The business melting pot: Ruth Saphian is helping diversify EY and its St. Louis office

It’s hard to imagine a business world today without a diverse and inclusive workplace. It wasn’t that long ago, however, that women weren’t in leadership positions and offices didn’t have ethnically diverse workforces. At EY, within its St. Louis office in particular, that diversity and inclusion effort has been in big part thanks to Ruth Saphian.

Saphian became EY’s St. Louis office managing partner in April, a promotion that made her the first female managing partner of the 320-employee firm. Her new role coincided with EY St. Louis’ 100th anniversary, EY’s corporate leadership changes and the company’s new brand and tagline, “Building a Better Working World.”

“I’m very proud to be the first female managing partner in St. Louis,” Saphian says. “I have had a lot of support from both women and men and from the firm in getting me to this point. It is real progress for St. Louis and for the firm, and it’s been pretty representative of the progress we as a firm have made around our diversity and inclusion initiatives over the last 20 years.”

While EY has made leaps and bounds in its efforts surrounding diversity and inclusion, the nature of EY’s business leaves the firm with plenty more to do. Saphian now has to lead a multi-generational workforce, focus on furthering its diversity efforts and continue to win the war for talented professionals.

“All professional service firms right now, EY included, are going through quite a few challenges,” Saphian says. “We have to figure out how we can all leverage each other’s successes and differences to drive a better product.”

Here’s how Saphian is leading the diversity and inclusion charge at EY St. Louis.

Focus on diversity

When Saphian started her career at EY in 1993, she was in a class of roughly 40 individuals, half men and half women. It wasn’t long thereafter that she noticed women around her leaving the firm much quicker than men.

“The firm did a lot of research at that time and narrowed it down to a couple of reasons or themes,” Saphian says. “There was a lack of mentoring relationships. Women had limited access to formal networks and informal networks. Women, and men, were having trouble balancing work and personal life.”

At that time the firm was developing a lot of initiatives and focusing on programs on coaching and mentoring. EY developed programs around flexibility and flexible work arrangements called FWAs.

“It’s a customizable program that depends on what you have going on personally as well as your client load,” she says. “You can work out an arrangement to work 80 percent, 70 percent or 50 percent of a full-time load.”

Saphian herself took advantage of that program and worked about 70 percent. While the firm had these programs available in the early ’90s, there were still some challenges to the programs because people weren’t taking advantage of them.

“People thought if you took advantage of these, you were slowing down your career path,” she says. “I went on FWA shortly after I had my first child, and I noticed that I didn’t advance slower. I was promoted to partner the same year as all my peers, completely on track.

“I was very transparent that I was on a flexible work arrangement. I talked about it with my clients, my peers and my leaders. I found that everyone was very supportive of it, and I think it was critical that I was transparent about the fact that I was on a reduced workload, but committed about advancing my career.”

While the program worked for Saphian, it wasn’t well enough known and the firm still had work to do to put it in a bigger spotlight.

“When I got promoted to partner, I launched our D&I program here in St. Louis and took a leadership role in promoting the positive experiences that I had,” she says. “I started a steering committee that is comprised of partners across all of our service lines.”

The steering committee is designed to set the tone at the top to develop the strategic direction around diversity.

“We structure that by developing working committees around various D&I initiatives such as professional women, ethnicity, LGBT and health and wellness,” Saphian says. “There is also an executive sponsor on each committee. This is not an HR responsibility. I view diversity and inclusion as an executive responsibility.”

The committees develop programs, events and activities that provide access to role models and mentors, build formal and informal networks, and help balance work and personal life.

“You have to focus on your day-to-day actions,” she says. “As a leadership team, are you making decisions that are inclusive of different cultures, styles, genders and races? Are you building the best teams based on diversity? Are you getting the best people and are you trying to move forward a cultural shift?”

On a national basis last year, 30 percent of EY’s partners, principals and executive directors were female. In the past five years in St. Louis, that percentage is 45 percent.

“We’ve made a lot of progress on the female side, but we have more progress to make around ethnic diversity and incorporating more diversity into our culture,” she says.

Expand your workforce

As the firm continues to ramp up its focus on diversity and inclusion, a challenge for EY continues to be its resources and what the firm calls “winning the war for talent.”

“Our greatest asset is our people,” Saphian says. “We’re a service firm, so finding the right people with the right skills can be a challenge, and it can be quite competitive. We’re always looking for the newest and the brightest people to hire and retain.”

Finding those top candidates and retaining that talent means EY works with a multi-generational workforce, and that has its own set of challenges.

“A lot of handling a multi-generational workforce has to do with communication,” she says. “I know it sounds basic and simple, but it really does boil down to that. We’ve held a lot of intergenerational conferences and training, and frankly, we just talk to each other.”

EY holds a number of panel discussions spanning the generations from people just getting out of college all the way up to people who have been at EY for 30 years.

“It’s really about understanding very different work styles and how you adapt those styles to one another,” she says. “The younger workforce is much more heavily focused on technology and communicates through technology more than the older workforce, so it takes training and discussion on how to bridge those gaps.

“From a numbers standpoint we have more young individuals, but from a leadership standpoint it skews toward the older. So it’s important for our leadership to understand the younger generations and how they operate and their needs because they will be the leaders 20 years from now.”

No matter what the differences are among your workforce, whether it’s a generation gap or ethnic diversity, you have to be thinking about embedding workforce diversity and inclusion in your everyday work processes.

“When it comes to diversity and inclusion, 20 years ago when we started this journey, we spent a lot of time talking about what is the business case for it,” Saphian says. “The business case was we were moving into a global environment. More companies are becoming global and we need to adapt to that and change.”

Research shows diverse teams make the best teams, bring the best ideas and bring the best solutions.

“I think everyone gets that now,” she says. “But now it’s about how do you change a long-standing culture? How do you embed that in your daily work processes so that people are changing?”

At EY St. Louis, the firm has trained and studied a concept called unconscious bias. That means people may be unintentionally making assumptions or decisions based on some biases that they aren’t aware they have.

“You have to understand on a day-to-day basis what some of the decisions you may be making based on biases are that you’re not really aware you have and are unintended,” she says.

Win the war for talent

In order for EY to build up a diverse workforce, the company has to go out and recruit the best talent available in a very competitive environment.

“Every year we recruit from the best schools around regionally and nationally,” Saphian says. “Frankly, it is a competition, and they’re looking at us, and we look back to our own culture.”

EY offers an 18-month international exchange program and has flexibility programs as employees go through different parts of their career, or stages in their life.

“You have to help them understand the excellent career advancement opportunities they’ll have, what will be the skill sets they will develop, as well as how they will fit into our culture while they are here,” she says.

Saphian hears over and over again that new employees want to go into a culture where they’re going to feel accepted, have a long career and feel like they can succeed based on their own personal style.

“We really try to offer up a lot of different options so they can see themselves succeeding here long term,” she says. “It’s about offering options for them so they feel they can develop their career both professionally and personally.” 


  • Focus on becoming a more diverse workplace.
  • Make sure you embed diversity and inclusion in your organization.
  • Work to understand everyone’s differences and how to accommodate them.

The Saphian File:

Name: Ruth Saphian
Title: Managing partner
Company: EY St. Louis 

Born: Wentzville, Mo.

Education: Attended Southeast Missouri State and received a degree in business administration.

What was your first job and what did you learn it? I was a carhop at A&W. It taught me hard work and good people skills. Those skills will take you far in your career.

What was the best business advice you ever received? The best business advice given to me was to develop relationships with the people above you. Develop mentoring and sponsoring relationships. 

If you could speak with anyone from the present or past, with whom would you want to speak with? Abraham Lincoln. He came from a very humble background, yet he achieved great things by going against the grain. 

What do you enjoy doing in the St. Louis area? St. Louis has a very rich arts culture, and I enjoy taking advantage of the arts and culture that the city has available.