Shaping an inclusive world: What an anti-racist business strategy really entails

December 2, 2022, 3:10 PM UTC
Johnita Due, executive vice president of integrity and inclusion at CNN Worldwide, speaks at Fortune's Impact Initiative summit in Atlanta, Ga. on Nov. 30, 2022.
Erik Meadows for Fortune

In the year following the tragic murder of George Floyd, the nation’s top companies and philanthropic institutions dedicated $200 billion to increased efforts toward racial justice. 

The funds—coming from more than 1,100 companies and charities tracked by consulting firm McKinsey—went toward providing affordable housing, lending in low- and middle-income and minority communities, and community development. 

The tragic killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery led to a racial reckoning across America. Many companies responded, both externally and through their internal investments in diversity and inclusion. They created new roles to steer diversity, equity, and inclusion, aiming to close the gap on race, gender, sexuality, and other underrepresented groups as it pertains to hiring or promotions. 

For some companies, this work started a little earlier. 

“We were at an advantage, because a lot of companies were caught off guard,” said Johnita Due, executive vice president of integrity and inclusion at CNN Worldwide, while speaking at Fortune’s Impact Initiative on Wednesday. “We had already decided in 2019 that what we needed to focus on was internal mobility and advancement, as opposed to a lot of what DEI focused on, which is recruiting.” 

CNN started by preparing the organization and employees about the mission and strategy to bolster DEI. They invested in resources and engaged leadership to align on the changes that would be made across the company—not just where it would be apparent to viewership in terms of the mix of correspondents on TV. 

“We made sure our mission was across all screens and behind the scenes,” said Due.

At electronic payment giant Visa, things were a little different. 

“The reckoning after the murder of George Floyd gave us the courage as an organization to say, we need to put meat on the bone and really do something different—radically different,” said Michelle Gethers, Visa’s chief diversity officer and head of corporate responsibility. 

Visa had someone on the team who focused on inclusion and diversity, but the role was too junior. Some systems, like hiring, just weren’t working as it relates to inclusion. Gethers, who had previously served as president and CEO of United Way of Greater Greensboro, which focused on partnerships to help end poverty, got a call from Visa CEO Alfred Kelly. He told Gethers that Visa had some business problems to solve: creating a more inclusive culture, sustainability challenges, and ensuring that their foundation work investments were strategic.

One systematic change: every Black VP that gets promoted to that title gets an executive coach. “We really wanted to make sure that they got extra support,” said Gethers.  

Gethers previously worked at American Express alongside Kelly, who is due to retire from Visa effective February. But she joined with one key requirement: Gethers reports directly to the CEO, so she can have candid conversations about changes that can drive business outcomes. 

“We can’t reach our full potential on revenue, product offering, people movement, etc.—unless we value unique identity and contributions,” said Gethers.

For DEI to be successful, key themes kept arising throughout the Fortune’s impact strategy session. It must be a core part of business strategies. Data is critical to empower decision makers. And the individuals responsible for DEI must be in top leadership roles.

CNN uses data to help the company measure its progress and understand where best to direct investments. But Due says there are also plenty of intangibles. There’s a feeling as it pertains to culture. It is about listening and empowering diverse voices both on air and during internal daily editorial calls. These changes benefit storytelling at the news organization, which ultimately audiences recognize too.

“Diversity is a business strategy,” said Due. “For us, we know that a real strong measure of our success and our impact is making sure we have developed and grown our audiences. And a lot of our growth and audience wins comes from our multicultural audiences. It is something we are able to prove, it is something we celebrate, and it is something we nurture.”

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