A leadership veteran with 30 years of experience transforming companies reveals his blueprint for building an anti-racist organization

October 21, 2022, 7:58 PM UTC
Two businesspeople shaking hands.
Business leader James D. White lays out the foundation for building an anti-racist organization in his new book.
Getty Images

Happy Friday.

I was lucky enough to interview James D. White at the most recent Great Place to Work For All Summit, the convening of leaders who have achieved Great Place To Work certification status. You can learn more about the survey and Fortune’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list here.

White is a corporate lifer who started in local sales at Coca-Cola and ended up tapped by the Jamba Juice board to turn around the sputtering company as president and CEO in 2008. He’s currently the board chair of the Honest Corporation, the retail goods company founded by actor Jessica Alba.

White, along with his daughter, Krista, has entered the inclusion conversation with a bang and a new book called Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World. It was originally conceived as a distillation of his thirty years of transforming organizations, board service, and coaching other CEOs. But, like many Black executives, his last two years have been spent responding to a flood of requests for guidance from worried senior leaders after the murder of George Floyd.

A lot of books promise a blueprint for action, but this one actually delivers. (He also did turn around Jamba Juice, with an explicit inclusion strategy that he outlines in detail in the book. He left the top spot in 2016.)

And it’s got one barn-burner of an opening paragraph:

This book is explicitly antiracist, pro-black, pro LGBTQIA, and feminist. This book takes the stance that Black Lives Matter, that LGBTQIA rights are human rights, that people of all abilities deserve respect and access, and that people of all genders have the right to sovereignty over their bodies and identities. This book acknowledges that capitalism is built on the foundation of systemic racism. And that to have a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment, we must acknowledge a historic present injustices faced by marginalized people.

I asked White why they chose such a bold start. It was his daughter’s idea and her words, largely unedited. “She thought it was important for people to know that this book is not apolitical…and it created a bit of pause for me,” he said. When he shared it with his team, the response was not unexpected. “The comment was, ‘James, you’re a mainstream businessperson. Do you care if you ever work again?’ So let that soak in,” he told the crowd. “And I said, ‘I really don’t.’”

The blueprint comprises seven steps, which you can dig into on your own, but I’ll outline here:

  • Listening to and learning from colleagues across the organization
  • Enlisting senior executives to the cause
  • Auditing the culture
  • Documenting what’s already being done to foster diversity and inclusion
  • Establishing benchmarks for measuring progress
  • Building “action learning teams” to spearhead the effort
  • Developing and communicating an action plan

It sounds straightforward on paper, but it’s more complicated in practice.

First, it must start from the top. “I mean, the first premise of the book is the CEO—she actually has to lead this work. This is the work of culture, so it can’t be delegated,” he says. “The second point is this is all about systems and processes. Every process that touches a human being, we should evaluate and make sure we unbias those systems. And that requires great discipline and lots of work over time.”

That work largely takes place in the middle of an organization, and that’s where the book shines.

“Some people describe it as the movable middle, the frozen middle, the immovable middle, whichever of those it is in your organization,” White says. “We’ve got to bring the right set of tools, the right set of investments, to make sure that this set of leaders really gets this work. It’s not optional work at that level. If you lead people inside an organization, it’s not optional.”

But this is also a story about people.

The co-authors interviewed more than two dozen Black executives—names you likely know, including Walgreens’s Roz Brewer and Adtalem’s Lisa Wardell—who shared some of the many micro- and not-so-microaggressions they had to deal with as they made their way to outlier status. “We really wanted to understand what it was like to walk in their shoes and try to lead the kind of transformations that all of these great leaders led inside their respective companies,” he said. “It was a combination of humbling and inspiring.”

But White also shared one of his own, a story he had never told anyone before the reckoning of 2020 compelled him to re-think his own narrative.

His first job out of college was with Coca-Cola, an auspicious start in business life. But his sales territory, in the southeast Missouri region, included a town in Arkansas that was the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. It became clear that he wouldn’t be safe making sales calls, so they “redistricted” the community out of his hands. “So if you can imagine a young man, the first member of my family in business, I’m excited about working for one of the great companies in America, and I have to sit down with my boss and carve out a part of the territory for that reason,” he said.

It wasn’t much better any place else, not really.

“[I]f I step back and look at most of my sales territory, most of it would’ve been sundown towns,” he said, describing many U.S. communities that enforced racist restrictions by law, force, and violence. “And I remember one specific instance where I was calling on a supermarket, and I was selling Minute Maid orange juice at the time. I show up, and the manager says, ‘James, we heard you were in town. We just advise that you’re not here after dark.’ And this was actually somebody trying to be helpful.”

These stories are a business case for diversity that goes under-discussed. 

Right now, there are executives in your organization from all sorts of marginalized and underrepresented identities with stories to tell about how the world actually works. The risk that White has taken as a “mainstream businessperson” is that pointing them out will trigger an unproductive backlash designed to preserve a collective self-image that we are all good people.

But we can be good people and do the work of making a better world. Empathy is the key, and the central theme in the blueprint, says White.

“I think empathy is going to need to be a core capability moving forward,” a skill that can be cultivated by anyone. “You’ve got to be committed to listening more than talking. You’ve got to find ways to create experiences that would allow you to walk in another person’s shoes for at least a brief moment. It’s a lot of work, but it’s possible.”

Wishing you an empathetic weekend.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point

Sundown towns for internet service? An astonishing investigation from The Markup and co-published with the AP, found that low-income and least-white—and often formerly redlined—neighborhoods in the U.S. are routinely being offered slow internet service for the same price as predominantly white neighborhoods, often just a modem’s throw away. The MarkUp team “analyzed more than 800,000 internet service offers from AT&T, Verizon, Earthlink, and CenturyLink in 38 cities across America and found that all four routinely offered fast base speeds at or above 200 Mbps in some neighborhoods for the same price as connections below 25 Mbps in others.” It's the difference of paying some 400 times more for the kind of service that would make working, learning, or shopping from home unworkable. Read it and weep.
The Markup

Some perspective on the crime rate. A new study released today from the Global Justice Lab at the University of Toronto, and supported by a grant from the Center for American Progress, finds that cities that have elected reform-minded prosecutors have experienced an increase in violent crime. “We find no evidence to support the claim that progressive prosecutors were responsible for the increase in homicide during the pandemic or before it," said the team of seven researchers. In fact, it appears homicide rates increased less rapidly in cities with progressive prosecutors than more traditional ones. The Atlantic offers perspective on the progressive prosecutor movement here, more about the study below.
Munk School of Global Affairs

Good news for white farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new farm loan relief program this week, that aims to offer debt relief for farmers who are behind on loans or currently facing foreclosure. The money is from a $3.1 billion carveout in the Inflation Reduction Act, and a very good thing. Here’s the rub. An additional measure called The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act was passed last year, which included $4 billion in loan forgiveness to growers of color, along with additional aid to farmers who struggled in the pandemic. But the core benefit of the program was an acknowledgement of the many decades of alleged racial discrimination and disparate treatment by the USDA reported be generations of farmers. The aid to farmers of color has been removed from the Inflation Reduction Act.
CBS News

Parting words

Every time you come into town, or you go into a gas station, or in a store, people look at you. You can feel them looking at you, feel them staring. I’ve never had anybody say anything (racist) to me in Vienna, but I’ve definitely felt the way they felt about me.”

 —Victoria Vaughn, a biracial 17-year-old on visiting her white grandparents in Vienna, Ill., a “former” sundown town.

This is the web version of raceAheadFortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

Read More

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet