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raceAhead: When Morgan Stanley Talks About Race

August 19, 2016, 10:00 PM UTC

Last week, I participated in a panel discussion at Morgan Stanley’s New York headquarters, called Challenging Times: A discussion about race, the current social environment and the workplace. It was a candid, no-holds-barred discussion of race, violence, inclusion, business, frustration and hope.

You can find some video clips here.

The idea belonged to Susan Reid, the Managing Director of Human Resources who leads the firm’s global diversity efforts with a small but dedicated team. Reid was moved when a young associate named Ian Abbott came to her expressing anguish over current events, specifically, the officer involved shootings in Minneapolis and Louisiana. He was struggling to process it all, the mask of his corporate life becoming increasingly uncomfortable to wear. He shared this raceAhead piece on why employers should talk about the police shootings. (Thanks for that, Ian.) “I realized then that I was struggling with the news as well,” she said. “And if we were, other people must be too.”

She was right. The panel came together in less than three weeks, and with extraordinary care. Some 1500 employees attended either in person or by webcast, and the video was shared with the entire firm.

Two things really stood out.

First, powerful people, two of whom are white, not only showed up, they participated with candor and openness. It was a power ally move. Tom Nides, Morgan Stanley’s Vice Chairman served as moderator, and framed it as a conversation, not a demand for action items. “Why are these things so hard to talk about?” he asked. “And why is it important that we do, here, at the firm?”

Mandell Crawley, their charismatic intern-who-grew-to-be-CMO, spoke candidly about the Black Lives Matter movement, and how the issues they raise are both important and challenging to understand. “Because of the current climate, we are being forced into positions where you have to take sides,” he said. But, “to the degree that due process doesn’t happen… and there doesn’t seem to be accountability, you get this powerful impression that somehow our lives don’t matter as much as others.”

The operative word for all was empathy. “The opportunity costs of not seeing empathy is what we should talk about,” said Alex Ehrlich who is the Global Co-Head of Morgan Stanley’s Prime Brokerage business. Theirs is a culture where commercial success is based on meeting client needs, which has its roots in empathy. “So if you buy the idea that we are actually good at empathy as a matter of achieving our commercial objectives,” he said, “it always seems to me kind of shocking if we don’t sort of tacitly try to turn that empathy on each other.”

Now, this was a win for Reid, who chose to consider what one young, millennial associate of color was thinking, and scale that into a public conversation that is still happening. But, it was a bigger win for Abbott, and his many, many colleagues who meet regularly to talk about race, their careers and where they fit into the wider world.

“This was big,” Abbott told me after the panel. “This was real.”


Have a restful weekend, everyone. Back at you for some more real talk on Monday.

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I was just, you know, kind of getting racist jokes, kind of being isolated from the group. So it was definitely hard. I would come home at night and just cry my eyes out.
—Gabby Douglas