomorrow. Together, we champion DEI in the workplace by recruiting diverse talent and developing winning diversity strategies that increase retention. To learn more about MLT’s unique partnership opportunities, visit:

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