The Business of Removing Barriers: How Delta Dental of Iowa is Serving Clients

August 4, 2023

Delta Dental of Iowa employees learn traditional Thai dance movements

Tetra, an employee at Delta Dental of Iowa, smiled when she saw a bag of lobster chips.

In Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, lobster chips are as popular as bags of potato chips in the U.S.

Tetra inhaled deeply from the open bag. “These remind me so much of my childhood,” she told CultureALL Ambassador Sue Hudson. “I’m Filipino-American, and we ate these all the time.”

Sue Hudson shares lobster chips with employees at Delta Dental

Sue was at Delta Dental presenting a workshop on Thai food, dance, and culture. Four groups of 30 employees learned how to cook la tieng, a special appetizer historically prepared only for the King and Queen. They also danced traditional Thai movements and practiced properly greeting elders.

"This brought home to me,” Tetra said. “We might not be exactly the same culture, but so many of these things are super familiar to me."

Delta Dental began working with CultureALL nearly eighteen months ago to provide real-life interactions that give their team members opportunities to practice being inclusive. The company’s planning team couldn’t have predicted the impact of this CultureALL experience on participants. Tetra described the feeling it gave her: "It fills my heart with joy that my co-workers can enjoy the things that I already know about and love."

Not Just an Initiative

Delta Dental’s mission is to improve the health and smiles of the people they serve. Suzanne Heckenlaible, Vice President of Public Affairs and the Executive Director of the Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation, explains that “It’s not just about teeth, or vision, or health. It’s about overall well-being, which includes intercultural understanding.”

Serving communities across the state as a not-for-profit organization, Delta Dental has a diverse client base. They provide dental and vision insurance for individuals, employers, and government programs, covering everything from Fortune 500 companies to Iowa’s Medicaid program.

Participating in hands-on, authentic cultural activities, such as Sue’s CultureALL Ambassador workshop, helps employees at Delta Dental appreciate the many cultures living in this state and elevates their behaviors to become more curious, welcoming, and accepting. When employees develop these intercultural skills, they are able to remove barriers to care and resources.

“When you learn about others’ beliefs, you start to understand how you can communicate effectively,” said Suzanne. “You learn what someone needs from you in order to trust you so they can have optimal access and improve their health. We have a responsibility to ensure that people have access to their care.”

Establishing the Norm

The company approaches diversity and inclusion as far more than a few one-off experiences. It has established multiple avenues of communication and engagement to reach the needs of all its employees.

"We don't ever want cultural education to just be an initiative or something 'special' that we do occasionally,” said Sara Hillis, Human Resources Generalist. “We want this to be part of who we are as a company."

Delta Dental understands employees show up to work as their best selves when they know their co-workers and leaders care about their lives and well being.

Delta Dental employees practice Thai dance movements

“It’s a norm,” Suzanne said. “It’s an expectation that we are continuing to learn and grow. It has always been our mantra that we want to broaden the opportunity to look outside of ourselves.”

They hold regular cultural competency trainings and fund cultural initiatives across the state through their foundation. Each Monday, their weekly company newsletter includes information and opportunities for employees to learn about different cultures, volunteer opportunities, or local cultural celebrations. An employee engagement committee meets regularly to ensure internal communications are effective and holistic.

They also pay close attention to the makeup of their employee population. This focus helps them to both better serve their community and have a wider diversity of thought and opinions.

“We really strive to have a makeup that’s reflective of the communities and customers we’re serving,” said Stephanie Gott, Vice President of Human Resources. “We know we need to have a pulse on where we are, if we see any gaps, and where we need to be more intentional in identifying candidates of specific populations.”

Since changing their work model to hybrid post-pandemic, Delta Dental provides ample opportunity for employees to still gather and engage with one another. They schedule “One Team Days” twice a month, on which employees are encouraged to come into the office. These are the days when the company hosts interactive culture sessions. Employees are not required to attend these events, yet most choose to participate.

“These events are a great way to build camaraderie and fellowship among our employees,” Stephanie said. “We could put on a video or send out an article, but that’s not going to bring people together to create those connections.”

Finding Shared Humanity

“Our employees are interested and engaged,” said Sara. “They want to understand how other cultures work and operate.”

CultureALL isn’t the only organization Delta Dental works with. They utilize several organizations throughout the state to provide cultural experiences for employees, ingraining this dedication to learning and fostering an equitable work environment into every level of the organization.

These immersive experiences help maintain employee engagement and give employees firsthand insight into the lives of people around the world. The experiences help employees develop interpersonal skills they can use in any situation.

“We had a CultureALL Ambassador talk about Indian weddings,” Suzanne shared. “We have several individuals from India that work here, and she invited them to share how their regions’ weddings would be different. It was such a good example of being respectful of others' experiences by inviting them to share.”

When they witnessed CultureALL’s workshop on spices of India, employees from very different walks of life connected over what they grew in their gardens. This moment of shared humanity gave rise to the notion that employees could accomplish all kinds of possibilities together.

“I feel people are understanding their co-workers better,” said Sara. “For example, in Sue Hudson’s workshop, we talked about how direct eye contact is considered rude in Thailand. Here, we expect you to look us in the eye or we think it’s rude. Understanding some of those cultural differences and how we speak with one another is so valuable.”

Delta Dental employees learn to cook la tieng

When employees better understand one another and their experiences, they approach work with excitement and renewed energy. Establishing these norms early and often has helped Delta Dental create an environment where everyone feels welcomed.

“You belong here,” Suzanne said. “We hired you. You belong here. We want you to feel that every day.”

Help your employees feel valued in their workplace with CultureALL DEI Planning. Contact us today for your free consultation. Call 515.273.8569 or email

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.