How to build an anti-racist business

How to build an anti-racist business

There’s a saying that my Portuguese mother taught me: “Quem cala consente”. It basically means, “Whoever shuts up, agrees.” Against a backdrop of widespread protests against police brutality and racist violence faced by black Americans, my mum’s phrase has been rattling round my head this last week.

George Floyd’s brutal, senseless death, and the protests that have followed, are the latest manifestation of justified anger in the face of, in the words of Atlanta Police Chief, Erika Shields, structures that have systemically, chronically and routinely “diminished black lives”. This constitutes to quote my colleague, Tamika, who runs our US operation, a “second pandemic” – as, likely through other forms of inequality, COVID-19 too has disproportionately affected people of colour.

So why should I care? A fifty-something white male business leader? And why should you care? Because, statistics suggest, you’re probably white and male, too.

Well, partly, and obviously because this inequality isn’t a phenomenon that’s limited to the US. Leadership of businesses in the UK is disproportionately narrow. In 2018 in the UK, only 5.4 percent of SME employers were led by people who did not identify as “white”. And it’s harder to get backing to start at all. Despite growing entrepreneurial activity in Britain’s many black and minority ethnic communities, entrepreneurs from these communities are under-invested in, with, as of December last year, only 1 percent of VC investments going to black-owned businesses.

So, what is your responsibility as a business leader? Even up until the beginning of the year, conventional wisdom might have limited your obligation to your shareholders. But I think now, it’s surely pretty uncontroversial to say that Milton Friedman’s narrow Chicago School world view has been comprehensively debunked. Businesses have a wider obligation.

Work is part of society. It is part of culture. If you’re employed, work is where you spend more than a third of your life. And, given the challenges the world faces – like systemic racism — if businesses don’t stand up to be an active part of the solution, they’re surely part of the problem. 

At a time like this, it’s brought to every business’s door issues disproportionately affecting some of your team members, consumers, clients, customer and suppliers. So, now’s the time to ask: What can I be doing to help?

I see the role of a business leader as a custodian of a crucial part of our wider culture. I believe we have a responsibility to be involved in what’s happening in that culture therefore that includes being active in acknowledging and fighting injustice and using whatever influence I have to doing better. But, even if you’re swayed only by economics rather than ethics, for pure business self-interest, setting up policies and practices that aim to be actively anti-racist still makes good sense. You maximise the talent that you can attract and their ability to thrive in your organisation, you widen the breadth of voices that contribute to your corporate intellectual property, and the clients for whom you can interact with credibility and authenticity. These are the big rewards you’re after: diverse business has been proven to be more successful business.

B+A has a long (Wayback Machine verifiable) record of trying to build our organisation in this way. And the good news is, whilst it requires a bit of work, it’s not that difficult. Here are half a dozen tips how you can work towards creating an anti-racist business yourself. 

Educate yourself

Listen first and talk second. I have to tell you, I’m pretty rubbish at this, that’s why I have a reminder to do this (literally) tattooed on my arm. But I’m trying. Recognise that other people have feelings borne of experiences that come about from having unique perspectives that you are simply denied if you are white. As a friend said to me recently “If I were Frank Bruno, I could spend an hour explaining what it’s like to be hit by Mike Tyson. Nothing in my explanation would even come close to capturing this feeling.” Some perspectives are not universal—they are specific, and they are legitimate. So, create platforms within your business for people to share their feelings without fear of judgment, acknowledge those feelings and learn from them. But also remember that it’s your responsibility to study and put the work in too.

Diverse talent is…diverse

Recognising unconscious bias takes effort, even training, but it’s worth it – it’s an eye opener, and can propel you to new levels of insight. And once you’re up and running, it’s worth remembering that spotting black talent and success requires new skills. It often looks different from white talent or success, and it can be found in places you haven’t explored before. Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams was a fantasy – just building an anti-racist business will not guarantee that they come (let alone succeed). So if black talent isn’t rushing your door, there’s likely a reason. And one that, with work, is in your power to change.

There are no right answers

Whilst business leaders have a duty to fight injustice and to help create better policy and practice, we don’t pull all the levers. And we don’t have all the answers. The fight for equality of opportunity and potential outcome are massive, complex questions. Get comfortable not being sure, and not knowing (and you never know, being better at this might even come in handy for facing other uncertainties on the horizon). 

It’s sometimes about what you say, but more often about what you do 

Reflecting to me on corporations who have gone on the record regarding the situation in the US this last week, a New York-based client of B+A’s commented: “acknowledgement is healing”. That said, it’s not always your place to add your voice to a conversation that needs time, space and control by others closer to the issues. For a business leader, the real work of creating an anti-racist organisation is much more about what you do every day. It’s about your practices, attitudes and beliefs, and how they show themselves in your behaviour over the 11 months of the year outside of Black History Month.

It’s simpler to do it for real

This is the age of purpose-washing and some businesses polishing their haloes while they act badly behind closed doors. Our take is that it’s simpler to do it for real. It’s easier just to be who you say you are. Anyone who has tried to hold onto a lie knows that it’s exhausting and ultimately self-defeating.

Start today

You don’t have to have a track record of being aware of injustice and responding to it through your behaviour and your attitudes to play your part. It’s not about feeling you have to be “consistent” with whoever you were five or 10 years ago. That’s not important. Evolve. Be better. You can—and should—start today. Because the silence, in the Portuguese saying that’s the alternative, is too bleak to bear. 

This piece first appeared in Management Today on 4th June 2020