Katrina “KT” Thornton, the chief equity, inclusion, and belonging officer at Taco Bell.
- KT Thornton, Taco Bell’s chief of equity, inclusion, and belonging, said she felt “fully embraced.”
- In the latest Equity Talk, Thornton shares how she’s ensuring equity efforts aren’t performative.
- Thornton thinks about how she can use her seat at the table, even when she’s scared.
Katrina “KT” Thornton has a big personality and is using it to make strides involving equity, inclusion, and belonging in corporate America.
As Taco Bell’s first chief equity, inclusion, and belonging officer, Thornton knows she has a big role to play, saying: “I view E, I, and B as this enabler to fuel the growth of a business and the people.”
Thornton told Insider, “Since I’ve joined Taco Bell a year and a half ago, they have fully embraced me — my personality. You’re probably getting the sense of my perspective; it’s often maybe different.”
She said that all levels of Taco Bell, which is part of Yum Brands, also the parent of KFC and Pizza Hut, had supported E, I, and B work.
“They have truly, truly embraced the strategy and the work and are comfortable saying, ‘Here, here’s what we need.’ ‘KT, here’s what we’re not quite getting.’ ‘Here’s how we can grow more,'” she said. “That has been not only positive and so uplifting, it helps to energize and ignite and say, ‘All right, this is how we can go faster.’ ‘OK, here’s where we need to slow down because we need this piece right before we speed up.'”
In the latest installment of the Equity Talk, Thornton shares how she makes sure initiatives aren’t performative — or even appear to be. And whether an employee works in a restaurant or in corporate, she wants to ensure there are career paths and opportunities.
Taco Bell offers restaurant workers a scholarship program, an “incubator” program for new ideas, opportunities for employees of all levels to visit corporate headquarters for training and team building, and a leadership program for general managers from restaurants.
Thornton said she’d found success in her role because “I can bring who I am as a person in this newly created role” at a brand “that creates the envelopes others push.”
The following interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Your title is unique. Many folks have heard of diversity, equity, and inclusion — DEI — but yours is slightly different and is E, I, and B. Why is that?
Equity, inclusion, and belonging is a term we use across our entire Yum system. The key piece of that is equity being in the forefront — to show that we’re leading with equity, which is really important, how that also helps to then bring in a sense of inclusion or inclusion as an action. That then hopefully brings a sense of belonging. If you think about this as a holistic approach — and I love that it is different from what you see in most places — it’s very intentional.
Can you define E, I, and B?
I’ll speak for what it means for me personally and what we brought forth to the brand.
Equity is so important because, to me, it is talking about how do you break down barriers to ensure there’s a level playing field. It really drives fairness and consistency. So when that’s the anchor, it just sets the tone on how businesses operate — before you bring in the diversity piece. And that’s so critical when I think about inclusion.
For me, inclusion is action. It is, “What are the behaviors that we’re going to continue to make sure that we operate?” That we lead — in that we model to ensure that we’re inviting others in — regardless of who they may be.
And then, lastly, belonging is really the output, right? It’s a sense that my full aspect of who I am — it’s not just a cliché. It is celebrated. It is valued. It’s wanted. I can feel as if I can bring all of who I am and contribute to the organization.
As a person of color, the journey sometimes is not easy. I have faced everything from imposter syndrome to people wondering why I’m in the room to not feeling comfortable enough to actually use my voice and have a seat at the table. And then when I have one, I don’t know what to do with it. How has your journey been? Is there a moment when you embraced what this could be?
I started my career as an HR business partner and HR business leader of many different companies. And I saw the side of the table where you’re making decisions.
And one of the things I will always keep in my mind: Sometimes being “the only” in the room, or being one of the few — I said, “How am I going to use my seat?”
Maybe that is me having to be bold and courageous. And sometimes I don’t know how the outcome is going to be when I’m speaking up for when I see things — to ensure that there’s fairness. And I have used that in every aspect of my career, even when I was scared, even if it may have been unpopular.
I feel as if my purpose and my vocation are now colliding. There’s a wonderful collision that has taken place. It’s now a calling.
Also, I take a moment to say, “How do I seek to understand in many ways — and not leave with an assumption — and have those tough conversations?” And in those tough conversations, what I’m learning about myself, what I’ve learned about others, and what nugget of wisdom can I leave.”
