Black in corporate America: Making room for leaders, willingly or not

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As protests continue around the globe, we start to look to the next phase in the quest for racial equality: Blacks in corporate America. But there are many more factors at play than in pre-pandemic times.

Months ago the economy was flourishing and job creation was at an all time high. Fast forward to today when many companies have had to lay off workers (disproportionately impacting the Black community) or freeze hiring. 

Here’s what companies are doing in a down economy to work toward a more racially inclusive workforce. 

Resources needed to champion diversity

Diversifying workforces requires consistent effort. Hiring more people of color and ensuring your existing employees of color are listened to and supported in their roles won’t happen overnight.

While tech companies of all sizes have pledged millions of dollars to fight racial inequality and diversify their own ranks, one individual took it several steps further with an immediate action. Equality means that everyone has a seat at the table and is welcome to voice their opinion, right? This is impossible when executive teams and boards are composed of exclusively white men. 

Alexis Ohaninan, Co-Founder of Reddit and husband of tennis superstar Serena Williams, proved that there is an extra and tangible step people in high positions can take to rebalance the power structure. Simply put: he abdicated. He previously left Reddit’s daily operations, but he had maintained his board seat.

Amid open discussions about Reddit’s policies around hate speech and the need to do more to use their platform to combat white supremacy, he decided to give up his board seat and requested that a Black person take his place. Within days Reddit selected Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel. This redistribution of power and privilege is essential to creating a more equitable future. 

Black in corporate America: “Diversity and inclusion” isn’t enough

Look no further than Vernon Jordan to understand why disrupting the status quo is so important. The New York Times reminds us that “When Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader, investment banker, lawyer and political power broker, joined the boards of Xerox and American Express, both of those companies named black chief executives.” 

This might feel like a small win, but considering there are only four Black CEOs out of the 500 biggest US companies (yes, less than 1%), you can see how these wins can compound over time. 

One way large companies have tried to ameliorate their lack of diversity is to bring in people of color to fill newly created “diversity and inclusion” positions. This is a nice gesture, but often these executives are the only people of color or women on the executive team.

Opening these positions shows progress, but it also ignores the fact that there are people of color with strong backgrounds that can lead global engineering, finance, and product teams. Relegating people of color to diversity and inclusion positions is not the solution.

We need diverse leadership across disciplines, and especially at the chief executive level, to be able to create top-down change. Let Black leaders drive business decisions and take companies public. Let them thrive in this diverse economy and prove to entry level people of color that they can achieve the highest seats at the company if they work hard enough.

Abolish the glass ceiling that is keeping qualified employees from getting to the next level. Moving toward these changes is essential, but for laggards progress doesn’t always happen by choice. 

When change comes by force

Giving up a seat at the table to make room for new voices isn’t just happening proactively, it’s also being forced upon some companies that have let racist behavior go unchecked. Executives who have mistreated employees of color have been removed from their positions in industries such as media and tech.

This reckoning has been compared to the Me Too movement, although only time will tell how similar they end up being. But with any luck, these oustings will continue as long as leaders abuse their power and mistreat employees due to their identity. 

While it’s unfortunate that people of color have had to work in negative environments and that this change had to happen in this way, it is still a net positive that there is now more room for more diverse leadership. Cutting ties with the old guard leaders in such public ways will necessitate hard conversations about bias and eradicating racism that need to be happening in order to give Blacks representation in corporate America. 

This is just the beginning

Consumers and investors are also demanding more from companies. They want to support businesses that take a stand and do the right thing.

Just as employees are being encouraged to bring their whole selves to work, corporate identity is also growing to include more than just product output and profit margins. With businesses catching on to the elevated expectations that their employees, shareholders, and the general public have of them, taking action to get closer to racial equality is finally becoming the new status quo. 

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Angelica Valentine

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