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CEOs And Racial Inequity

What business leaders can—and should—do to steer social change.

Doing good while doing business has long been a goal of business leaders, but recent events have many questioning the efficacy of their efforts. As Ford Foundation CEO and former investment banker Darren Walker pointed out in a recent op-ed, $100,000-a-table philanthropic galas may raise funds for the economically disadvantaged, but have failed to move the needle on underlying institutionalized bias that perpetuate inequities.

In July, roughly 300 business titans gathered for Yale CEO Summit seemed in agreement, spontaneously opting to shelve the planned Covid-19-related agenda to instead share unscripted, instinctive responses to recent high-profile racial incidents. They discussed setting up a fund for small businesses impacted by looting, donating to community cleanup, conducting racial sensitivity training and contributing to social justice causes. They also identified three roles leaders can take in furthering social change:

Institutional Ambassadors

Memorably, Merck CEO Ken Frazier quit the president’s Business Advisory Council after the lack of condemnation of the Nazi violence in Charlottesville. Commenting as a Black American, Frazier explained that when African-Americans view the video of George Floyd, they see a man being treated as less than human. “This African-American man could be me or any other African-American man,” Frazier said, commenting on the outcry the incident provoked. “And the officials in Minneapolis didn’t take any action for four days until the community took to the streets.”

The private sector can help address inequities, he added. “[This is] a defining moment for our country when it comes to the issues of race… The business community can take leadership when it comes to concrete actions around things like police reform and around things like access to capital… of all the issues the business community can unilaterally make an impact on, it’s the issue of joblessness; it’s the issues of opportunity in the African-American community.”

Paul Polman of Unilever agreed, saying business leaders must be public advocates. “Business cannot be a bystander… We have some courageous CEOs who speak up, but I wish more would speak up.”

Messengers of Meaning

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said that CEOs must push their companies to create a safe environment where people are comfortable having straightforward dialogues. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon shared takeaways from a town hall where three Black partners shared their personal experiences. “We see an enormous imbalance in the way capital is allocated to people of color… these are [areas] where we can make a difference through actions over a long period of time by consistent investment,” Solomon said.

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson stressed “trying to understand the complexity of people’s feelings. Then, beyond listening, it is important to take concrete steps on things that the company can control.”

Personal Modeling

Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines shared his experience talking about the book White Fragility with a flight attendant from a rival air carrier who didn’t know who he was at the time but later tweeted about the exchange. “We do have an obligation,” Parker said. “Sometimes we can convince ourselves that it’s not really my responsibility as a CEO to opine on this or make a statement on this… because who am I to be making these statements? It does matter.”

Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi warned, “It’s commendable that CEOs are taking positions… but as many people that laud you, an equal number will criticize you.” As true as that may be, it’s a risk that more and more leaders seem willing to shoulder.


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