Visa moved part of its C-suite to Atlanta to diversify company ranks—but making a dent in the city’s income inequality problem is an uphill battle

Michelle Gethers-Clark, chief diversity officer at Visa.
Michelle Gethers-Clark, Visa's chief diversity officer, is combining a major hiring push in Atlanta with anti-poverty activism and financial literacy training.
Courtesy of Visa

In 2021, Michelle Gethers-Clark was preparing to move across the country to join her new colleagues in the Bay Area as the company’s first-ever combination chief diversity officer and head of corporate responsibility. Then she got a call from then-CEO Al Kelly. He had an idea—well, a mission, really—to run by her. 

The company had already committed some $32 million to renovate the former headquarters of the Norfolk Southern in Atlanta, a 123,000-square-foot facility that in 2022, was destined to become Visa’s first meaningful presence in that city. Atlanta was a city filled with Black talent, so, yes, the new location was part of a commitment to diversify company ranks. But Kelly also wanted to make sure that the leaders in the new building represented the full professional potential of a career at Visa. (Visa is making its debut this year on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list.)

“I’m home in North Carolina, I had my bags packed to go to San Francisco, and Al called and said, ‘I want part of the C-Suite in Atlanta,’” recalls Gethers-Clark, who reports directly to the CEO. Her placement there, along with Elizabeth Rector, Visa’s Head of Global Client Services, was intentional and designed to send a signal that joining Visa in Atlanta meant a legitimate opportunity for growth. 

Visa is just the latest in a line of big companies like Apple and Alphabet that have set up shop in the city. It makes sense, says Gethers-Clark. “There is Black excellence in Atlanta. There is Latinx excellence here. Asian excellence. And we want to be the net provider of talent across the company,” she says. But the company isn’t limiting themselves to tech and engineering, she says, ticking through a list. Visa needs professional services talent, face-to-face client talent, people and brand talent. “You start in Atlanta, and you might wind up in London, you might wind up in Singapore, you might wind up anywhere in the world.”

A mixed track record for big corporations in Atlanta

Even without a growing corporate presence, Atlanta has become a beacon all on its own, a mostly Black city with an enduring civil rights legacy, a robust start-up scene, and enough cultural clout for the New York Times to call it “hip-hop’s center of gravity.” That center has only deepened over the years, thanks to powerful multi-hyphenate creative voices who have made Atlanta either their home—like writer/producer Tyler Perry, who opened a production studio on 330 acres on the grounds of the city’s former Fort McPherson army base in 2015; or writer/actor Donald Glover, whose award-winning comedy series Atlanta has turned the city into a site-specific setting for searing social commentary.

But the beacon’s beam is more uncertain than it appears.

According to data compiled by the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, the city has the widest income inequality based on race in the U.S. The median household income for a white family is $83,722, compared to $28,105 for a Black family; Latinx family incomes aren’t faring much better, at $43,100. And the average Black-owned business is valued at $58,085, while the average value of a white-owned business is $658,264.

So far, the substantial corporate presence in the city—Coca Cola, CNN, and Delta are all headquartered there—hasn’t trickled much down to generate a thriving Black middle or working class. Neither has the presence of relative newcomers looking to leverage the waiting pool of Black talent, many of whom have become increasingly unwilling to relocate to white tech corridors like Silicon Valley or the Pacific Northwest.

In some cases, the news has been mixed. 

Microsoft, for example, made waves in 2021 with the announcement of a planned 90-acre Microsoft campus complete with 12 office buildings in Atlanta’s Grove Park neighborhood, a predominantly Black community west of downtown. To allay fears of displacement and gentrification, the company pledged to commit 25% of the land “for the construction of affordable and empowered housing and other local community services and needs.” When Microsoft abruptly announced they were halting their plans in February 2023, local politicos were left scrambling. (Microsoft says the pause was part of a broader strategic reassessment that has included a reevaluation of its real estate footprint and the elimination of 10,000 jobs. In a statement to Fortune, the company says that the land is not for sale and that it plans “to reengage in planning efforts when expansion is warranted”; it also says that Microsoft “will continue our efforts to create a positive impact in the region.”)

“It caught us a little bit by surprise that Microsoft is going to pause their development,” Mayor Andre Dickens said during a press briefing after the announcement. The announcement also roiled property values in the area, which had climbed in anticipation of the new construction. The mayor made plain what was being lost by the halt. “I’ve also encouraged them and downright told them that they must continue to do community engagement and all the things we wanted to do in that Grove Park, Collier Heights community,” Dickens said.

Building a public-private alliance

Gethers-Clark’s unusual role may help her and Visa avoid these kinds of disruptions. Because she leads both Visa’s corporate diversity efforts and its philanthropic foundation efforts, she’s creating a type of internal public-private alliance that gives her a unique set of people and resources with which to invent new ways to transform the company and society writ large. 

But it was the city’s persistent poverty and systemic inequity that personally drew Gethers-Clark to Atlanta. She grew up in the public housing system on New York’s Lower East Side, the child of parents who fled the Jim Crow South and day jobs picking cucumbers in search of a better life. “I understand generational poverty because I am one generation away from it,” she says.

She began getting to know her new hometown through good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. “One of the first things I did before I moved here was I brought my heels down here and personally went knocking door-to-door,” she says. “We wanted to understand basic needs, we wanted to understand financial literacy.”

She describes a whistle-stop tour of potential partners, visiting a wide variety of stakeholders, including public school teachers and administrators, the Chamber of Commerce, the United Way, the Westside Housing Fund, and the poverty alleviation nonprofit Operation Hope. Gethers-Clark, who was the chief of United Way in North Carolina when she was recruited to join Visa by Kelly (the two were former colleagues at American Express), knew what she was listening for. “We went to organizations who were focusing on anti-poverty and financial literacy, and looked to find alignment,” she says. “I’m the former CEO of an NGO, so I know the difference between place-based work and theoretical work. And I know how to partner.”

Visa is a company that’s all about money, how it moves, and what it means to customers big and small. And that’s what makes Visa’s presence in the city a different play than just moving to town to scoop up local talent, she says.

Gethers-Clark leads a team of 55 people drawn from both the corporate and philanthropic parts of the company. Together, they’ve begun piloting fun financial literacy programs in middle and high schools, and identifying the unique needs of the people who are being left behind. Some 18 months in, they’ve put four cornerstone initiatives into the market. She recalls one digital empowerment event that revealed how few local citizens and small businesses owned computers. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Visa’s Kelly both attended the standing-room-only meeting. “Yes, you need to be educated, but you also need to have quote unquote, infrastructure, too,” she says. “We are paying very close attention to all the implications, especially in the post-COVID world, of small and micro-businesses, because we know that they’re the heartbeat of the world.” 

After a short delay in opening Visa’s new Atlanta hub—supply chain woes were to blame—Gethers-Clark says the company is on track to meet its promise of creating 1,000 new, professional-track jobs in the greater Atlanta area by 2025. “After 18 months, we’re already pushing up against 400 new roles,” she says.

‘Room at the table for all’

Gethers-Clark is a woman of deep faith, which forms the centerpiece of her 2012 book, The Next Level: Breakthrough Performance Anchored by Faith. It’s both a practical and spiritual guide, based on her (at the time) 29 years of experience in the workplace. “I focus on the idea that we are all intended to work together to get it done, and that there has to be room at the table for all,” she says, putting on her diversity officer hat. “We must honor the unique identity and contributions of everyone,” a humbling exercise for any status quo leader to learn. 

Then, she puts on her economic inclusion hat. “When Al called me and said, ‘I have a business problem I want to solve, and it’s about financial education and running the company with a specific idea toward gender, race, small and micro-businesses,’ I told him I wanted to learn more.” Again, she knew what she was listening for when she met with the leadership team. “I needed to make sure they were fully committed to actually making a meaningful difference in the lives of Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+…diversity at all levels, visible, invisible and economic,” she says, ticking through another list.

Gethers-Clark understands how small interventions make big differences. In a moving talk sponsored by TEDxGreensboro in 2018, she shared her poverty elimination playbook derived from her experience at the United Way. She also drew a direct line from growing up in New York City on “welfare food”—peanut butter that came in a can and pasteurized processed cheese packaged in a rectangular box—and the kinds of services and people who kept her safe and fed as she worked her way to college and beyond. Everything a poor person might need to thrive can be found in a better policy, process, product, investment, or service—and a community that values them. “Being poor is not intentional and not an aspiration,” she says, but alleviating poverty is both.

And now, that’s what Gethers-Clark gets to do every day. “Al wanted to grow the business and solve economic mobility? To me, it’s a ticket to win.”

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