Corporate diversity: Change takes time. Here’s what some Columbus businesses have done in a year.
Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
By Mark Ferenchik and Erica Thompson
August 12, 2021
On June 1, 2020, Columbus business leaders drafted a letter in support of a Columbus City Council resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.
The letter was drafted before the preceding weekend’s protests and clashes between Columbus police and protesters following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
During the racial reckoning here and across the country that followed, the letter attracted 3,209 signatures, including scores of individuals, CEOs and leaders from large corporations to small nonprofits.
Meanwhile, business leaders promised to make their companies more diverse and inclusive, from boards of directors and C-suites to managers and rank-and-file employees.
“This is a moment that, no matter what we’ve done, we haven’t done enough,” said Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art. “It was a big uh-huh moment for us.”
Columbus reflects on 2020:A year of change and cautious hope for corporate diversity, equity and inclusion
John Lowe, the CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, was behind the letter.
“We did not want this to be about police brutality,” he said. He said he and his team wanted to break out their efforts into three categories: improving themselves, improving the company and improving the community.
Lowe said making the business world — and society — more just and inclusive is a long-term process. “The challenge for all of us is to keep momentum on all these efforts,” he said.
“Outside of Jeni’s, I think there are a number of companies making an effort trying to find the right way to help move the needle,” Lowe said.
Ohio business news: The Columbus Partnership approaches diversity, equity and inclusion with new energy
To check on progress a year later and establish a baseline for the long-term efforts companies are making around diversity, The Dispatch sent questionnaires to more than a dozen Columbus companies and nonprofits, most of which had signed the letter. The questions, developed by Dispatch business editor Katy Smith, asked for racial and gender composition of boards and C-suites, and details about DEI personnel and approaches to recruiting. The idea is that we’ll circle back to these companies and more each year to watch change unfold.
Columbus companies’ diversity: See the survey results
What we learned about Columbus corporate diversity
The local data suggest companies are pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts — something they have been engaged in for more than a decade — with renewed interest, but change doesn’t happen in only one year. More time will be needed to achieve a more equitable workplace.
Nationally, women account for 27.4% of board directors, while underrepresented ethnic and racial groups make up just 16.8%, according to a 2020 data analysis by the ESG division of the Institutional Shareholder Services firm, which provides investment solutions.
According to a 2020 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, 25% of C-suite positions among Fortune 100 companies are held by women, while 16% are held by racially diverse executives.
Although the Dispatch’s small set of surveyed companies realized higher rates of diversity than nationally, major gaps in representation remain, especially for people of color. Additionally, the Stanford report stressed that diversity data does not always tell the full story of how companies are preparing their diverse employees for advancement.
“We find that women (and, to a lesser extent, racially diverse executives) who directly report to the CEO are underrepresented in positions that directly feed into future CEO and board roles,” the report stated. “That is, diversity statistics in the C-suite — even though low — still overstate the likelihood of increased diversity among corporate leadership in coming years.”
Business initiatives: OhioHealth names new chief diversity and inclusion officer
Stephanie Hightower, president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League, said she was disappointed, but not surprised, to see the low representation of women and minorities among the C-suite in Columbus.
Stephanie Hightower, CEO of the Columbus Urban League on diversity and inclusion efforts among companies: “There have to be measurable outcomes that each company is actually shooting for. What are their goals for three years from now, four years from now and five years from now?”
“The results prove that real change takes time, but I appreciate that many organizations have stepped up and embraced the principles of diversity,” she said.
Companies need to be clear about their diversity strategies, she said.
“What are those milestones that they want to reach? What are they looking at as far their procurement with minority suppliers? What does their pipeline look like? There have to be measurable outcomes that each company is actually shooting for. What are their goals for three years from now, four years from now and five years from now?”
The importance of implicit and unconscious bias training
People such as Nana Watson are watching, too. Watson leads the Columbus chapter of the NAACP, and she has been monitoring company diversity efforts since before Floyd’s death, including the number of Black people in top management positions and the number of Black businesses companies do business with.
“The NAACP believes corporate America should have been doing this all along,” she said. It should not have taken Floyd’s death to spur that, she said.
She cited Franklin County as one employer she believes is making positive steps. “Their employees have had implicit bias training,” she said. “They are not just talking it, they are walking it.”
Courtnee Carrington did that training for the county through her company, Raising the Bar Performance Group. (She also has done training for The Dispatch.)
“Companies that will be successful and companies not just trying to do the splashy things — they know ultimately where they want to go,” she said. “They’re taking the appropriate action to get there.”
Devray Kirkland is the vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at Cardinal Health.
Devray Kirkland has been the chief diversity officer and VP of diversity and inclusion for Cardinal Health in Dublin for the past four years.
“A lot of things that happened over the summer, we realized that there are more communities seeing more hatred,” Kirkland said. “For us, it is to make sure our No. 1 focus is on communities that need our support, not forgetting all of our other employees. We can’t just focus on Asian and Black employees, but also Latino and LGBTQ employees.
“I think one of the things we’ve been targeting the past two years is unconscious bias,” Kirkland said. “We’ve been trying to help our employees and how it can have negative impact on decision-making, hiring, recruiting, promoting.”
More DEI positions than ever
Among the 15 companies that responded to the Dispatch survey, 69%had a full-time employee dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion; 31% of participants have created this position in the past year. Most of the other participants without a full-time DEI employee reported hiring consultants.
“There’s never been that many D&I people in Columbus,” Hightower said. “We’ve got to give all these companies the opportunity to get their people in place so that they can be able to answer surveys and questions like this in the future.”
Columbus law firm Bricker & Eckler has hired its first full-time chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Rhonda Talford Knight.
“Larger law firms were committing full-time personnel to this work,” said Managing Partner Jim Flynn. “So, I was already grappling with the idea of whether we could do that in our business.”
Jim Flynn, managing partner at Bricker & Eckler: “Our firm had already been talking about, what would be demonstrably radical actions. There was frustration that we had been going too slow. The legal industry is really behind.”
At first, Flynn was concerned about whether the decision would be cost-effective in an industry where the billable hour is king.
“We quickly realized that it was a false notion on our part to view this as a non-revenue-producing overhead component,” he said.
The business case for diversity is well-documented in numerous research studies, yet corporate America hasn’t caught up.
“Our firm had already been talking about, what would be demonstrably radical actions,” Flynn said. “There was frustration that we had been going too slow. The legal industry is really behind.”
Creating a diverse talent pipeline
The defense industry also is lagging, according to Lou Von Thaer, CEO of Battelle. While women have been making progress in the past few decades, African Americans haven’t seen the same success, he said.
“What are we going to do different this time?” he said. “What’s actually going to give us a different outlook than doing more of the same things we’ve done for decades that have had only modest success?”
Lou Von Thaer, Battelle CEO: “What are we going to do different this time?”
To strengthen promotion opportunities for its employees, Battelle has implemented an “opportunity gap” program modeled after an initiative at PwC. It pairs minority scientists, engineers and others with executive management so company leaders can get to know them and their skill sets.
That way, they will be called upon for opportunities that give them the qualifications for advancement.
Columbus employers:Here are the companies that rated as Top Workplaces in Columbus for 2021
Von Thaer said the company is expanding its STEM education efforts, which include training teachers, funding STEM programs and even building STEM-focused schools. A top goal, he said, is reaching African American students as early as possible to prepare them for careers in the field.
Companies like Battelle, Nationwide and Huntington have formed partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, to recruit interns and prepare them for entry-level positions at the companies.
Race and business: Here’s how Ohio corporations are partnering with HBCUs to advance racial equity
“We’ve always been recruiting from those schools,” said Donald Dennis, the chief diversity officer for Huntington since 2018. “We’ve formed a consortium with HBCUs to deepen our partnership.”
Getting real about doing better with diversity and inclusion
Dawn Hays, the chief diversity and belonging officer for Root Insurance, said her company has been active in bringing in educators, consultants and speakers, including Robert Livingston, a social psychologist and lecturer of public policy at Harvard University whose book, “The Conversation,” has stirred discussions on racism and how to fight it.
Hays said the company and its CEO, Alex Timm, are looking to increase the diversity of Root’s board, which is now nine men and two women, with nine white members, one Black member and one Latino member.
The Columbus Regional Airport Authority is similarly transparent about the need to diversify its C-suite, which does not include any people of color.
Floria Washington is the program manager for diversity and inclusion at the Columbus Regional Airport Authority and works in human resources. “Our recruiting team is requiring diverse slates of candidates for every opening,” she says.
“Our recruiting team is requiring diverse slates of candidates for every opening,” said Floria Washington, program manager of learning, development and diversity and inclusion. “We want to do more and do better at the C-suite level.”
The authority has developed an aggressive DEI blueprint initiative, which includes more focus on its talent pipeline as well as specific goals for increasing spending with diverse contractors. And the annual performance appraisal for administrative staff and executives has been revised to include expectations for DEI.
“We were very intentional to link DEI to our strategic blueprint that was already in place,” Washington said. “It’s embedded. This is a part of our identity, therefore, it is something that we are committed to.”
What the Dispatch is doing
Shortly before local corporate leaders were signing the letter to support the city council resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, The Dispatch published an editorial in May 2020 in support of the county and city declaring racism a public health crisis and urging state officials to do the same.
The Dispatch and its parent company, Gannett, also publicly reported the results of an internal diversity census in August 2020 and pledged to increase diversity in staffing and coverage across the USA Today Network of about 250 newsrooms. The Dispatch has increased diversity in the news staff since then, and an update to the census across the USA Today Network is in the works and will be published soon.
In Columbus, the news staff has participated in corporate diversity training and is participating in diversity and inclusion workshops with Courtnee Carrigan, CEO of Raising the Bar Performance Group in Columbus. Newsroom leaders also are in conversation with the YWCA of Columbus about another layer of diversity, equity and inclusion training.
“And we have been very intentional about increasing diversity in our coverage, working to better represent the rich diversity of our communities through diverse sources and in the photos and videos that accompany our stories,” said Editor Alan D. Miller.
Minority-owned companies need strategies, too
Though minority-owned companies may be more mindful of incorporating DEI as part of business operations, they have room to improve. Smoot Construction, a Black-owned company and survey participant, is working to increase Latinx representation among its leadership, said its former CEO, Mark Cain, who leads its Washington, D.C., office.
“We’re not exempt, and we’re not experts just because we’re Black,” Cain told the Dispatch in an interview earlier this year.
Diversity in business:Black workers surpassed white workers in labor market participation
Loud Capital, a small, minority-owned venture capital company, is being more intentional about increasing the number of women on staff, said CEO Navin Goyal. And the firm has worked diligently to maintain a diverse portfolio, approximately 45% of which is minority-founded companies.
Dr. Navin Goyal, CEO of Loud Capital: “When you look at the value of a network of family and friends for, let’s say a white male in America and a Black male in America, they’re very different. That’s already unfair. So we had to say, ‘How do we do things differently?’ ”
The key has been seeking out diverse networks that disrupt the traditional pipeline of gaining clients through friends and family.
“The problem is there’s a lot of people in communities out there that don’t have a friend of a friend of a venture capitalist,” Goyal said. “When you look at the value of a network of family and friends for, let’s say a white male in America and a Black male in America, they’re very different,” he said. “That’s already unfair. So we had to say, ‘How do we do things differently?'”
Ohio State’s Tanya Menon is skeptical of the diversity training that’s being done. Menon, a professor of management and human resources at the university’s Fisher College of Business, said there’s little evidence of its effectiveness.
She said there’s no data that shows whether such programs really work.
“If you ask companies what have all you accomplished, I don’t know what the data is,” she said. “How is hiring occurring? How is performance evaluation occurring? Have they even studied pay equity?”
People doing the training have a big stake in this. Diversity training is an $8 billion industry in this country, she said.
“It’s a huge industry, and it’s growing,” Menon said. “It diverts resources.”
But companies are spending money without accountability, she said.
“It makes people feel good, feel moral,” she said. “(But then) they still sit there with the same lousy culture.”
The business case for diversity has been measured, which is why people are realizing there is money to be made in the DEI industry, said Adrian Sullivan, president of the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium. He pointed to new research validating studies by McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group that show that diverse companies perform better by up to 35%.
The report also shows that a board that is 2% diverse can deliver 12% in earnings.
The data was completed by Urban Edge Capital, a London-based investment management company, which is considering the launch of a diversity and inclusion-focused investment fund.
“If there wasn’t value in it, who would be setting up an investment fund?” Sullivan said. “For as long as diversity and inclusion work has existed, there’s also been those pockets of people who said, ‘Well, D&I doesn’t add to the bottom line,’ and we’ve convinced ourselves of that. Now, what you see is DEI professionals working to be better at articulating the return on investment.”
Sullivan agreed that it’s important for organizations to conduct a cultural assessment before implementing a DEI strategy, and then setting goals that can be reviewed by both the board and the public.
The moral component is important, too, he added.
“Isn’t that the point? We’ve had 400-plus years of history in which our morality needs a lens put on it. Shouldn’t we want to be more moral? Shouldn’t we want to be better as a society?”
Moving forward with intention
Haley Boehning, co-founder and principal at Storyforge, worked with John Lowe on the letter supporting the City Council resolution and signed it. Boehning, who also is a co-founder of the Columbus chapter of Conscious Capitalism, said large publicly owned companies are like tankers that take a long time to turn around. Microbusinesses are more agile.
Boehning said businesses recognize that they can’t just take a stand, they have to actually put resources and actions behind it. She mentioned “greenwashing,” where companies claimed their products were environmentally friendly when they weren’t.
“We have to be clear when we’re committing to a belief: What are we changing in our organization to make that belief true?” she said.
Nonprofits have a much easier time answering questions about who they serve and what good are they trying to do in the world, she said.
“For-profit businesses were frankly hampered by their business philosophy,” she said.
She mentioned a well-known 1970 opinion piece in the New York Times by economist Milton Friedman that the only social responsibility a company has is to increase its profits. Boehning said when she started in business, the purpose of a company was to serve the shareholder. From that, good things would follow.
But when an important public debate is going on now, a company should not be silent, she said. “There’s no such thing as neutrality when we think moral issues,” she said.
Lowe believes the momentum will continue. He said this time there’s support from employees who are now moving up the ladder.
“I think they will keep this front and center for companies across the country,” he said. “I think we’re fortunate that’s the case.”
- Black Father-Daughter Dance chance to make memories
- Father-daughter dance ‘the crown jewel’ of Black Girl Dad Week, Feb. 12-18
- Dispatch Guest Column: Stop ‘cancelling’ others. It’s time to rise above mistrust, open our minds and listen.
- Columbus Urban League planning to continue program to help youths stay out of crime
- Columbus looks to strengthen its neighborhood violence prevention program