Bold Business Leaders Can Accelerate Racial Equity

Abim Kolawole, Vice President, Digital Innovation

Nov 11, 2020

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

The business world is at a pivot point. It’s clear that consumers will not view organizations as relevant if they cannot demonstrate an authentic commitment to driving racial equity. All of our customers deserve an exceptional experience, as do our co-workers – and they are looking to us to deliver. The key point is this: to drive the change we need – and any kind of meaningful organizational transformation – we must commit to innovation.

Before I discuss how, let’s talk about why we must act –first, from a business standpoint. If today’s status quo continues, it will take about 228 years for African American families to have an equal amount of household wealth as white families. Nearly half of Black households in America are unbanked or underbanked. At the same time, McKinsey predicts that “Financial institutions could realize approximately $2 billion in incremental, additional annual revenue if Black Americans had the same access to financial products as white Americans. If Blacks reached full parity in terms of wealth with white Americans, financial services companies could realize up to $60 billion in additional revenue from Black customers each year.”

Beyond the macro lens, we must also remember that continuing racial dynamics can be deeply personal and impact us as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. I aim to be a strong voice for change at work – and at home, I am having the inevitable conversations about race with my children, trying to balance their relative innocence with the realities that continue to manifest. But outside of home and work, I still feel great vulnerability as an African American man. 

For example, months ago, pre-COVID, I joined a few friends for dinner to connect and network at a restaurant in downtown Milwaukee. As our evening ended, we took turns to hand the valet our tickets. My ticket was last to be taken, meaning my car would be retrieved last. As my colleagues departed and I waited for my car, a voice deep in my consciousness told me to move off to the left, away from the valet stand. I had a strong feeling that if I did not create space, I would be handed the keys to park the next guest car. Now, I have a tremendous amount of respect for valets – after all, I have relied on valets, too. But, in this instance, standing there that evening, I felt as an African American man that it would be easy for anyone to jump to conclusion that I was the valet. So, I took several steps away from the entrance, convinced that I created enough space to defeat any assumptions. My proactive efforts were for naught. A few minutes later, a white man walked right up to me and handed me his keys to park his car.

I don’t share this story simply to highlight this man’s mistake. I share it to underscore the effort and deliberateness people of color must employ in navigating daily interactions affected by unconscious biases. These biases are reinforced further by our world: there are only three African American CEOs in the FORTUNE 500, and Black professionals represent just 3.2% of senior leaders in large American companies, though we compose 12% of the population.

The window is wide open for us to build inclusive cultures, recruit more Black talent, deliver equitable professional development, and promote economic and community empowerment. As task forces nationwide dig in to these business and societal challenges, I urge us all to commit to being open to transformational change. Work to resolve what Clayton Christenson has coined “the innovator’s dilemma": when an organization focuses all of its attention on its existing customers while eschewing breakthroughs to attract new customers. Companies that pursue this path risk their relevance and, if left unaddressed over time, jeopardize their very existence. Set aside preconceived notions about what feels safest. Be willing to disrupt yourself and the way things have always been done.

At some point, your team will reach a fork in the road. Someone will challenge progress with conventional thinking or excessive risk aversion. Another person may confuse team conversations with whataboutisms: “If we support Group X, what about Group Y? If we’re going to support families in City A, what about families in City B?” When you reach that fork in the road, please remember why you’re doing what you’re doing: our customers and staff are counting on us think bigger and strategically. They need us to remain focused, inspired and lead courageously to drive racial equity.

One of the best ways to encourage innovative thinking and deter distractions is for senior leadership and teams to set clear goals and expectations. At Northwestern Mutual, our CEO and senior leaders understand the importance of meeting this moral moment. They are on-board to achieve meaningful and measurable results. Our new Sustained Action for Racial Equity task force, created by our CEO, John Schlifske, is determined to ideate solutions to drive inclusion and cultural respect, recruit Black talent, create community partnerships to drive Black empowerment, and deliver financial security more effectively to African Americans. My colleagues and I will share more about the bold moves we’re planning to change our organization and our world.

Meanwhile, I hope that you will tell me about your commitment to innovation to drive racial equity in your professional and personal spheres of influence. Let me know how you’re addressing the innovator’s dilemma and making a difference in your companies and communities.

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