Talethea Best ’82 joined Harley in Grade 7. Although she and her sister Nicolle were doing fine at the public city school in their 19th Ward neighborhood, her parents were very education-minded people and were drawn to the idea of the smaller class sizes, the one-on-one attention, and the varied classroom experiences offered at both Harley and Allendale Columbia. In the end, they chose both schools, Harley for Talethea and Allendale Columbia for Nicolle.
When Talethea went for a tour of Harley, she had the pleasure of walking the grounds with then head of the Middle School, Bud Ewell ’40. She said, “Mr. Ewell was the champion cheerleader, so happy, so welcoming, so cheerful.” and this made her feel a lot more comfortable about switching schools. She was coming from a fairly diverse city school and when she walked into Harley, she felt a little out of place. Thankfully, her experience with Mr. Ewell and the big welcome from her new classmates and faculty, she quickly made friends, connected with teachers, and learned to navigate her new surroundings.
As she looks back at her time at Harley, she says teachers like Pam Stoffel (English, 1972-1982) and Alan Pavlik (English, 1974-1981) in the English Department were very significant. They provided creative experiences in the classroom that helped students expand their own voices, exposed them to captivating books, aided in building foundational skills when addressing essay topics, presenting, and sharing interests, which was especially helpful when applying to college. Their teaching also gave Talethea a love for English, reading, and communications and influenced her pursuit of a double major at Drexel University in Philadelphia in Marketing and Communications.
Her experiences at Harley went beyond academics. She was curious about athletics and tried basketball and volleyball, and in the end, gravitated to field hockey with Coach Eloise Nielsen (Physical Education, 1966-82). She excelled on the field and stuck with it through her senior year. She also participated in student council and remembers being elected for Student Council secretary. “The Student Council members were being announced and we were all standing together, Tim Douglas ’82 as our president. I felt pretty cool up there!” She also has fond memories of coordinating a dance with friends at one of the many school assemblies.
Following Drexel University, she worked in various sales and marketing positions at companies like Shell Oil Company, Scott Paper Company, Communico Ltd., and AON Hewitt and, while there, she earned an MS in Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern University. She then took on the position of Global Talent & Inclusion Practice Director at AON Hewitt where she led the full enterprise talent planning process, succession management, and diverse high potential identification to meet business needs.
After 30 years working for major companies—and with a solid plan in place, she started her own consulting firm, Best Innovations Consulting, LLC, ten years ago. Now, Talethea works with organizations in areas involving culture and leadership development, with a key focus on diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI). She supports clients in the design and implementation of a robust DEI strategy from the point where employees are hired all the way through to retirement. One goal is to help companies discover how to help advance black and brown and other underrepresented employees within an organization; offer insights, perspectives, and co-create solutions, so they can continue the practice long after her consulting is finished.
When companies hire her and state they want to attract top talent of color, she starts by asking some tough questions like, “What is it about this company that would be most impressive to a black or brown employee? Why would they want to work here? Do you know what the employee experience is like for the current employees of color?” Employee retention is also a big focus for her work. One way to find out why an employee of color likes working at a company is through a “stay interview.” Many of us have experienced an “exit interview” when leaving a company where they ask you about your experiences and why you are leaving. Talethea says an exit interview can be valuable, but it’s too late to make an impact. Companies need to keep the lines of communication open with current employees on a regular basis so they can figure out things like the strengths of each employee, ways they can contribute beyond their current role, what talents are being underutilized, and simply how the employer can make their experience better. She says when you engage employees, you get a genuine commitment from them. Talethea says she often works with senior leadership teams because they are the key decision-makers and help to create company policies. She acknowledges many companies are not prepared to be inclusive with talent available in their existing team and different strategies and practices can be implemented to address that challenge.
Talethea says her company is going strong and that her steady networking and word-of-mouth keep it growing and moving forward, but she does admit that she has a bit of a “podcast bug.” For the future, she is thinking about sharing her knowledge on business strategy, DEI work and the like through podcasts, creating a broader audience. She wants to make sure her clients feel connected and she is keen on learning the latest technologies to engage more organizations in Rochester to actively participate in diversity initiatives in a meaningful way. She also supports the global CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion initiative designed to help companies take measurable actions to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. “Rochester has a long social justice history and we need to continue to push, ask the tough questions, and hold each other accountable to the work. I’d like to see more organizations in our region participating in this pledge.”
Talethea recently participated in a panel for a conference offered by the Action for a Better Community entitled Racism in a Public Health Crisis—Attacking the 2 Pandemics. She feels empowered to participate and said the time to talk about these subjects and take action is right now. This sort of social justice and community involvement runs in the family. Talethea’s mom, Wyoma Best, was the first African American female TV reporter, news anchor, and TV host as well as the first African American female to serve on the Rochester School Board, and as an officer at the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.
Although Talethea is working ardently to move the mark on DEI practices forward, she knows we have a long way to go due to the generations of embedded thoughts, beliefs, and practices. She agrees that as a society, we are definitely more aware, but we need to be more open and have the right conversations to do the hard work ahead of us.