Print Friendly and PDF

Business Leaders Encourage Uncomfortable Conversations to Advance Workplace Equity

By Crain’s Content Studio

Key Takeaways:

  • Research indicates that by 2050 there is a $92 billion economic gain to be had if business embraces diversity and closes the racial gap.
  • The U.S. will be minority white by 2045.
  • Panelists agreed there has to be a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at every level of an organization.
  • Discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion need to expand beyond talking about only women and people of color: the LGBTQ and disabled communities also need to have a seat at the table.

Business leaders need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable — and they need to create opportunities for these uncomfortable but courageous conversations.

That was a sentiment shared by panelists participating in a Racial Equity in the Workplace panel at the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference on Wednesday, Sept. 22. The panel, moderated by Dennis W. Archer Jr., chief executive officer of Ignition Media Group and founding partner of Archer Corporate Services, featured Hussein Berry, vice president for airport operations at DTW for Delta Air Lines; Matthew B. Elliott, president of Bank of America Michigan; and Carla Walker-Miller, founder and chief executive officer of Walker-Miller Energy Services LLC.

Elliott said diversity, equity, and inclusion is part of the bank’s business strategy and is the force behind its $1.25 billion commitment to breaking down barriers to economic mobility in communities of color. This strategy includes support of a free financial education curriculum, investment in VC firms that are managed by women and people of color, and also an internal effort to host “Courageous Conversations.”

But Walker-Miller pointed out that the most courageous conversations that need to happen are among those who are blocking opportunities for people of color or women to be on boards and in leadership roles.

“What we need more than anything else is that we need powerful men to lend their social capital and social equity, and to be courageous enough to talk to other powerful men. This is how change is really made,” she said.

Walker-Miller said she has been fortunate to have received calls to be on publicly traded company boards and has been invited into rooms and discussions that she did not know existed a few years ago. But she said there is more work to be done. “If you want a Black woman on your board, you can have one. People act like finding a talented Black woman is like finding a Siberian tiger in Detroit.”

She encouraged businessmen and businesswomen to be more welcoming to women and people of color in business settings. “One thing you will learn is that there are Detroiters who won’t come downtown – they think that the city only wants 23-year-old white guys in skinny jeans downtown. We have to invite people in so they know they are welcome.”

Hussein grew up in the Arab-American community of Metro Detroit and has worked to advance his career at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. He said Delta Airlines has put its arm around him to shield he and other Arab-American employees “from assumptions that we were all terrorists.”

In a keynote address that began the conversation, Archer, the son of former Detroit Mayor and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Dennis Archer, recounted several stories of prominent businessmen, including his father, being mistaken for hired help at community or business events.

He also detailed objectives of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Racial Justice and Economic Equality Task Force, which include taking a look, internally, at its own board composition and supplier diversity efforts; supporting community organizations that are advancing equity; and developing programming with equity as a focus.

This session was sponsored by Consumers Energy.

This article was written by Crain’s Content Studio for the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference.