Is your CEO an anti-racist?

September 9, 2022, 6:57 PM UTC
A group of executives sit around a long table conducting a meeting.
Business leaders need to challenge their understanding of racial and economic disparity before truly committing to economic inclusion.
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Despite big money promises from the world’s largest companies, progress toward diversity goals remains slow.

“The problem is, everyone is staying in the ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ bucket,” says Charisse Conan Johnson, managing partner of Next Street. “What we need to be talking about is anti-racism.”

Next Street is a unique consultancy that operates as a laboratory of sorts, co-creating products and solutions specifically designed to meet the needs of small businesses and entrepreneurs. Their twist? Racial equity is at the center. Johnson leads their advisory practice. “Small business is our lever to moving toward an anti-racist society,” she says. What does full economic inclusion look like? In part, access to markets and specialized training and tools, an acknowledgment of systemic barriers, and an opportunity to reinvest locally. “And that means making sure that these businesses—specifically BIPOC and systemically disadvantaged communities—get the right resources at the right time.”

The clients are varied, but the work is focused. Verizon used Next Street to develop free “digital ready” training geared toward BIPOC small business needs, and Doordash used the firm to help historically under-represented restaurant owners better leverage the platform’s marketing tools. This summer, Next Street announced the Economic Opportunity Coalition (EOC), a partnership with the Office of Vice President Kamala Harris and the White House designed to increase private sector investments in underserved communities alongside those made by the Biden administration. The EOC is a three-sector collaboration consisting of senior leaders from Ariel Investments, Bank of America, Capital One, Citi, Ford Foundation, Goldman Sachs, Google, McDonald’s, McKinsey & Company, Netflix, PayPal, Rockefeller Foundation, and others.

While Next Street focuses on small business for its theory of change, Johnson points to the disparity between the amount of corporate money pledged toward diversity efforts and the amount of money deployed. That’s a lot of potential clout on the table. “But unless there are real, measurable impacts, then what would have been the point?” she asks. Where are the investments in diverse suppliers? Where is the shift in power? “In terms of the wealth equation and the ability to create new jobs, this is not going to build an inclusive economy.”

To be successful, leaders need to acknowledge what they don’t yet know.

“I don’t think there is a shared guiding light… a common language in the journey to becoming an anti-racist organization,” she says. Senior leaders need to be trained in that language and given the tools to interrogate their internal policies and practices. And then they need to do it.

“We start most of our board meetings with a commitment to understanding the white supremacy norms that [may be] coming in,” she says. “People need to be asking, ‘How do we make sure equity is embedded into the entire business strategy?’” Part of that is making sure that the people who are making decisions at the C-suite and board level are confident enough to challenge how they’ve done things in the past and add new voices to the mix with cultural fluency and decision-making power.

She knows it’s hard work. That said, it’s time to get to it.

“If I had a scorecard, two years out from George Floyd’s murder, I’d give corporate America a C-minus,” she says. “The only reason why I didn’t give a D-plus is because of the size and scale of these commitments. Folks were galvanized in the right spirit, and we still have a way to go.”

Her last bit of advice is for radical collaboration, not unlike the three-sector EOC model.

“Government, corporate, philanthropy—everyone needs to work in concert with each other,” she says. “Be bold enough to make the right changes internally and have the right leaders that really embrace that inward introspection and interrogation and want to do something.”

Wishing you, once again, a weekend of bold action.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point

Queen Elizabeth II has died. The Queen was the longest-serving monarch in British history, with a career spanning seven decades and more than twice as many prime ministers. She was 96. Tribute messages poured in from around the world, including many official corporate statements. She leaves a complicated legacy, and her death has inspired a global conversation about royalty, civic duty, colonialism, and plunder. For some, she was a model monarch, stoic and service-minded. For others, she was a symbol of an unrepentant racist, colonialist regime. It's not surprising that some would express delight at her passing, says Matthew Smith, a history professor and the director of the Center for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership. "They're thinking about the British monarchy as an institution and the relationship of the monarchy to systems of oppression, repression and forced extraction of labor, and particularly African labor, and exploitation of natural resources and forcing systems of control in these places. That's what they're often responding to. And that's a system that exists beyond the person of Queen Elizabeth."

Will King Charles III be the first monarch dedicated to stakeholderism and ESG? All signs point to...maybe. As the Prince of Wales, he’s been warning about the effects of climate change for decades, speaking forcefully at Davos in 2020 and most recently at the COP26 Summit in November 2021, where he declared that it would “take trillions, not billions, of dollars," and would require a "war-like footing" to combat climate-related peril. But, he’s also promised not to be an activist king. Without the capital and popularity of the late Queen, it’s hard to predict how he will shape his role to better meet a world in crisis.
CTV News

Delta updates its “Close the Gap” diversity report. The company says it is focusing on the pipeline from frontline jobs to the executive track, with an eye on developing talent and removing barriers to advancement. The results have been mixed, but the work is ongoing. Currently, 27% of hourly-wage employees are Black, 22% are from other underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and 42% are women. Women in vice president and above roles saw the biggest category increase, from 29% to 34% from Q1 2022 to Q2 2022; they were likely to be promoted from the manager-director level. Delta’s long-term goals include significant investment in executive talent of color and a newly developed skills-first hiring approach.

Parting words

"This is a happy day for me; but it is also one that brings serious thoughts, thoughts of life looming ahead with all its challenges and with all its opportunity. I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Princess Elizabeth, on the occasion of her 21st birthday, from a radio address during a tour of Cape Town, South Africa, 1947.


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