Fair360 CEO Carolynn Johnson Leads CEO Roundtable on Addressing Racial Inequities in Business and Society

During a Jan. 19 virtual roundtable event, Fair360, formerly DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson moderated a panel of CEOs, discussing how to take action against racial inequalities with a specific focus on the business community in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Charlotte Corporate Community Roundtable featured TIAA CEO Roger Ferguson, Novant Health CEO Carl Armato, Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina CEO Dr. Tunde Sotunde. TIAA ranked No. 9 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020. Ferguson and Ellison are two of just four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Charlotte Regional Business Alliance CEO Janet LaBar introduced the session, and Johnson opened the discussion by honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s example of leadership.

“I am mindful that at this moment, the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his vision of leadership, wisdom and capacity to be a transformational leader inspires us all and is a foundation for us all,” Johnson said. “We all know that right now, we stand in the middle of chaos and change on so many levels, so let’s carry these words in our hearts: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.’”

After each of the panelists introduced themselves, Johnson continued by asking each CEO how they had been managing the past year, both personally and as leaders. Ellison said he takes action both personally and professionally by striving to be a role model — both for his young adult children and for the workforce at Lowe’s.

“It’s all about being a role model within my business, but not just doing a lot of talking and a lot of speeches and a lot of interviews, but by taking action, leading by example, making a difference, making tangible changes that people can look upon and hopefully it will shed light,” he said.

Armato said the racial reckoning that occurred this past year intersected with the COVID-19 crisis, revealing the need for not only systemic change but also unity throughout the country.

“We are united in staying focused on the mission of improving the health of communities one person at a time. Every zip code, every person,” he said.

When Armato took over the company in 2012, he said one of his first moves was to embed diversity, equity and inclusion into his workforce and to work on eliminating health disparities in the communities that Novant Health serves. Dr. Sotunde said his vision for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina was similar: Organizations need the highest-ranking leaders to champion diversity and inclusion to be successful.

“If you ask me, ‘Who is your chief diversity officer?’ You’re looking at him right here. I am the chief diversity officer because I believe the tone has to be set at the top,” he said.

Ferguson said his approach at TIAA similarly involves focusing on the firm’s values and acknowledging that current events and injustices affect people individually, as parts of institutions and societally. Ferguson described TIAA’s foremost values as serving its employees and its clients. He also said sharing his personal story as a Black man who grew up during the Civil Rights era has been important.

“It’s important for people to hear that even a Black CEO has trouble getting a taxi sometimes, going in the ‘wrong’ direction in Manhattan. So, this is, for me, an opportunity to tell my own personal story, which I hope has given some sense of hope and comfort to others,” he said.

Ferguson also said TIAA can’t stop at being recognized for its diversity and inclusion practices.

“It’s good that we’ve been recognized in the top group for Fair360, formerly DiversityInc, plus many, many others. But that’s not sufficient. We can’t be complacent,” he said.

TIAA started its “Be the Change” initiative in June 2020 to help employees engage in learning and dialogue about racial issues in the U.S. The initiative included an antiracist book group (which Ferguson led) and donations to The Innocence Project, an organization that helps get people falsely accused of crimes out of prison. TIAA also took another look at its own internal processes and procedures to double down on any disparities while encouraging its clients and partners to do so as well.

Following that discussion, Johnson next asked each CEO what they hoped for Charlotte in the future. “When I think of the fair ways in which the associates in all of your organizations are treated on campus, it’s unfortunate that when they drive off of campus, depending on where they are, the way in which certain people are policed is the exact opposite in how they are treated at work.”

Armato said beyond conversations, the community needs action and policy change, and companies need diversity and inclusion ingrained in their culture.

“There’s hard work. You don’t just have an education program on diversity, inclusion and equity and think everybody gets it and people are going to understand it,” he said.

Ferguson also stressed the importance of truth-telling. For example, he said we need to acknowledge that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color is a direct sign of racism.

“The first thing I wish for Charlotte is what I wish for America, which is a reckoning and an understanding that we are seeing, before our eyes, the results of centuries of racism,” he said. “We should call it as we see it.”

He added that he wants all of the businesses in Charlotte to challenge one another in terms of best practices for diversity and inclusion and to share its benefits as a business imperative.

“One of the things that we know is true is that we, in the business community, can only thrive if they are located in communities that themselves are thriving,” Ferguson said.

And studies support that thesis. A 2019 report from McKinsey and Company revealed that if the U.S. closed its racial wealth gap, the national GDP would rise by up to 6%.

“We have to recognize that attacking racism is not a zero-sum game. It’s a way for the entire society to get better,” he said.

Ferguson said the boldest step TIAA took was engaging in candid conversations about racism. The result was higher engagement scores and culture survey results, with minority women reported feeling much more at home and productive at work.

Johnson closed the panel by positing that progress toward racial equity is a constant, ongoing mission that companies must take on.

“Signs of success are not success,” she said. “We must keep measuring; we must keep talking; we must keep sharing; we must keep telling the truth, but we also must keep working together.”