I view myself as I’m a business partner who happens to sit in the seat of the E, I, and B. And so that is how I’m going to lead enterprise-wide. And I’m going to push and I’m going to challenge. But I also want the feedback as well to say, “OK, how do we make sure we bring everyone along?”
E, I, and B are expected as company priorities. They’re no longer “nice-to-haves.” They’re “must-haves.” How are you and the company living up to that expectation?
You hit the nail on the head. You said it’s a necessity. And the key piece of talking about how we’re bringing this forward — it truly is as leading with action. The first step of this, even with action, is ensuring this work is actually integrated into every aspect of the business. It doesn’t just sit in HR; it’s not in the siloed approach. It’s not just programming. In every part of our business, are we leading with action and having an E, I, and B lens?
Is there an example of when the question led to an everyday action that now is being used more widely? Or sometimes it’s all about starting the conversation, too. We’re asking questions that we wouldn’t have asked three years ago, five years ago.
In April 2022, we did an E, I, and B immersion where we brought the entire organization together — in a hybrid way because of the pandemic. We flew in some restaurant leaders, including general managers and area coaches, and actually had about 200 folks on-site and 200 folks virtually.
The purpose was, one: How do we further socialize the E, I, and B strategy and help the team understand what that means? Two, how do you start applying these concepts and think about what does that look like from the seat I sit in, whether I’m a leader or individual contributor? How do I again lead in this space? Thirdly, how do we build this community of trust and vulnerability?
We talked about what it meant from a personal view. Let’s have these tough conversations, but what are maybe our biases? How did these show up? How do we address it? How do we learn more? Then we talked about the business. Why is this needed for the business to be relevant? How does this show up in the business — our everyday moments — whether in our restaurants or teams or how we’re connecting with our consumers?
Then, lastly, we looked at it from a cultural standpoint. Why is this needed for the culture to win? That was such a huge moment — the first time that’s ever been done — but it really set a tone in the sense that anyone can say, “What’s my role? Now, understand the role I play to bring this to light.”
Now, whether it’s our hiring practices, we’re looking into having coaching and learning sessions, so you’re able to say, “How do I apply this concept?” Or, “How do I look at my biases and mitigate those?”
You probably hear my passion coming through. It’s this 360 approach from a personal lens, a business lens, and a culture, and it’s really helped folks to see themselves in it, because it goes beyond me. It’s the power of the collective.
What is the biggest challenge you face in getting executives to understand that these initiatives can’t seem performative? Employees need to feel and see progress.
This is a part of our business strategy. And that’s what makes it very real and not performative.
When we’re connecting the dots to E, I, and B, it is actually being utilized as a growth fueler for our people.
We’re not just chasing the ad-hoc moments, like, “Oh, we’re just checking the box.” It goes so beyond that. It’s part of our business updates — having our leaders have it in their goals for the year. That’s a whole different dynamic, and it makes it very real and that our teams can feel and also the investments that we’re putting in for it.
We’re transparently saying, “We can always get better.” Using these dynamics externally and internally helps people to see that it’s real.
What are you most worried about in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in corporate America?
One of the things I’ve seen in just the space of equity, inclusion, and belonging is it’s often posed as this journey. And when you think about journey — most folks look at a road, right? You can see this road; you can drive forward. You can put it in neutral and just watch it all go around. Or you can put it in reverse and start to backtrack.
One of the things we’ve done at Taco Bell that helps really keep this fire burning is we call this our E, I, and B evolution. We’ve chosen not to use the concept of journey. We’re asking, “How do we constantly evolve our thinking and our operating model?”
It’s tough to do those reverse mechanisms; it’ll be very tough to neutralize it. One of the things I hope that we continue to see is that we continue to embrace this sense of E, I, and B as an evolution and integrate all parts of the business. It becomes a part of how we operate.
Yum Brands is a well-known name that can set standards across the industry in terms of diversity, education, and exciting career paths. What are your top priorities this year?
My No. 1 priority is around education at every level of our organization but, specifically, starting with our coaches and our leaders.
Two, continuing that feedback loop from our employees. The more insights and feedback that we get, the more we can apply.
In addition to that, my partnership and connection with our restaurant teams. How do we start to really integrate this into our restaurants at a greater level?