I’m a Black Fortune 500 CEO. Here are 4 principles to guide companies in combating systemic racism

August 31, 2020, 9:04 PM UTC
illustration about corporate diversity
Corporate America can fight racism and improve diversity by following these principles, writes TIAA's Roger Ferguson.
Photo Illustration by Fortune; Original photo:PeopleImages—Getty Images

It has taken too long and involved too many senseless deaths—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery among them—but we’re finally experiencing a national awakening about the persistence of deep-rooted racism in our society. Many of us in corporate America have spoken out strongly about the need for change. Now, it’s time for action.

As someone who started his education at a segregated elementary school and is today one of just a few Black CEOs in the Fortune 500, I am an example of both how far the nation has come in addressing racism—and how far we have left to go. Some aspects of the overt racism of my childhood may be gone, but it’s given way to more subtle and insidious biases that are evident in everything from the racial wealth gap to the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Black communities, with an infection rate nearly three times that of whites, according to a report by the National Urban League. Still, I’m heartened that millions of Americans are now expressing a renewed, and hopefully permanent, desire for change.

America’s companies have an important role to play in making the U.S. a more just and equal nation. There’s no one blueprint to follow. Rather, each company must leverage its own unique purpose and strengths to make a meaningful contribution. However, there are several foundational and business principles that can guide companies in their efforts to advance real change.

Own your part

First, companies must make sure their own houses are in order. If diversity and inclusion are not already cornerstones of the corporate culture, then making them so should be priority No. 1. That means putting diversity and inclusion at the heart of decisions about recruiting, hiring, and developing employees; selecting company directors and leaders; and enriching client engagement. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also a business imperative. More diverse companies have better outcomes, which benefits all stakeholders: employees, shareholders, and customers. According to a study from McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the bottom quartile by 36% in profitability.

Set the tone at the top

I believe that CEOs bear the ultimate accountability for cultural change. The tone is set at the top. Leaders at all levels will take their cues from what they see the C-suite saying, and more importantly, doing. That’s why I consider it part of my job to be TIAA’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. I don’t mean this literally of course (we have a top-notch leader who oversees these efforts at TIAA), but I do believe that the buck stops with the CEO when it comes to achieving a more diverse and inclusive culture.

Empower your people

Employees want guidance in how to translate good intentions into meaningful action. At TIAA, we recently launched our Be the Change platform to empower our employees to make a difference. We’re bringing people together (virtually) to build awareness, promote dialogue and connection, and spur anti-racist allyship and advocacy. Additionally, by using workforce planning tools to measure diversity across our organization, we are making sure our leaders are held accountable for cultivating strong, diverse, and inclusive teams. 

Strengthen your community

Companies that want to make a difference can start by getting active in their own backyards. Community service organizations need our help in addressing the problems that keep racism entrenched. EVERFI is an example of a technology company that is helping empower communities with financial education by partnering with organizations to offer financial literacy programs. 

At TIAA, we know that financial wellness and financial education are strongly connected—a recent TIAA Institute study found that African-Americans with a greater understanding of personal finance issues tend to be more likely to save and plan for retirement. We believe that working to increase financial wellness and education can have a positive impact in the lives of individuals and their families.

These are just some ideas of ways companies can combat racism. Progress will require being proactive and committed, no matter how long it takes. Racism has been with us for hundreds of years, and we’re not going to erase it overnight. 

Throughout my own life, I’ve seen efforts to combat racism ebb and flow. Yet I believe that today we have a real opportunity to make lasting change. It will require that all sectors of society commit to playing a role—including corporate America. If we apply ourselves urgently, vigorously, and continuously, we may one day look back on this painful time as a turning point and recognize that those who have died needlessly did not die in vain.

Roger W. Ferguson Jr. is president and chief executive officer of TIAA.

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