Accenture’s Ellyn Shook on Discussing Race With Friends

Originally published on LinkedIn. Ellyn Shook is Accenture’s Chief Leadership & Human Resources Officer. Accenture ranked No. 2 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.


“Your potential discomfort can no longer be the reason we don’t talk about race” is one of the early lines from Dr. Mel Gravely’s book, Dear White Friend: The Realities of Race, the Power of Relationships, and Our Path to Equity. Dr. Gravely’s insights — in the form of letters that are rich with stories, hard facts and personal reflections — offers an on-ramp to have difficult conversations with friends and colleagues about race, grounded in empathy and grace.

As part of our Black History Month discussion series at Accenture, we got a peek inside the friendship between Dr. Mel Gravely, Civic Leader and CEO of TriVersity Construction Company and Dean Kuroff, a Managing Director at Accenture, and their conversations about race which started following the murder of George Floyd.

Listening to them speak was the most valuable 60 minutes I’ve spent in a long time. As a student myself on this complex topic, I’m always seeking to learn and deeply appreciate their insights and candor.

Here are five key takeaways from their conversation:

  1. Educate yourself. Don’t put the onus on your Black friends and co-workers to teach you about the experiences and history of African Americans and Black people in our country. When you are knowledgeable, the conversation can be specific. And when you can be specific, there’s a greater chance of progress.
  2. Invest in building trust. These conversations won’t be perfect — far from it. But when we give others the empathy that we seek ourselves, we build trust to keep at it when it’s hard and uncomfortable.
  3. Recognize the difference between equality and equity. Dr. Gravely shared the eye-opening example of how the game Monopoly is used by educators to teach future teachers about the difference between equality and equity, described in Multicultural Education Journal. It’s worth sharing the details here, so please stay with me until the end! Eight volunteers play the game. One, an observer watches how the game is played and notes the reactions of players. Another, the banker, ensures the game is played fairly. The remaining volunteers are divided into three groups of two and play the game using the standard rules with one exception — they don’t all start the game at the same time. Group 1 starts and plays a designated amount of time, then Group 2 joins in, followed by one player from Group 3 then eventually the second player from Group 3. After three years conducting this experiment, consistent results emerged — the winner always came from the first group. The early players acquired property to enhance their wealth. The other players usually finished in the order in which they entered the game. Late starting players struggled to build assets comparable to the first group and got frustrated, as most of their money was spent paying rent when they landed on other players’ properties. Some hoped for a “go to jail” roll to avoid landing on property owned by others and having to pay rent. This illustrated that although the rules were equal, the way the game was played was not equitable. Those starting the game later had few means to close the gap in wealth and resources. Dr. Gravely shared how the contrast between equality and equity plays out disproportionately throughout every phase of a Black person’s life. Race Forward describes racial equity as “when race no longer determines one’s socioeconomic outcomes.”
  4. I am the “someone else.” Many feel overwhelmed and disempowered, dismissing the gravity of racism in our country as someone else’s problem to fix. But it shouldn’t be an excuse. Every single one of us is needed to drive change. I have long believed that every voice has the power to change the world. This conversation sparked another lightbulb moment for me: voices connected to actions have the power to change the world.
  5. Do something. As we become educated, we then have a choice to act with intention. Dr. Gravely shared the concept of “benefiting bystanders” — individuals who gain awareness or have conversations but then chose to do nothing. We can’t stop at just talk. Each of us has the power to do something — to make different decisions about how we spend our money, who and how we mentor and how we challenge the status quo — as allies, advocates or activists.

As I listened to Dr. Gravely and Dean, I reflected on the conversations throughout my life that helped me become better educated on racism, find my voice and learn from my mistakes. The first was with my dad when I was a second-grader. An educator activist, my father was the superintendent of schools and he served the integration papers so black children and white children could go to school together in the district I went to school in. He fueled my passion at a very young age, and I’ve tried to walk in his shadow ever since.

In my role today, I’m fortunate to have mentors, friends and colleagues who challenge me to grow and use my platform to spur action. Darnel Thompson, whose honesty about the anger and fear he felt after Philando Castile’s murder in 2016, prompted our first Building Bridges conversation at Accenture to talk about race at work. Building Bridges has helped turn courageous conversations into everyday conversations about race and many other topics considered “inappropriate for work.” If it’s on our people’s minds, it’s a workplace issue.

Craig Richey, Rah Thomas, Kristen Hines and David Wilson, all colleagues at Accenture, freely and patiently share their perspectives and collaborate to create an environment where open conversations and intentionality are helping to accelerate change.

And there are my colleagues externally. My professional relationship with Perry Stuckey, CHRO at Eastman, became a friendship when we toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture together, and were able to create a safe space to have an open conversation and ask each other difficult questions. That safe space continues and has deepened our friendship. Eric Holder, Aaron Lewis and Lindsay Burke from Covington Burling guided Accenture through deep listening sessions with our people and the creation of tangible actions around reporting discrimination, racism and retaliation in our own organization following George Floyd’s murder. They held the mirror up so we could take a hard look at ourselves and act with even greater intention, which Dr. Gravely suggests is at the root of all progress.

As Dean and Dr. Gravely’s conversation came to an end, it struck me that when they introduced their friendship, they focused on all they had in common, which allowed them to be very open about their differences that come from underlying inequities imposed by culture and systems. When we look for things that unite us and see glimpses of ourselves in others, that’s our on-ramp to start the conversation and the first step towards change.