One Year After George Floyd's Death: 6 Reflections on Corporate America's Progress

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  • The murder of George Floyd a year ago forced a reckoning among American businesses that more had to be done to take on systemic racism.
  • As protests unfolded in the weeks following his death, corporate America spoke out against racism and police brutality and many companies made promises to reform their practices or to invest in efforts to fight racism in the community.
  • CNBC asked six business executives, activists and thought leaders involved in these efforts to reflect on these efforts and the progress being made.

The murder of George Floyd a year ago forced a reckoning among American businesses that more had to be done to take on systemic racism.

As protests unfolded in the weeks following his death, corporate America spoke out against racism and police brutality. Promises were made to invest in fighting racial inequity, supporting minority-owned businesses, lobbying for policy reforms that address police misconduct and accountability, and to provide more opportunities to Black Americans within these companies.

A year later, business leaders are being held to a higher standard and expected to take a more active role against racism.

CNBC reached out to a number of business leaders and activists to get their reflections on the early progress that's been made in creating more inclusion in the corporate world. They were asked about where companies are making progress and where businesses are falling short. CNBC also asked about innovative approaches each has seen or participated in over the past year.

Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart

Doug McMillon
Photo: Walmart
Doug McMillon

Doug McMillon has been president and CEO of Walmart, America's largest employer, since 2014. He also is chairman of the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of America's leading companies. In these roles, McMillon, has seen not only the steps Walmart is taking but those of the Business Roundtable, which formed a special committee to advance racial equality in June 2020.

"Both individually and collectively, we've seen the private sector step up in response to racial injustice and inequity and we're seeing meaningful progress," McMillon said. "One of the reasons for the progress we're seeing is because company commitments and initiatives are being driven at the CEO level."

Walmart is reporting its diversity metrics twice a year in greater detail. In its 2020 end-of-year report, its officers were more diverse, with a 1.97% increase in Black and African American officers and increases in representation for women and people of color as well. Many Business Roundtable members also are disclosing diversity metrics, and reforming hiring and advancement practices.

"Overall, I'm encouraged by the progress we're seeing so far, but the structures of systemic racism are complex and deeply ingrained in society," he said. "There are no simple answers to these challenges. There's always more to do and so leaders need to ask themselves and their organizations if they can be doing more. And we must continue to go forward with a sense of urgency.

"It's not that we're necessarily falling short but, rather, we have to keep going. Change to complex systems takes a breadth of actions over time, and a systems-based approach requires working on explicit structural change (i.e. policies, practices, resource flows), semi-explicit structural change (i.e. relationships, connections, power dynamics) and transformative change (i.e. mental models). Companies should take a shared-value approach, not only investing in the broader community, but also looking to change the way in which we operate as a business."

McMillon called out the Business Roundtable's work on policing issues as an example of an innovative approach. The group is pushing to get policing reform signed into law.

"Historically, policing issues have been outside of business leaders' usual focus," he said. "But last summer, the BRT established a Special Committee on Racial Equity and Justice that released a set of recommendations to promote bipartisan consensus on policing reform. It signaled that corporate America cannot and will not sit this issue out. We have a moral imperative to ensure our associates and customers are treated fairly in our justice system, and our communities are safer as a result."

Maxine Williams, chief diversity officer at Facebook

Maxine Williams
Photo: Charles Ommanney, Facebook
Maxine Williams

Maxine Williams, chief diversity officer at Facebook, said the company was able to use its own platform to raise awareness about Black stories and Black businesses following Floyd's death last year through campaigns such as #shareblackstories and #BuyBlackFriday.

Facebook also pledged to spend $1.1 billion this year with minority-owned businesses and disbursed millions of dollars in grants to organizations fighting for racial justice.

"In addition, last year we launched the Facebook Receivables Financing Program to further support U.S.-based diverse suppliers during the pandemic," Williams said. "Facebook provides immediate cash to pay suppliers for work that they have done and pay they're owed. What is really innovative about this is that this is not money they have been owed by Facebook but by other, non-Facebook companies with whom they've done business."

Williams said it is important that companies are naming the injustices that exist.

"I think it is an accomplishment that companies are becoming more bold in acknowledging inequities, which have existed forever," Williams said. "We all know that there is more work to do. Companies are making pledges to hire more diverse employees — but it can't end there. They need to be focusing on inclusion efforts, and making sure that people from underrepresented communities are heard and valued."

Carlos Cubia, global chief diversity officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance

Carlos Cubia
Photo: Walgreens
Carlos Cubia

Carlos Cubia joined Walgreens Boots Alliance in 2017 and has worked on initiatives including launching the company's first diversity and inclusion report, forming its global inclusion council, and linking a portion of the company's incentive pay to performance on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, goals.

The company is focused on increasing the number of women in leadership positions by 3% year over year and people of color in leadership positions by 2% YOY.

"Over the past year, we welcomed Roz Brewer as our new CEO, one of two Black women leading Fortune 500 companies today," Cubia said. "In addition, we named Valerie Jarrett to our board of directors, making her the first Black woman to serve on our board."

"While we are proud of the work we've done, we know we still have a long way to go, which is why this is both a critical and exciting time to be in this space," Cubia said.

"Companies have always needed a nudge when it comes to DE&I, but 2020 wasn't a nudge. It was a shove," he said. " The racial equity movement opened not only eyes, but minds. It opened the minds of those who used to think that diversity, equity and inclusion were separate from corporate goals, that DE&I was just a 'nice-to-do.' It opened the minds of those who thought that saying we believe in diversity was enough while they did next to nothing to truly foster and promote a culture of DE&I."

Awareness is the first step, but Cubia said he has been glad to see more tangible action by companies, too.

"We need to make sure that the spirit behind the worldwide protests and support we saw last summer were not performative," he said.

Cubia has found employee town halls and sessions for Black staff have been helpful in shedding light on what more needs to be done. He recounted one memorable conversation from these efforts.

"It was powerful, intense and thought-provoking and I'm proud to say that we walked away from that session with ideas for moving our DE&I initiatives forward," he said.

Bobbi Thomason, professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School

Bobbi Thomason
Photo: Brittany Lee
Bobbi Thomason

Bobbi Thomason, an assistant professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, has conducted research that looks at members of marginalized communities and how they work to overcome inequality and social hierarchies throughout their careers. She also examines how those individuals shape social structures, organizations and families while pursuing their careers.

While more needs to be done, companies made progress over the past year by seeing the role businesses could play in the solution.

Thomason identified two areas where companies can improve to create more inclusive environments.

"The first is around representation — there is still a lack of persons of color, particularly in leadership roles. Consider the Fortune 500 — there are only four Black CEOs and the all-time high was 6 in 2012. But changing numbers alone does not automatically produce benefits or equality. Increasing the number of people from underrepresented groups is not adequate if those individuals do not feel valued and respected," Thomason said.

Companies also fall short in creating a sense of belonging for employees of different backgrounds. She pointed to research by Robin Ely of Harvard Business School and David Thomas of Morehouse College, which found that companies perform best when they use diverse life experiences as an asset.

Aurora James, founder of the 15 Percent Pledge

Aurora James
Christian Cody
Aurora James

The 15 Percent Pledge is a nonprofit founded last year by Brooklyn, New York-based entrepreneur Aurora James to encourage retailers to dedicate at least 15% of shelf space to Black-owned businesses. About two dozen companies have taken the pledge, including Crate & Barrel, Sephora and Macy's

"The 15 Percent Pledge did a really interesting thing, which was to try to inspire corporations to think about their individual purposes as corporations and to pivot those toward being anti-racist. Historically, the corporate reaction to bad things happening was to make donations," James said. "The pledge really urged people to take it a step further and change part of their business model, change how they're merchandising, change who they're buying from a supplier, from a [business-to-business] standpoint."

Even though companies who have made the pledge are working hard toward reaching the 15% goal, the majority of companies in North America have still not made the pledge.

"A lot of companies say 'We're afraid to commit to the pledge because we're afraid to fail.' What a lot of these CEOs don't realize is that they already are failing. The not committing is the fail. Because racial justice is such a complex and nuanced conversation, a lot of CEOs and corporations in general are paralyzed into non-action," James said.

"I understand that to some degree, I do. It's a tough space to operate in and that's why I am so proud of the work that we do at The Pledge. It's really about handholding with people and holding them accountable, too — but just making sure that we can actually use these huge corporations to be vehicles for change."

James pointed out the innovative pledge Sysco made with billionaire Robert Smith and his organization to fund students at historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, every year as a large step toward increasing opportunities for Black people.

"When we look at the barriers to entry for Black people, it starts at the very beginning. When we talk about the American Dream and we say that's not necessarily available to everyone, it's really not because the chips are stacked against you if you come from certain neighborhoods or environments," James said. "For them to be able to eliminate student debt or provide access for students to go to school when they wouldn't have been able to afford to otherwise, is a really huge deal. A ton of people know what it's like to have that burden of student debt weighing on you."

Connie E. Evans, president and CEO, Association for Enterprise Opportunity

Photo: Association for Enterprise Opportunity

Connie Evans serves as the president and CEO of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, a nonprofit trade association that works to provide underrepresented entrepreneurs with financing and services to help them in starting, stabilizing and growing their businesses.

Evans said there needs to be a mechanism to follow pledges made by companies in order to evaluate their impact.

"There doesn't seem to be a focus on creating a centralized reporting mechanism to capture the disbursement of these pledges, how they are used or their impact," Evans said.

AEO has collaborated with PayPal to help Black and Brown small business owners through grants and by providing them with business tools.

"Companies are starting to take a more strategic approach that is driving increased access to resources and services for Black and Brown entrepreneurs. One of the ways that is happening is through efforts to increase synergy through market actors," Evans said. "For example PayPal reached out to AEO as a leader in the microbusiness space to connect with Black business owners impacted by Covid-19 and civil unrest. Then they went a step further by bringing Adobe, Facebook, Guidehouse, Deloitte, Mastercard, Qualtrics, and GoDaddy into the partnership to create new resources for that community."

To continue building on the growth that happened in 2020, companies need to do more than provide one-time grants, Evans said.

"There must be a long-term approach to promoting equity for Black and Brown business owners. If the work is a one-time response that is only impactful for the current situation, then it is short-sighted. It will take many seasons for businesses to fully rebound and they will continue to need ongoing support as they rebuild their capacity and resilience," Evans said.

To do this, companies need to make internal changes as well and create a more inclusive workspace.

"Companies will also fall short if they have not made internal changes to address equity and inclusion within the organization so that the changes that they are trying to make in their customer market will be sustainable. Those internal changes are the start of a fully inclusive economy. PayPal and our other partners have ensured that they have looked in-house to make changes that address systemic needs so the work can be sustainable," Evans said.

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