Miriam Lewis joined Principal Financial Group in July as the company’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer. In that role, Lewis will develop strategies to strengthen Principal’s commitment to attracting, retaining and advancing diverse talent. She reports directly to Jon Couture, senior vice president and chief human resources officer. Most recently, Lewis was head of inclusion and diversity for the Clorox Co., where she worked for more than 16 years. After living in temporary quarters in Des Moines since July, Lewis and her husband moved their household in late October from Atlanta. It’s her first professional position located outside of the South.

Principal has received numerous awards for its diversity and inclusion practices, among them a No. 1 ranking on Forbes’ list of Best Employers for Women last year. In January, Forbes separately recognized Principal on its list of America’s Best Employers for Diversity. Also earlier this year, Principal received a score of 100 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation Corporate Equality Index for support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer equality in the workplace. 

How did you find out about this position? 

I found out about the position from one of my friends who worked at Nike — it came across her desk and she forwarded it to me. I’m going to be honest with you, I fell in love with Principal. As I read Principal’s beliefs statement, that everyone deserves an opportunity to be able to save more and to protect their financial well-being, that really resonated with me. Because the work that I do in the inclusion space is really about how we include everyone in everything that we’re doing for the betterment of the organization to grow the business. What it said to me is that Principal’s business model is inclusive, and that I could leverage the business playbook to help leaders to be inclusive. 

Tell me about your career. 

I started my career in the financial services industry, working for several subsidiaries of the Associates Financial Services, on the lending side of the business. And then I worked in manufacturing, with both Coca-Cola Co. as well as the Clorox Co. So I’ve had a very diverse career, from working in the business leading large organizations, to leading diversity and inclusion. So no pun intended, but I’ve had a very diverse career, and that’s really set me up well to come here and to continue to build on Principal’s strengths in the areas of diversity and inclusion. 

How would you assess Principal’s diversity and inclusion efforts? 

So many times in this space, leaders like myself come into an organization to fix it because something’s broken. Principal has a solid foundation — I’m not here to fix anything. I’m here to build upon what they have in place today. And to help prepare for the next 140 years. I am just amazed by the culture here at Principal, the people. They are beyond nice, beyond courteous, beyond helpful. 

Are there any particular best practices you’re eager to bring to Principal? 

Absolutely. … One of the probably most standard best practices that many of us don’t think about is really just building relationships with everyone on your team. How can we make sure that we are being inclusive of every team member. Everyone has their go-to persons — I have them myself — but what about going to someone different and getting a different perspective and getting to know that person? So with diversity and inclusion, it’s a lot of little things that we do that makes people feel really valued, supported and respected. And at the core, isn’t that what inclusion is really about? 

What are your initial impressions of how well diversity and inclusion are valued in Greater Des Moines’ business community? 

I think my first data point here would be the way that I’ve been received into this community, which has been phenomenal. Everyone from the Uber driver, the folks at the hotel, where I’ve resided for the last three months, at the restaurants where I’ve dined, have been very welcoming, very supportive. I have gotten so many different tips to prepare me for the winter, from everyone, so it’s just been great. … I believe that people moving to Des Moines will find it as a great place to live and to work. 

What goals do you have for your first year with Principal?

The first goal is really learning the business. As I stated earlier, my initial focus in the financial services arena was focused on lending. So now I’m on the other end of the spectrum — I like to say that I’m really building muscles on that. And so learning the business and the culture is my first priority here. My second priority is to accelerate both diversity and inclusion, and that will look to infuse diversity and inclusion in everything that we do. It will look to bring in more diverse talent within the organization. And we’ll look to build a very inclusive culture.

What challenges does being a global company present in advancing diversity and inclusion? 

You’re poking at the very nature of inclusion, right? So it’s about all 17,000 employees at Principal, making sure that no matter where you sit, making sure that each and every employee has what he or she needs to be successful. But the nature of inclusion is really closing those gaps, those naturally built-in geographic barriers, to making sure that folks are able to thrive. So that’s the work ahead of me. And I see them as really translucent barriers that we can overcome, by making sure that our strategy first and foremost is global in nature, and that our approach is the same. 

How is the diversity and inclusion team at Principal structured? 

I’d like to start with the thought that diversity and inclusion is too important to be left to the diversity and inclusion professionals. So it’s really everyone’s responsibility to be inclusive. I really love the fact that it starts within each and every one of us. … From a staffing model, I have four people on my team that are responsible for helping to lead this effort. And then we also have the Executive Inclusion Council, which is sponsored by Dan Houston and led by our [executive management group] members as well. So although there’s an [inclusion and diversity] office, there are a lot of hands in this to make sure we’re successful and that we’re meeting the needs of our customers. 

What has influenced how you approach diversity and inclusion? 

I guess first would be my mother, who was the first female forklift driver for Scott Paper Co. in Mobile, Ala. She was very independent, very driven and had a great work ethic. I would say that has really served me well, along with my five sisters. Second, I would say, growing up in the South has served me well. My family and I grew up in a very small, close-knit community, a very diverse community as well, particularly when I was smaller. Being in that environment really helped me to grow — and to respect. First and foremost in my mom’s house, you were going to respect everyone.

What sort of hobbies do you enjoy?

It’s my time of the year — I love college football. I haven’t chosen a team here yet, but I understand that I will need to. But I need to do a little more homework. Of course, I graduated from the University of Alabama. Roll Tide!