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4 Ways for Business to Show Authentic Leadership on Racial Equity

“It’s easy to say that you’re anti-racist without changing anything about how your organization operates,” says Gary Cunningham, CEO of Propserity Now. Here are four ways to make sure you’re walking the walk on racial equity.
By Mary Mazzoni
Walk the Walk on Racial Equity

A host of top companies issued bold statements and significant financial commitments to advance racial equity in 2020. Now, the hard work really begins. “I commend the significant efforts companies have put forward and their tremendous commitments to racial equity,” said Gary Cunningham, president and CEO of Prosperity Now, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on economic mobility for people of color and low-income people. “I would argue this is the first step, not the last step.”

Cunningham was one of five leaders to appear on stage at a March 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands - LIVE! event focused on racial equity and justice. We caught up with Cunningham, a respected expert in entrepreneurship, job creation and racial wealth equity, after the event to learn more about how companies can move past that first step and make measurable progress on advancing racial equity in their workforces and the communities where they do business. 

“The key here is authentic leadership —  in other words, walking the walk, not just talking the talk,” he told us. “It’s easy to say that you’re anti-racist without changing anything about how your organization operates.” He went on to detail four actionable steps every business leader can take to align their deeds with their words — and ensure those deeds make a real difference. 

Embed racial equity and justice into everything you do 

If your company has a stake in the economic success of the communities where you operate — and it does, if it plans to sell products and services in the future — then eliminating racial inequality is central to your mission. If your company has a values or purpose statement rooted in positive impact on society — and you should, because consumers increasingly expect it — then eliminating racial inequality is central to your vision. To be an authentic leader, start by making those connections clear and talking about them often, Cunningham advised. Keep your eyes and ears open. Embrace change. Celebrate the things you’re doing well, and own up to areas that need improvement.

“This work is more than just a slogan or a statement, and by that I mean this work must be reflected as part of the values of the business or organization. It has to be embedded from the C-suite to the ground floor,” he told 3p. “Make sure you’re talking to your own employees, that you’re open about what the opportunities are, and that you work with a diverse board and a diverse workforce,” he advised. “These are critical issues to be authentic in this space.” 

Understand you aren’t the expert in this work — and partner with those who are

“So often I’ve witnessed corporations and business leaders act as if because they are very smart and can solve problems that they can understand and know how to solve the complex problems of racial and ethnic inequality,” Cunningham said. “Just because you’re an expert in a certain field doesn’t mean you have the understanding or the lived experiences of those who have suffered from economic inequality. Therefore, trust the guidance of people who can help you learn, help you bring your work into the community, and help you understand the depth of the issues that you’re trying to contain.” 

Ellen McGirt, senior editor of Fortune, recently took a closer look at one of these successful partnerships: the R.I.S.E. (racial inclusion and social equity) program at professional services firm Marsh McLennan. Developed in collaboration with groups like the John Lewis Center for Social Justice at Fisk University, R.I.S.E. will embed Black and Afro Latinx second-year MBA students and graduates into the company for learning and client work, in tandem with an immersive social justice program.

Newly-appointed Inclusion and Diversity Officer Nzinga “Zing” Shaw said she was properly resourced for success and is optimistic about the future of the program, but the payoff is still years away. “This isn’t an ‘invest in diversity’ initiative,” she told McGirt in the latest edition of her RaceAhead newsletter (if you’re interested in how issues of race intersect with business, be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already). “The measure of success would ultimately be that in five to 10 years many of these fellows will be rising up through the ranks of Marsh McLennan and more broadly across the entire spectrum of the industry.”  

Other recent standouts include Apple’s work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to establish a learning hub in Atlanta and a developer academy in Detroit, and Goldman Sachs’ investment of more than $10 billion in social change organizations, an initiative it says will be “led by Black women, advised by Black women [and] partnered with Black women.”

Measure success

As the old adage goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. “So often when we talk about this work of racial equity, there are no metrics behind what success looks like,” Cunningham observed. “I say take the same measures that you use in your business and apply that to your racial equity work. Set goals. Set standards.” 

In a December article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Loyola University law professor Elizabeth J. Kennedy details how companies can leverage employee data to create more equitable workplaces and measure progress along the way, and nonprofit consulting firm FSG recently outlined 23 practices grounded in data that advance racial equity at work.

A growing host of resources are also becoming available to help businesses and other organizations quantify and qualify their progress: For example, the Boston Consulting Group’s Diversity and Inclusion Assessment for Leadership (DIAL) tool analyzes diversity and inclusion benchmarking data to help companies identify the metrics that matter most. 

Tailor your approach 

“It’s important to target your approach to actually reach the people that you’re trying to impact,” Cunningham said. He used the Paycheck Protection Program, meant to help small businesses keep workers on the payroll amid coronavirus shutdowns, as an example. “It’s a great program that is universal, but it didn’t reach communities of color,” he observed. “The same thing can happen in your company if you don’t have the knowledge to develop a targeted program that reaches the constituencies you want to reach.” 

This means developing equity programs that benefit those who are often overlooked, while being mindful about communicating how these programs can benefit anyone of any background. 

“Think about it as a targeted goal with a universal approach — meaning, we want our approaches to help everyone in the company, but we know not everyone is situated the same way in the company, so we want to target this in a way that it actually works,” Cunningham explained. “That way, employees that are not a part of this BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] community can still see why the solution is important. Without them being able to see themselves in the picture, you’ll continue to have a divide and what they call ‘white backlash’ to your well-being programs.”

Image credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni