The emotional 11-minute speech, which drew heavily on Stephenson’s own personal experience and was posted by a staff member on YouTube, comes in the midst of a string of violent shootings that have cost many American citizens and police officers their lives.
“I’m not asking you to be tolerant of each other. Being tolerant is for cowards,” Stephenson told staff. “Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and not to make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments without being challenged.”
Instead, employees needed to work hard and “move into uncertain territory” to establish mutual understanding and respect.
Even Stephenson himself admitted to being ignorant of the intensity of racial discrimination still faced by many black Americans. He was recently enlightened by a speech delivered in a church by his close friend Chris, a doctor who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chris, who recalled having bricks hurled at his Louisiana home as a child, said he is still frequently pulled over at traffic stops, often called “boy” and takes care to pack his drivers license when jogging in case he has to prove he lives in his own neighborhood.
Stephenson said he was ashamed such details of Chris’ life were new to him.
In a line of his speech that drew much applause, Stephenson said: “Candidly, I have always been somewhat confused by some of Chris’s views and now, I’ve got to tell you, I get his anger when somebody responds to Black Lives protests by saying ‘all lives matter’.”
“I have to admit that Chris is a bigger man than me because if I were in his shoes I would be a bitter and angry man and Chris is not.”
It’s unusual for leaders of large American companies to speak so forcefully about race relations. But, according to Stephenson, tough discussions about race need to start from the top.
“If this is a dialogue that’s going to begin at AT&T, I feel like it probably ought to start with me,” he said, earning a standing ovation from the crowd.
Stephenson is Chief Executive’s 2016 CEO of the Year.