Barb Smoot: There are no excuses for the lack of Black CEOs

Katy Smith
Barb Smoot, CEO, Women for Economic and Leadership Development

In an unprecedented break from the routine avoidance of political issues, major brands across the country have pledged their commitment and their resources to fight racism in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and many other Black people by police.

In Columbus, some 750 organizations including the leaders of the city’s largest private sector companies signed a letter to City Council declaring racism a public health crisis. The group of supporters has grown beyond 3,000 and represents a major departure from the sideline sentiments of the past. With businesses putting themselves out there to advance racial justice and equality—supporting employees attending protests and wearing Black Lives Matter garb—many have asked: Now what are these large corporations going to actually do to create meaningful change?

Columbus CEO asked business leaders.

What can powerful organizations with far-reaching platforms do to spur meaningful change right now?

Barb Smoot, CEO, Women for Economic and Leadership Development: Many companies have issued public statements on their stance in support of Black Lives Matter and against racism. Clearly, taking such a public stance on racism is new for many of these companies.

Many of these public statements read very much the same way. We have seen that as some companies post their statements on social media, some of their Black employees are begging to differ about whether these companies practice what they preach. What is happening at Adidas is just one example. Adidas issued their statement, and Black employees protested via walkouts and other means.

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The elimination of racism begins at home, so to speak, and it starts at the top. There are no excuses for the scarcity of African Americans on company boards and in the C-suites. What will distinguish the deeply committed companies from those giving lip service will be the detailed strategies and tactics that boards hold management accountable to achieve. Companies plan and measure around what they view is a priority.

It is critical for companies to first start within their own four walls and review their practices (hiring, promotions, pay, supplier diversity, community investment, etc.) and consider the numerous recommendations for progress their Black employees have provided them over the years.

For the July issue of Columbus CEO, we touched base with a number of business leaders on the topic of race. Here's what they had to say.

A “check the box” approach such as only doing implicit bias training and nothing else stops well short of the holistic set of actions needed to effect real change. It is like putting on your exercise clothes, doing some stretching and then calling it a day. Implicit bias training prepares you for the impactful work that needs to get done, but is by no means the complete workout.

Katy Smith is editor of Columbus CEO.

Barb Smoot, CEO, Women for Economic Leadership and Development