A Letter to Corporate Leaders

To: Executives, Managers, and Corporate Leaders

From: Harvard Business School African American Student Union

The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks have once again thrust racial injustice and disparities to the forefront of our national discourse. As Black leaders from diverse backgrounds and industries, we understand first-hand that anti-Black racism is not a new or isolated phenomenon — it is woven into the very fabric of American society. It’s nice to see some companies honoring Juneteenth as a day of reflection for its employees, but our patience for performative corporate activism is thin. During this month, companies are also raising their Pride flags but failing to acknowledge the growing number of Black trans men and women who are being killed across the country.

To the Corporations who have been silent: We are watching, and your silence is inexcusable. Your employees, customers, investors, and suppliers deserve action. We expect to hear from you.

To the Corporations who have spoken out: Thank you for taking a first step, but calling for equality is no longer enough.

Our Objective

American business has been complicit in perpetuating and benefiting from racial inequities for centuries and thus, cannot stand idly by while injustice remains pervasive and rampant. The American economic system of capitalism was built upon racial stratification and this insidious system has led us to today, wherein Black professionals hold just 3.2 percent of all executive or senior leadership roles, less than 1 percent of all Fortune 500 CEO positions, and receive 1 percent of all venture capital investment. It is through the efforts of our business leaders that we will repair these wrongs. To do this, we must address the very roots of racial injustice. This requires a joint partnership and your full commitment. Therefore, we are calling on you to work alongside us to take measurable actions to end our society’s enduring persecution, violence, and exploitation of Black America.

We believe four principles — Escalate, Calculate, Educate, and Advocate — should guide your actions to ensure that this is the last generation of Americans who are forced to take to the streets to demand basic human rights for Black people. Black leaders of tomorrow will judge you on how your actions reflect these principles. Simply making statements condemning systemic racism is no longer enough. If your organization hopes to benefit from Black culture and Black talent, you must actively combat these inequities within your organization and beyond.

4 Guiding Principles for Equity

1. Escalate. Pull the Andon cord.

Make commitments to combat racial injustice from the CEO & Board level

  • Publicly report on your current state/point of departure on racial equity
  • Set concrete goals for racial equity across every stakeholder you serve- employees, customers, society, shareholders, and suppliers
  • Hold the CEO’s direct reports accountable for these goals and allocate the resources to help your organization achieve them

Break down your silos of diversity activities

  • Business units, ERGs, senior leaders all have their own ideas and interests for moving the needle on diversity but if they aren’t coordinated and prioritized, results can be elusive and lead to fatigue
  • Focus on desired outcomes, not activities for the sake of “doing something” or “doing better than last year”
  • Bolster the internal power and influence of the Chief Diversity Officer with a dedicated budget (comparable to the People function) and oversight to make strategic decisions across business units and ERGs

2. Calculate. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Apply the same level of analytical rigor, strategic intent, and organizational buy-in to your diversity strategy that you would for any other key business challenge

Tie your leadership team’s success on racial equity initiatives to their incentive pay, like other CEO-led initiatives

Grow the pipeline of Black talent for your executive team and your governing board

  • Invest in institutions with proven track records focused on developing Black talent (HBCUs, Black talent non-profits)
  • Design equitable talent development systems that help Black professionals stay and advance such as internal mobility, 360 feedback, high performance coaching (not just for your executives), and building their sense of community in the company (sponsors, mentors, peers)

Collect quarterly diversity, equity, and inclusion data from the leadership team to help scale what is working and identify opportunities to iterate

3. Educate. Then when you know better, do better.

Executives with the power to make a difference may not have anyone they can authentically ask to better understand how their Black employees are feeling

  • Hire consultants to anonymously interview your Black employees across levels/functions to understand the Black talent experience at your firm
  • Get proximate and have 1 on 1 conversations with your Black employees or Black employees at similar organizations to learn how you can better serve them

Create risk-free spaces for your non-Black employees to ask the silly questions (without burdening your Black employees) to help them find their voices as allies and speak up

Lead by example and show your employees the learning mindset they should exhibit as they navigate conversations about race

  • Host a town-hall to discuss the ways that you’re educating yourself on racial injustice and what you’ve learned so far
  • Provide training for team managers to lead effective discussions on race at work

4. Advocate. Lead for those not represented.

The decisions that are made in the board room reverberate throughout your company and throughout this country. Act and lead for your comprehensive set of stakeholders

Investigate your products, services, and operations to understand how they may be exacerbating racial injustice and how they can be used as a solution. Appoint a task force with resources whose purpose is analyzing and (ultimately addressing) the role your company has played in perpetuating racist systems- your employees will appreciate this validation and your actions will instill public confidence in your ability to operate as an inclusive, anti-racist company

  • Some examples include ending contracts or winding down business lines with ties to the prison industrial complex, immigrant detention, and criminal justice industries; systematically hiring formerly incarcerated individuals; ensuring your facilities and operations are not causing environmental injustice and damage in communities of color; paying your statutory corporate tax rates; and confirming that your hiring process, workplace, and customer experience is accessible for the physically and mentally disabled

Donate to organizations that advance anti-racism in the communities you are headquartered in or primarily do business in

Evaluate all of your lobbying for alignment with racial justice. Business interests play an outsized role in the political direction of our country. Use your voice to enact justice

Commence and publish an internal pay and benefit equity study to add data and accountability to compensation decisions

  • Close the widening gap between the C-suite and the mail room by addressing the disparity in wages and benefits. The wealth gap — particularly the racial wealth gap — has grown exponentially. CEOs must ensure that their wages are growing in lockstep with the rest of the organization and provide benefits that supplement wealth building such as: retirement savings matching, home loan programs, continuing education, student debt repayment assistance, modern outplacement services, and profit sharing
  • Black Americans disproportionately lack access to basic healthcare. We have also endured generations of trauma. Our community cannot heal without the proper care. Areas to consider for more equitable coverage include: maternal health, parental leave, mental health, fitness, and nutrition.

If you have not escalated, your organization falls far short of basic consideration.

If you’ve escalated, but haven’t calculated or educated, it’s a signal to us that your efforts will not produce meaningful progress.

If you’ve escalated, calculated, and educated, we look forward to helping your organization advocate for those who haven’t traditionally had a seat at the decision-making table.

America’s demographic future points inexorably towards a more diverse, multi-racial community. We urge you to wake up, step up, and lead your organizations and institutions towards that future. Let us together be a part of the solution. In this vein, the HBS AASU community is offering Corporate Racial Equity Office Hours — time for corporate leaders to speak to members of the AASU — future Black executives — and engage on:

  • Metrics that Black candidates are considering as they assess a Company/CEO’s commitment to racial equity
  • Candid feedback on your company’s Black Lives Matter response and action plan
  • Products or services you sell that either under-appreciate Black cultural influence or have an anti-Black racist heritage
  • Best-in-class racial equity organizations that you should invest in

The Office Hours will be hosted on a rolling basis and executives can sign up here. We ask that you value our time as we share insights and unique perspectives to help your company make meaningful progress on these issues. All proceeds from the office hours will be donated to predominantly Black talent development organizations and all HBCUs.

With intention,

Harvard Business School African American Student Union

IG: @aasuhbs | LinkedIn | Twitter: @aasuhbs