February 12, 2021 6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Across the U.S., companies are celebrating Black History Month. It’s an important time for workplaces to recognize African Americans’ role throughout history and promote diversity within their organizations. However, during this time, many companies try to show their their commitment to diversity with performative efforts, like cultural celebrations and historical highlight reels, instead of addressing the root systemic causes of inequity.
As co-founder and CEO of Kanarys (a Black, female co-owned, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) platform), I’ve seen that these events don’t do much to promote organizational change. They ignore the intergenerational pain that is still deeply felt in Black and Brown communities, and treat the exclusion of Black individuals from financial security as something from the past. They gloss over the continued stigmatization and discrimination Black communities face today.
In truth, performative efforts can actually further alienate and disenfranchise your team. Before founding Kanarys, I worked as a lawyer at law firms that celebrated Black history and spoke of inclusion, but that did not prevent partners, colleagues, and clients from questioning if I got into Harvard based on my merit or my race. Celebrating the historical “wins” of the Black community did little to change the perception of me as a Black female lawyer.
Last year we saw Black Lives Matter take center stage to inspire conversations about the treatment of Black bodies globally. Companies knew they had to reprioritize and rethink their approach to DEI, with many unsure of what to do or where to even begin. However, many companies are aware that they can no longer use Black History Month as a quick way to check the box on their DEI efforts.
Instead, companies need a full X-ray and a prescription written for them that helps diagnose the DEI maladies inside their workplace. Leaders need to look at their policies, procedures, benefits, and pay scales to ensure they support every employee equitably, including promotional opportunities. There is a lot of talk around celebrating and promoting Black professionals but the truth is, only three Black women have ever been CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Only three.
Now, more than ever, companies must identify and implement both short-term and long-term solutions, rather than just celebrate the concept of diversity during the month of February. 2021 is about moving beyond our old systems and taking meaningful action.
This Black History Month, celebrate by making DEI a part of your everyday strategy. When companies take proactive and meaningful action, they improve company culture and empower employees of all racial backgrounds to embrace DEI practices throughout their lives. Some simple ways to begin at the corporate and individual level are:
1. Support Black-owned businesses and increase your supplier diversity
Do an audit of your supplier diversity spending to ensure that a significant portion of your suppliers are owned and led by underrepresented businesses. The financial impact of Covid-19 disproportionately hit Black businesses, and according to a study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the pandemic resulted in the closure of 41% of Black businesses, approximately 440,000 businesses. In response, many large corporations vowed to support Black-owned companies, from Netflix to Pepsi, which promised $400 million over five years. This purposeful shift challenged companies to consider the bias that exists in the procurement process and in how they choose partners. I would challenge companies to take this a step further and move beyond the small contracts typically awarded and develop a robust supplier diversity program that integrates Black-owned businesses at all levels.
2. Invest in the Black community
A great way to support the Black community is to invest in it. This could be as simple as switching your banking assets over to a Black-owned bank so that you can leverage your assets to close systemic disparities in lending. Black Out Coalition offers a list of Black-owned banks by state. Additionally, investing in overlooked Black entrepreneurs is an effective way to uplift Black founders as well as recognizing the Black community’s talents.
3. Create personal equity and inclusion statements
Have your employees define their equity and inclusion goals for the year and encourage them to commit to advancing them. In this, I challenge CEOs to take the lead and be vulnerable and authentic with their employees and partners about their own experiences of not belonging and being othered. When leaders lead from a place of openness, they encourage their team to share experiences of exclusion, even those within the company, without fear.
4. Support company employee resource groups (ERGs)
ERGs play a crucial role in supporting underrepresented employees in the workplace and in helping to elevate talent within the workplace. A simple way to support underrepresented and Black employees is to help ensure ERGs have a significant budget and influence within your organization. Most importantly, employees who take on extra work to support ERGs should be compensated, and this work should not be viewed as volunteer work. Companies like Twitter are starting to pay resource group leaders and allocate more resources to these groups, and others should follow their lead as this is valuable work and should be treated as such.
5. Engage DEI consultants and industry experts
DEI experts can identify hidden or systemic barriers that prevent an inclusive and equitable environment by conducting workplace equity audits and helping companies really take the time to diagnose these issues before jumping straight to training. When armed with data, companies can begin tackling the issues and work towards building long-term sustainable and measurable goals. Once specific issues have been identified, the DEI expert can help the organization implement a comprehensive long-term strategy and deliver tailored workshops and training to effectively foster DEI in the workplace.
6. Encourage employees to expand their understanding of racism
One important way to understand systemic racism, White privilege, and the long legacies of slavery and White supremacy in American history is reading and watching educational documentaries. Education and personal reflection are keys to identifying your own biases and stereotypes. Offer your employees gift cards to purchase books related to race and racism, such as:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Racism: A Short History by George M. Fredrickson
Representation and inclusion matter, and the best thing you can do to celebrate Black History Month is to make your Black employees feel seen, heard, and validated. Commit to impactful and long-term DEI efforts to truly understand your inclusion efforts and make sure everyone is supported and accepted for who they are. DEI is not something to be celebrated for one month. It’s active and conscious work that must be engaged in year round in order to foster a safe and engaging workplace for all employees.