From supplier diversity to town halls, executives share how they’re honoring Black History Month in the workplace and through business initiatives

January 31, 2023, 8:04 PM UTC
John W. Rogers Jr., founder and co_CEO of Ariel Investments.
Christopher Goodney—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The way I see it, Carter G. Woodson would know what to do.

Back in 1933, when he published his seminal book The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson was a respected academic and a man of some prominence at a time when it was still notable for a Black man to hold such high-toned positions. The book was a strong critique of the education system’s failure to present or commission scholarship on the history and accomplishments of Black people in America, stories that “were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them,” he wrote.

In 1969, an updated version of Mis-Education was released with an updated call to action.

“The neglect of Afro-American History and distortion of the facts concerning Negroes in most history books deprived the black child and his whole race of a heritage and relegated him to nothingness and nobodyness,” noted historians Charles H. Wesley and Thelma D. Parry in the forward. Despite Woodson’s dedication, “The study of the black man is still new in this generation,” they said.

“Sadly, all of this sounds like a 2023 headline,” says Shawn Dove, managing partner at philanthropic venture fund New Profit and founder of the Corporation for Black Male Achievement. He sees the current froth about critical race theory, book-banning, and curriculum battles—specifically Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s move to ban AP African American studies in the state—as a chilling reminder of a persistent impulse. “The celebration of this year’s Black History Month arrives with heightened relevancy and implications for Americans and a stark reminder that Black History is American history.”

I expect Black History Month to hit differently this year for additional reasons.

First, it serves as a reminder for many corporate leaders that they have reached the end of an uncomfortable grace period, a march toward culture change bookended by state violence—between the time George Floyd couldn’t breathe and begged for his mama and more recently when Tyre Nichols begged for his while being beaten to death.

Wobbling on diversity commitments is not helping the corporate cause.

“Despite promising sounding DEI statements across every sector of industry and on nearly every company’s value and mission statements, the slashing of DEI departments and female employees, particularly in tech, supports a continuing distrust among Black Americans that their lives, their culture issues, their success in leveling the playing field in American industries truly matters,” writes raceAhead reader Monique Gary, a breast surgical oncologist and medical director of the Grand View Health/Penn Cancer Network. “Companies can show rather than tell that they have an expressed commitment to the lives, future, and success of their Black customers and employees.”

For Nichole Barnes Marshall, Pinterest’s head of inclusion & diversity, Black History Month is a “moment of intention to recognize our nation’s history through today’s lens.” She adds, “This can be met with performative acts of inclusion and a lack of action behind campaign slogans, or it can be an occasion to center Black employees and allies and elevate their incredible work and creativity.”

Since my call for BHM submissions, I have been inundated with your ideas, suggestions, best practices, and updates. I’m deeply grateful for all the work you’re already doing. Today’s newsletter is part one of a two-part guide, and thanks to your generosity, I’ll share more throughout the month.

This brings me back to Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson may be best known as the father of Black History Month, but he should be better known for what he did to get us this far. Woodson abandoned two prestigious academic leadership roles to focus on funding and leading an association dedicated to ending miseducation for good.

That’s what I suggest we should do now.

Take time this month to show up for your colleagues, assess your own blind spots, and figure out what role you need to play in co-creating a world where Black employees, customers, community members, voters, patients, parents, teachers, students, and other stakeholders can thrive. Make it your job. Undertake the work with openness. Listen to celebrate and understand.

And then ask yourself: Why would I ever willingly participate in a system that prevents it?

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

BHM: Center your Black employees

Overview: Black history is American history, and it lives in the bones of your Black employees, leaders, and stakeholders. Find meaningful and non-burdensome ways Black folks can share their stories, be acknowledged for their accomplishments, and make new connections within the company.

Pro tip: Consider having your ERG leaders review key communications—including media releases—year-round to better align company messaging with the lived experience of employees. And pay them for their work.

From the field: “Centering the voices of our Black employees will continue to be one of our top priorities,” says Thomas Kilgore, director of DEI at Radial. Allies, get on board, he says. “It is important for non-Black employees to openly celebrate Blackness in all of its magical splendor, and so anytime an opportunity presents itself, we must be intentional with seizing the moment.”

“External speakers bring great perspective, but there is an untapped benefit in hearing from internal talent who influence how we experience the workplace daily,” says Misty Gaither, VP and global head of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at Indeed. “To address this, we are refocusing our efforts on highlighting individuals within Indeed to showcase a few things: the path to VP, disrupt the monolithic view of Black people, and [how] we exist in all functional areas of the organization and at various levels. This gives our employees the opportunity to build meaningful connections that won’t end once the Black History Month events are over.”

BHM: This is a job for the C-Suite

Overview: While your company celebrates Black employees, it’s time for C-Suite leaders to actively listen. Host town halls or more intimate meetings with internal teams, like ERGs. Offer updates on inclusion initiatives or commit to new ones. Show your work and think out loud. And keep Martin Luther King’s name out of your mouth.

Pro tip: Black people are everywhere, so make sure all ERGs (LGBTQ, faith-based, women’s leadership, etc.) are included.

From the field: “Giving Black employees the space to ask the difficult questions and having their voices heard is integral to creating an inclusive workplace,” says Indeed’s Gaither, who says all senior leaders, including the CEO, should participate in well-planned listening sessions. “We are hosting a panel entitled 'Code Switching vs Masking' and will invite Black VPs at Indeed to share how they navigate the workplace and share key factors that led to their advancement. The panel is intended to allow Black employees to engage with leadership who they may not usually hear from. We make sure mid-level managers are able to participate in conversations and hear the experiences that reference well-being, microaggressions, and imposter syndrome.”

Humera Shahid, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer and VP of Talent Development at Intuit, says that in 2020, the company established a racial equity and leadership team comprised of Black employees to bring visibility to the Black experience at Intuit and in corporate America. “This team put together a series of recommendations for us to lead our work in racial equity with the support of our C-suite leaders. Our first step was developing a conscious awareness of race in the workplace. Over the last two years, we have trained our executives and leaders in racial equity and continue to offer employees the opportunity to learn about experiences that may be very different from their own. Black History Month gives us the space to hold ourselves accountable, celebrate Black joy, and recognize that we have not achieved equality.”

BHM: Use supplier diversity to uplift communities

Overview: The ripple effects can be profound if supplier initiatives are structured correctly, but they often aren’t. Take this time to review your supplier diversity efforts. Long-term commitments to true supplier diversity can begin to reduce the racial wealth gap in communities and inject goodwill and positive momentum into inclusion efforts.

Pro tip: Make this a routine occurrence. “One of our customers, Maya Madsen, CEO and owner of Maya’s Cookies, shared that she receives a disproportionately large volume of corporate orders during February, many demanding a very quick turnaround,“ says Shahid. “While she has systems in place to fill orders and expects higher demand, businesses like Intuit can be a positive force and advocate for Black small business owners by engaging year-round and diversifying suppliers.

From the field: "Many, many corporations have these programs called supplier diversity where they're going to work with African American companies,” says John W. Rogers, Jr., chair, co-CEO, and chief investment officer of Ariel Investments. “But in reality, they typically do that only in the supply chain—construction, catering, janitorial services, corporate gifts—the lowest margin part of the spend.” Aim for the top of the spend to make your efforts more meaningful. “Our economy is moving to a professional services, financial services, and technology-based economy. That's where all the high margins are. That's where the cash flow is. That's where the jobs are. So if these well-meaning programs only look to do business with us in the parts of spend where the least wealth is, does it create it? Let’s get rid of that term supplier diversity and make it business diversity more broadly.”

Patrick McLaughlin, chief human resources officer of Frito-Lay North America, says, “For businesses to be a positive force, it’s crucial that CEOs and senior executives not only talk the talk but walk the talk. It starts from the top down, and leaders must put clear, actionable goals in place." One example is Pepsico's (Frit0-Lay's parent company) Racial Equality Journey, a $570 million commitment over five years to increase Black and Hispanic representation across the company while supporting Black-owned businesses.

Parting words

“It is essential to acknowledge that the Black community is a mosaic of lived experiences from around the globe. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ perspective, and needs differ by population and location. Having said that, Black leaders, innovators, and builders are essential to driving the development of innovations to improve the health of their own communities. Solutions derived from the very communities that need them are more likely to be culturally and linguistically responsive and have the potential to drive greater impact. This is true across communities.”

Danielle Morris, Global Head of Health Equity, AWS

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.

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