In Your Shoes CEO Series: Krish Sastry on Becoming President & CEO of Appriss
Last March, Krish Sastry was announced as the new President and CEO of Appriss, the Louisville, Kentucky-based leader in data and analytics solutions across sectors like healthcare, workforce and community risk, and retail. This was during racial tensions leading to Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as well as political and economic tensions from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the US and the whole world.
As a man of Indian descent, Sastry has had his fair share of racially charged experiences, working across five continents before landing at Appriss. He remembers waiting in line at a club when a bouncer stopped him to say, “This isn’t the kind of club you think it is.” Sastry also recalls leaning against his parked car, in a suit and tie—while working for Boston Consulting Group—as cops rolled up to ask him what exactly he was doing. The answer? Waiting for a bus. “I care extremely deeply about this subject, because I’ve been on the receiving end of racial intolerance,” says Sastry. “Even though my experience is not, in any sense of the imagination, close to what people of color and the LGBTQ+ individuals experience in our country."
As America erupted into protests following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Sastry received pressure to act quickly, speak out, and create some form of change within the company. As the new CEO, employees were watching to see how we would react and lead. That is when he and prior CEO Mike Davis made a critical decision about how they would approach reviewing and retooling Appriss’s DE&I initiatives. “One of the first things we did was to decide that how we talk about what we feel, and how we choose to react and respond to it, should be with a fundamental belief that whatever we say or do should lead to a better outcome than just getting swept up and adding fuel to the fire,’” he says. “We got to that decision first, which was one of the best decisions we reached.”
Measured, Not Rushed
Sastry moved cautiously forward, first instituting a baseline data survey about where the company was in terms of race and representation, as well as how employees within Appriss felt. The other was calling a meeting of the company’s Executive Leadership Team (ELT). They spent hours talking about what race meant to each of them, what diversity meant, and why it was important. While it was clear that everyone cared deeply, people had different opinions on what changes to make. “That’s when we sat down and said, ‘Let’s let the grassroots engage in highly informal ways,’” he recalls. “If we were going to corporately make progress, we needed to be thoughtful and start top-down in regard to being very deliberate, very thoughtful, and not overcommitting and under-delivering.”
Sastry’s biggest fear was losing the trust of his employees, and the broader public. “I said, ‘I would rather people be outraged that we are not moving fast enough than be outraged because we didn’t follow through on what we said we would do,’” he remembers. This is exactly why Appriss was very measured in its early phases of approaching solutions. This being said, DE&I efforts have been “rapidly picking up steam, because people trust that when we say we are going to do something, we will,” Sastry says.
The ELT made a few determinations early on. Appriss tries to connect three things together before instituting anything; Sastry refers to this as the “mind, heart and pocket” method of evaluation. “You can intellectually agree to something, you might emotionally or spiritually feel very tied to it, but you still need to be able to afford it and operate within the confines of a business,” he explains. The team also committed to being “brutally transparent with our data,” as a means to drive incremental progress.
Finally, the ELT put together a ‘Crawl, Walk, Run’ Plan to approach DE&I. ‘Crawl’ includes actions Appriss could take immediately, without having to fit them into schedules and budgets. ‘Walk’ involves actions where Appriss assesses data to help inform the team on where the company needs to go to improve. And ‘Run’ is the aspirational, the pinnacle, the place Appriss ultimately wants to go that will take thoughtful, intentional steps over time to reach.
One of the biggest myths about DE&I is that, to do it well, a company needs to commit a lot of time and resources. While it is great to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity or have every employee enroll in unconscious bias training, Sastry has found some of Appriss's ‘Crawl’ steps to be the most effective. The ELT shared the company’s baseline diversity survey in an all-company meeting. They also instituted gatherings across the organization for groups of different tenures, female managers only, LGBTQIA+, race, and ethnic origin.
Every year, the company also has a floating holiday. In 2021, Sastry and his team decided to declare that floating holiday, “The Diversity Day.” He sent around a one-question survey to every employee, asking them to help choose a day to celebrate. Some of the options to honor were Juneteenth, International Women’s Day, Rosh Hashanah, and Ramadan. The idea was simple. First, the holiday candidates were meant to represent diversity across a broad spectrum. Second, and most importantly, Sastry wanted employees to understand that their role in DE&I was active. “Don’t just sit there and wait for a company to somehow make it better,” he says. “If you want to see it better, you participate in it.”
Within 24 hours, 40% of Appriss employees had responded. Within 72 hours, 80% of the company had issued a vote. Sastry says he was shocked by the number of emails he got from employees, thanking him for allowing them to cast a vote in this initiative. In the same vein, Sastry also asked his Head of People, Tina Figueroa, to put together an extensive celebration calendar spanning all religions, nationalities, ethnicities and social beliefs. In February, the company acknowledged Black History Month with emails honoring people of both genders who have changed history. For instance, did you know GPS was invented by an African American woman? The intent was to mitigate bias or predispositions that we have about what one can bring to society, says Sastry, by focusing on what Black people have already accomplished.
“Simple gestures, that you then follow through on, help people know that someone cares,” he says, “And then, employees become a little more vocal, and that’s how momentum picks up.”
From Walking to Running
Appriss’ ‘Walk’ initiatives are a bit more complex, including the company’s desire to increase diversity and eliminate bias in hiring. For instance, Sastry believes deeply in redacting names and addresses on employment applications. He references the now-famous study where researchers sent out fictional resumes with either white-sounding or Black-sounding names; white-sounding names received a shocking 50% more callbacks in the experiment. So, Sastry “asked for exactly that”—to simply leave the name off resumes to eliminate the potential for bias. The additional ask for an address redaction was prompted by what Sastry learned from listening to employees: some had experienced bias because they lived in a smaller apartment, not a house.
Sastry also refused to hire for the company’s President of Retail position until he got at least one application from a woman; even in soliciting those applications via an executive recruiter, the company wasn’t able to see as much gender diversity as they wanted. “So, we’ve got to do even more,” he said, noting this is now in the ‘Run’ part of Appriss’ plan. He is personally mentoring women who are up-and-comers within the company, who he believes could lead Appriss one day. He’s also looking to increase the diversity on the ELT and board. “The one that’s going to probably be the hardest is hiring board members that come from diverse groups,” he says. “That’s why we are working with Insight in order to get that going.”
Appriss is also working on initiatives that extend beyond the company. The team just sponsored 10 high schoolers to participate in Girls With Impact, which instills entrepreneurship skills in girls who come from underprivileged backgrounds. “In some cases, the kids go on to start their own businesses, but in many cases, the business plans they develop in this program is something they attach as collateral to their college applications,” Sastry explains.
Despite the racial homogeneity of the Louisville area, Sastry is consistently impressed by Appriss’s workers. Although he knows the team will be working on DE&I until they reach the impossible state of perfection, he is pleased with employee satisfaction and well-being based on the recent company-wide survey data.
He’s also glad he didn’t leap to action too quickly in the wake of the initial outrage and protests led by many, including Black Lives Matters.
Diversity and inclusion can feel overwhelming if you let it, he says. Thinking about how to honor everything you want to do while sticking to the company’s fiscal plans. Don’t worry, though. “Not everything is going to take money,” Sastry says. “I focus on a very simple motto, which is, ‘Do what you say, and say what you do.’ That is how you build credibility, and once you build credibility, there is more support. People start to trust that you believe in it, and that when you say you’ll do it, you’ll actually do it.”