Empowerment of Black Employees and Honest Conversations About Race Are Essential for Change, Three Leaders Say

The worldwide calls for justice in response to racism, hate and the killings of Black people haven’t just put governments on the spot. Businesses, too, are grappling with their responsibility to build a more inclusive society.

Black employees’ calls for more representation and empowerment in the workplace are now being heard. Many businesses are seeing they can and should use their platforms to advance systemic change in society. But experts say, positive change requires companies to hold honest conversations about race. 

“We’re at a very divided time in this country — politically divided, socioeconomically divided, racially divided, ethnically divided,” says Soledad O’Brien, award-winning journalist and CEO of Soledad O’Brien Productions. “And the interesting thing, though, is in business is where we all have to come together. You can go home, and live in your own neighborhood, you can go to your own church. But in business, here we are, together.”

Despite the obvious discomfort of talking about race relations in America, she says, this dialogue must happen. 

“If you want to have a successful bottom line, then you’re going to have to navigate some of these conversations that people feel like we have to have today,” says O’Brien.

“The companies that do it best confront it head-on,” she says. “Nobody wants to necessarily talk about race, but I think you have to. You have to at least have forums and opportunities to have uncomfortable conversations and people who know how to help navigate those conversations.”

O’Brien talks about the necessity of being inclusive and addressing matters of race as a part of Salesforce’s Make Change series. Among the other leaders interviewed by Salesforce are Baron Davis, former NBA All-Star player and founder and CEO of Baron Davis Enterprises and Business Inside the Game, who believes in the importance of investing in and celebrating marginalized communities; and Deesha Dyer, a community leader and organizer who worked in President Obama’s administration for almost seven years, two of them as social secretary. 

Dyer was able to stir positive change by asking a simple question about a racial disparity that was hidden from most Americans — and doing something about it when she heard an answer she didn’t like. 

“When I would travel with the president and Mrs. Obama, I would never see Black people in embassies around the world,” Dyer says. “And I didn’t understand why if we have Black people in the U.S., [why] do we not have Black people as U.S. diplomats?” 

Dyer did some research and found that a meager 6.1 percent of U.S. students who study abroad are Black. Hoping to remedy that, Dyer co-founded beGirl.world, an organization that uplifts Black teenage girls through travel and global education in order to increase the number of African American diplomats in the future. 

Davis is focusing on children even younger by changing the representation in the images and figures they love. His Black Santa Company sells shirts and other items promoting positive Black images and representation. In recent years, depictions of characters like Santa Claus as Black have received some negative reactions from people who don’t believe the image should be changed. Davis sees these inclusive images as part of the national conversation. 

“If you want to talk about inclusion, it’s allowing a community of people that haven’t really been paid attention to, to be invested in,” says Davis, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He says businesses must find a desire to embrace and celebrate differences.

“It’s extremely important as content creators and content makers and producers that we start to tell the stories that need to be told. We start to celebrate culture.

“We start… to have those storylines reflect who we are and where we come from,” he adds. “For me, it’s satisfying to start seeing some of those barriers being broken.”

Dyer points out that business leaders should consult the very people they are trying to empower. “The advice that I give leaders that are looking to increase their impact is to get other people involved,” she says. “You don’t always have to do everything yourself. Thinking of a program for young girls, it was important for me to] get their input. So with leaders, when we’re trying to have an impact, we need to make sure we bring to the table everyone who is going to be impacted by our decisions.”

O’Brien adds that when people of color get to the table, it’s also important they voice dissenting opinions. 

“What’s the point of having a seat?” she asks. “What’s the point of making it up the ladder, to a certain degree, if, at the moment when it matters, you’re too afraid for your job to open your mouth and say something that needs to be said?”

Dyer notes, though, that the conversation is only the beginning of what’s needed. 

“What leaders need to do is get other people involved on the same page and make an action plan,” she says. “Talking is extremely nice, but we can talk in circles and we could talk forever. But I think that having an action plan from the very beginning and then working that back is what’s most helpful.”

Those actions should include investment in their Black employees and using Black-owned vendors, or businesses owned by other often-marginalized groups. Then everyone wins, Davis says. 

“Small businesses that are coming out of the Comptons or Baltimores, we want to support that because then you’re creating real sustainability,” Davis adds. “You’re creating a change that extends not just in making money but extends in values and extends back into the purpose. If the dollar is to create this exponential wealth, we want that dollar to have purpose attached to it.” 

To see more of the Salesforce Make Change series, go to www.salesforce.com/make-change-equality/

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