DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson Discusses Having Moral Courage as a Leader in Talk with Rutgers Business School

During a virtual event hosted by Rutgers Business School Dean Lei Lei and the Rutgers Business School Office of Corporate Engagement, DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson spoke to Associate Dean Sharon Lydon about her journey to becoming a leader and navigating her position as a Black woman who calls out injustice in the corporate world.

Johnson, a Rutgers Business School alum and founding board member of Rutgers’s Center for Women in Business, gave tips on how to unlock authenticity and lead diverse teams, especially in a country rife with pandemic anxiety and racial injustice. She began by talking about DiversityInc’s success despite the financial blows COVID-19 caused the business world, and mentioned that she not only sees her business’s success as financial but also moral.

“Business is great, and I don’t just mean from a profitability perspective. I mean from getting closer to what I know my life’s purpose and my life’s passion is, and that is helping people that are historically overlooked, undervalued and taken advantage of,” Johnson said. “When you can take care of your family, help others take care of their families while living your purpose and walking in your passion, I say that business at DiversityInc and our mission is great, and is intact and has never been stronger.”

Johnson has led DiversityInc for over 18 months since Founder, Chairman and former CEO Luke Visconti chose her to succeed him when he stepped down in May 2019. Johnson said Visconti had been a mentor and sponsor for her throughout her career and prepared her to take over as CEO. She expressed the importance of her support system in helping her cultivate the confidence it takes to be a leader.

“I was fortunate enough to have somebody who saw that in me … Somebody who was willing to put their life’s work on the line,” Johnson said. “That confidence didn’t just happen overnight. It was something that was poured into me.”

Lydon also asked Johnson about the experience of specifically being a Black woman leader. Johnson said as a Black woman, she faces certain responsibilities and struggles others don’t but that confidence is her driving force.

“When I think about a leader and when I think about me as a Black woman, one of my jobs is [deciding] whether I’m talking to my employees, I’m talking to my customers or I’m talking to students … I make sure to help [all three groups] have confidence in one: what I’m saying; two: what’s possible and three: that they can do it.”

Next, Lydon and Johnson delved into the reality of leaders needing to discuss difficult topics like racism both publicly and with their employees. Lydon said many people — especially those who are white — are afraid to discuss these topics because they are wary of misspeaking and offending people.

“Day in, day out, as a Black woman, there’s this feeling that you’re locked behind one of those cases where people keep a fire extinguisher and it says, ‘Break in case of emergency,’” Johnson said. She added that when she shares feelings like this, it’s important to her that white allies listen openly to understand, not to react or try to discount or belittle her experiences.

She mentioned the stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain among countless others and stressed how crucial it is to acknowledge these injustices plainly instead of trying to skirt around the difficult topics. Working to understand history and the reality of systems that repeatedly oppress and hold groups back is an important place to start.

“This has really ripped the Band-Aid off of this festering sore of racism,” she said. “The fact that you’re even acknowledging it is powerful and it’s important. We have to start the conversation somewhere. We have to use our convening power … because if you act as if it isn’t happening, or if you have conversations about it at cocktail parties but not on platforms like this, you’re not helping.”

In addition to acknowledging these violent tragedies, Johnson said leaders should get comfortable with numbers that show how crucial professionals of color are to the workforce.

“Knowing that more than half of new entrants to the workforce are not white and that women are earning more bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctorate degrees — that’s powerful information, and that helps you frame the conversation when people are telling you they’re uncomfortable.”

To help leaders with their antiracist education, Johnson recommended DiversityInc’s book recommendations for leaders which include titles like How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo will be speaking at DiversityInc’s Nov. 4 Top 50 virtual event.

Johnson also recommended that leaders assess their reading list and news sources to ensure they are not keeping their ideologies trapped in echo chambers.

After Lydon asked Johnson her questions, the panel was opened up to audience questions. The first audience member asked what common threads were apparent in business that were successful in the diversity sphere. Johnson said leadership accountability and transparency were paramount.

“You don’t see organizations that have leaders who don’t talk about what’s going on in this country doing well,” Johnson said.

She stressed that companies can’t just tell the world that they are a good company to work for — they have to show it through concrete metrics and data.

Next, an audience member asked how leaders and those who support them can combat the excuse of not being able to find enough diverse talent to hire a diverse workforce. Johnson said that as a company that consults organizations on their diversity and inclusion practices, DiversityInc hears the “we can’t find them” excuse often.

She advised job seekers to become aware of whether the organizations they apply to publicly discuss issues of race, justice and equality and to avoid working for companies that don’t align with their morals.

“Before you can talk about finding people, you’ve got to make sure that once they get there, it’s a good place to be and they’ll want to stay,” Johnson said.

Second, she said, companies need to make sure they’re exhausting every possible talent source. She said often, organizations don’t work hard enough to find avenues for outreach.

“Making sure that you are directly responsible for knowing where talent is, and then going to that place and making sure they are invited the right way to come work for you — I will tell you that those are some of the things that will prevent comments like, ‘can’t find them,’” Johnson said.

On the topic of allyship, Johnson discussed what it truly means to her and how it relates to individuals’ power and influence. She said allyship is not exclusively a white person advocating for a person of color.

“Right now, white men and white women are being asked to be accepted to certain groups,” she said. “So right now, I’m an ally, because I’m validating what you’ve done up until a certain point, I’m telling people who trust me that they should consider trusting you. Allyship is not one-sided, not one group has it, and it doesn’t always mean you have to have power. Your influence is your power. Nobody is powerless, ever.”

One audience member then expressed concern over the term allyship and its association with performance as opposed to authentic action. Johnson said it’s less about the term people use and more about the actions they take.

“We get so wrapped up in what people want to call things that we often don’t get any work done. So, I would suggest to you that when people tell you what to call something, say, ‘OK, I received that. Now, tell me what you’ve done,’” she said.

Finally, Johnson and Lyon discussed how leaders can respectfully handle difficult conversations about difference. Ultimately, it comes down to practicing empathy and understanding everyone’s humanity. Difficult conversations become less stressful when they begin with mutual respect.

“If you understand, by starting there, that we’re all created equally, then you understand that we all should be treated fairly. So, you first have to get on board with those two things,” Johnson said. “If you are able to accomplish that, then having conversations around politics, religion, orientation or ethnicity becomes easier.”


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