By Grace Donnelly
November 13, 2017

When he began reaching out to CEOs about coming together to address corporate diversity, PwC’s Tim Ryan expected 25 to 40 to sign the pledge. He ended up with more than 150 CEOs when the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion launched in June — through no small effort of his own — and by November 330 had joined the initiative.

Now he wants every Fortune 1000 CEO involved in the group’s efforts.

At an event in midtown Manhattan last week, 70 of the CEOs involved gathered for a closed door discussion of long and short term goals and remarks from CNN‘s Van Jones and Fortune’s Ellen McGirt. Before the business leaders left, Ryan called on each of them to leverage their networks to bring ten CEOs on board.

Though corporate America has now been talking about improving diversity in its ranks for decades and this initiative is still very new, Ryan said he’s never seen this much momentum.

“CEOs can get anything done,” he said. “You’ve now got hundreds of CEOs who’ve said ‘I’m going to get this done.’” He was excited at the number of executives who made time for the event and gave credit CEOs who have joined the initiative despite knowing they’re lagging behind in their attempts to improve diversity at their companies.

“I think we’re creating a venue that, regardless of where you are on the journey, people can come and show up and join and that’s a rock rolling down a hill,” Ryan said.

The event Friday gave CEOs a chance to ask questions of peers and learn. It was a chance for them to talk about shared concerns, like pushback from employees who aren’t the focus of diversity efforts, which Ryan says nearly all CEOs are worried about. It was also an opportunity to admit they aren’t as good at this as they need to be and commit to doing better.

It’s too soon to say whether the enthusiasm will translate into real change, but the CEOs involved are beginning to take next steps.

“If you want to make progress in your organization, you have to measure how you’re doing,” said CEO Kevin Oakes of the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a consulting firm that conducts research around workplace diversity and advises a number of companies involved in the initiative.

Oakes is heading the CEO Action sub-committee focused on metrics. The group will work to answer the question of how best to measure a company’s inclusiveness, beyond just employee demographics, and get that information to the manager level in order to make an impact.

Another focus during the Friday session was education. Ryan said he wants to get 100 universities involved with the CEO Action Initiative and the first step is a presidents’ roundtable with nine leaders from institutions of higher education.

The goal is both to help feed the pipeline with diverse young talent and to incorporate bias training and other inclusive concepts into curriculums.

“This is going to be some difficult work,” said Joe Ricks of Xavier University of Louisiana, the HBCU Business Dean President and a member of the CEO Action education roundtable.

He emphasized that even defining “diversity” is a challenge and echoed Ryan’s sentiment that while criticisms are being addressed, credit should also be given where it’s due.

“Our nation is the most diverse group of human beings to live on this planet,” he said. “We’re talking about 10,000 years of human evolution that we’re combatting here.”

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