July 2021

Columbus Employers promised to fight racism

Courtesy of Columbus Business First
By Hayleigh Colombo
July 9, 2021

Columbus Urban League’s Stephanie Hightower is among those working with area businesses that pledged to boost diversity, equity & inclusion.

It’s been more than a year since George Floyd was killed at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, spurring nationwide protests, unprecedented solidarity on social media and companies big and small jockeying to share statements decrying systemic racism.

In Central Ohio, some 750 CEOs and businesses owners joined together to declare racism a public health crisis and urge the private sector to fight injustice.

But what does that mean? Has the business community done anything concrete to change racism and inequality? Has it moved the needle to actually make a difference for workers and residents of color?

Columbus Urban League President Stephanie Hightower said the 103-year-old organization has been overwhelmed with requests to partner on programs and new initiatives.

“The corporate community finally realized why the Columbus Urban League was here and how much we contribute and have the ability to contribute to the economic viability of this community,” Hightower said. “Being at the table more has been beneficial for us, but it’s also been beneficial for the community. What I’ve interpreted from that … is that people want to have someone there with an equity lens looking at whatever they’re proposing.”

Hightower also pointed out that there’s been a sharp influx in companies hiring chief diversity officers and related positions locally. Job search site Indeed reported that postings for those jobs nationwide rose by more than 120% from May 2020 to September 2020.

“I’d say in about a year, when all these new (diversity, equity and inclusion) professionals get their feet wet, I think then we’ll need to see how much change is going on,” Hightower said. “But there is change happening, and there’s a lot of tables we’re at now that we weren’t at a year ago.”

But it’s not time to rest, Hightower said.

“Black social justice has always been episodic in this country.”

Progress across the spectrum
Columbus Business First reached out to several large employers whose executives signed a letter last year urging for action against racism, to see what they’ve done since then.

Some firms, including Alliance Data Systems, said 2020 spurred them to take action and create strategies to tackle racism. Several companies said the events of 2020 reaffirmed existing commitments. Others declined to share their progress.

At OhioHealth, Aisha Allen is just weeks into her new job as chief diversity officer, a role that was established in 2017.

Allen said last year’s events prompted renewed discussions and a commitment to establishing measurable outcomes.

“That includes supplier diversity, the diversity of our workforce, the ability of individuals to bring their full selves to work,” she said.

Allen said she is particularly excited about a new partnership with the Linden Community Center to connect residents there with training that will equip some to become healthcare workers. Allen also is interested in helping identify talent throughout the organization and training them to move into leadership roles.

“I’m excited about the ability to grow the diverse talent that we have already,” Allen said. “That is something that is top of mind for me.”

AEP CEO Nick Akins, who signed the letter last year, said his company has committed $5 million to a new social and racial justice grant program and doubling down on its supplier-diversity program. The company spent nearly $653 million on goods and services from “diverse suppliers” in 2020, said spokesman Scott Blake.

The company also launched a diversity and inclusion “roadmap” to make a difference in four areas: building a diverse workforce; developing an inclusive workforce; sustainability and accountability; and enhancing diversity in its external relationships.

Several leaders at CoverMyMeds signed the letter as well, including President David Holladay and COO Scott Gaines.

Raymond Weaver, the company’s DEI lead said CoverMyMeds has continued on the journey it already had started. That includes regularly surveying its employees about inclusion, conducting annual pay equity audits and inviting guest speakers to talk about issues concerning diversity and inclusion.

“It’s always been a focus,” Weaver said. “We recognize that systemic change takes intentional movement in the right direction. We’re committed to continuing to make positive change.

“When we look at DE&I, it will never be a ‘mission-accomplished’ declaration.”

Other Central Ohio business leaders said although they are making progress, they are not ready to discuss.

Safelite CEO Tom Feeney signed the letter, but the company said in an email: “Out of respect for this process, we’d like to hold on sharing our efforts externally at this moment.”

JPMorgan Chase committed $30 billion last fall to support nationwide racial equity initiatives and create loans for underserved communities, but the financial giant declined to share local numbers.

Adrian Sullivan, manager of diversity and inclusion for Cardinal Health and president of the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium, said a number of Central Ohio companies are working to make change.

“You’ve seen organizations putting steps forward to say ‘Now we’re actually committed and here’s what we’re going to do about it,’ and you’ve seen others that are still trying to figure out their way a year later,” Sullivan said.

“Were there some fumbles and missteps? Yes,” he said. “But for the most part, what you’ve seen was the intention of saying ‘We understand we need to commit efforts to diversity, equity and inclusion.’”’

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