As the Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), Cheryl Durst is committed to achieving broad recognition for the value of design and its significant role in society through both functionality and engagement in everyday workspaces and the built environment. Demonstrated by her active involvement in connecting industry professionals, including designers, manufacturers, clients, end users and employers, she has worked to promote an understanding of how design impacts human behavior and affects all aspects of shared spaces. In 1997, Durst joined IIDA as the Senior Director of Education and Professional Development.
Today, with 15,000 members across 58 countries, Durst oversees the strategic direction of IIDA, curates and publishes “Perspective,” the association’s thought-leadership journal, manages a team of 25 professional staff members, leads the 10-member International Board of Directors and directs all outreach and programmatic efforts, including more than a dozen global design competitions, which recognize worldwide excellence in interior design.
Professional Woman’s Magazine (PWM) had the opportunity to discuss with Durst the value of implementing strong EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) initiatives into the workspace and the exponential benefits of creating a culture where everyone belongs.
PWM: What unique perspectives/insights do you bring to the topic of diverse workforces as a Black female executive vice president and CEO?
Cheryl Durst (CD): My background is in education, and I am not a designer, which makes me a great example of how “different” you can be and still find a fit within the world of design. But the truth is, most of us have had that experience of being the “only” or the “first”—the first woman at the table, the only person of color in design school—so we all understand on some level what that’s like.
As CEO of IIDA and a Black female leader in an industry that has skewed ~90% white, I consider both representing success and inclusion for people of color within our industry and creating opportunities for greater diversity within the range of professions in design to be a core part of my mission. In my 25-year career with IIDA, I’ve prioritized this work and the platform IIDA has to further diversity across the entire industry; we’ve launched initiatives and scholarships that empower the next generation of designers, recognized women and people of color doing great work in the profession, and advanced both discussion and action around EDI for both companies and individuals. I’ve also worked to promote an understanding of how design impacts human behavior and affects all aspects of shared spaces—how design can literally extend a welcome to all.
PWM: How have you successfully incorporated diversity, equity and inclusion into the company culture at IIDA?
CD: IIDA is committed to being a force for change, and we make that commitment clear both in how we talk about ourselves and the actions we take. We want to foster greater inclusion—and inclusion means getting to a place where no one ever has to feel alone, where everyone can be supported, and their talents are celebrated in the design industry.
When we talk about creating culture, it’s important to remember that culture is something we build together—and IIDA is, first and foremost, a community with deep connections. Culture is what we do! As a key part of IIDA’s culture building, we consistently make sure that conversations around diversity are a part of our programming, sharing insights, challenges and strategies to increase inclusion of all kinds with our global audience. We also take action: IIDA has a slate of scholarships and programs that support young people from historically underrepresented groups in pursuit of design careers; our Equity Council addresses systemic issues relating to race and equality; and our Talent Collective aims to provide connections between design industry employers and designers of color.
I’m also proud of the diversity of our headquarters staff at IIDA. Women and people of a range of ages, ethnicities and backgrounds are well represented in our staff, creating the culture of inclusion we all work so hard to build in design writ large. We are delightfully non-homogenous, and we celebrate the differences we all bring to our collective table—it’s great to be a living example of how many perspectives make a stronger result, both in culture and the results we seek in our work.
PWM: What are some of the best ways a company can communicate its EDI values/mission to potential hires?
CD: Communicating the “why” of work and workplace is more important than ever. Prospective hires are looking for employers to articulate their values around work—what are we contributing to society, not just our own bottom line? Young people today are looking to invest their time, energy and creativity to further the goals of companies that are working toward a better world.
We as employers need to create a lot of transparency about why we do what we do, and how it furthers societal goals such as diversity and inclusion. We need to create an interview process that clearly welcomes people of all backgrounds and not be timid about discussing our efforts and actions around diversity right up front.
And as a person whose professional life is in the design industry, I would also say that we should be assessing our workspaces through an EDI lens. Space is an important part of both how a company presents itself and how employees experience their working world. Are we sure we are creating a space that truly welcomes all?
PWM: What would you say is the most important factor in helping all employees feel seen and heard in a workplace?
CD: There are a lot of factors at play here, but I would call out three key things: opportunities to offer input to the employer about the workplace and your career, a proven opportunity to progress in your career, and representation. That includes representation throughout the workforce—where are the colleagues who look like me?—as well as in leadership. IIDA’s headquarters staff have a leadership team that is inclusive of women, people of color, people who are part of the LGBTQIA community, neurodivergent people—and we’re multi-generational, too! Our International Board of Directors is also a group that exemplifies diversity in leadership, increasing visibility for the value of inclusion for our worldwide audience of members, chapters and volunteers.
I also believe an environment that invites people to contribute their unique points of view is important—and that depends on everything from management style to the physical workspace. Consider this example: Do you feel represented by the artwork that your employer chooses to display in the workspace? Designers are grappling with the challenge of creating inclusive workspaces right now: The ultimate goal is to create spaces that wholeheartedly embrace and support individuals from diverse backgrounds, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age or cognitive approaches, while nurturing a genuine sense of community within the workplace. And we know that the aesthetics of a space are only one part of the complex equation that creates ownership, agency and inclusion.
PWM: How strongly would you say a company’s EDI practices factor into retaining its employees and why?
CD: Cultivating a sense of belonging at work is more important than ever. In an increasingly dispersed world, our connections become ever more precious. Hence the workplace needs to become a safe place where people want to do more than work—where they’re willing and able to learn, socialize and connect.
Strong EDI practices cultivate a sense of belonging, a sense that what is important to each person matters and the knowledge that the organization is open to change. We must hold ourselves accountable for listening, changing and continuously bringing the focus back to the human factor.
That’s why we launched IIDA’s Talent Collective, which is working to impart EDI practices into design industry management and ensure that leadership can create and navigate effective EDI policies.
PWM: Is there anything else you would like to add, or you feel is important for us to know about you and/or your expertise in EDI?
CD: As a high school educator, I learned early on how the classroom environment affected the students in individual and collective ways. Those learnings stuck with me well into my time with IIDA. While my profession may have changed, the desire to find ways to join education and the diverse needs of the learner did not change. This led me to seek out others in the design industry to make sure design is accessible beyond the professional designer. This vision drove me towards the creation of IIDA’s education pathway program, Design Your World.
Design Your World introduces the principles and practice of commercial interior design to students who otherwise do not have an understanding of or access to design as a viable education path and career option. Presenting its potential shows that design is truly everywhere and drives so much of the environment around them.
Launched in 2021 in Chicago, we have since expanded each year to a new market. This year’s programs are in Chicago, Miami (launched in 2022), and now expanding into St. Louis this summer. Through Design Your World, these students are able to experience first-hand how design’s applied skills not only empower them through creativity but also shine a light on team building, navigating diverse peer relationships and being an advocate for their own work—all vital tools for the changemakers of tomorrow.
We also are incorporating the history of spaces and how they bring communities together. We’re working with landmarks significant to the Black, Brown and queer communities, like the Historic Hampton House in Miami and The Warehouse in Chicago, as “project canvases” to imagine new spaces within those landmarks’ walls. This additional layer brings the education to life and connects young minds to spaces, luminaries and movements of yesterday that apply to the students’ identities of today.
For more information about Design Your World, visit iida.org/talent-collective/design-your-world.