The Columbus Partnership approaches diversity, equity and inclusion with new energy

Erica Thompson
Columbus CEO
Marc Cain of Smoot Construction

Each week since January, a group of the most powerful corporate leaders in the city has been meeting to do some serious self-examination.

At one point, they asked themselves a particularly tough question:

“Am I racist?”

The group includes CEOs who are part of the Columbus Partnership, a nonprofit organization founded to further economic development. And those intense discussions are part of the organization’s reinvigorated diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

“If we keep it up week after week, month after month, year after year—I think we can change Columbus, and I think we can make a huge difference,” says the partnership’s CEO, Alex Fischer. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much energy, depth and commitment by a broad segment of our leadership, which is exciting.”

Like much of corporate America, the Columbus Partnership was motivated to look at racial inequities following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. The organization put together a diversity, equity and inclusion steering committee, co-chaired by Cardinal Health CEO Mike Kaufmann and Curt Moody, founder of the Moody Nolan architecture firm.

The steering committee is focused on three tasks: providing educational resources for Partnership members, encouraging members to look at DEI efforts at their own companies, and thinking through ways to effect change in the broader Columbus community.

The weekly discussions have tackled topics like white privilege and implicit bias. They’ve also featured expert guests like Robert Livingston, lecturer of public policy at Harvard, and author of The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations.

Asking themselves, “Am I racist?” is just the first step for Partnership members. They also are contemplating what it means to be antiracist, which is actively working toward racial equality or justice.

Fischer and other leaders at the Partnership cited the importance of working to dismantle structural inequality.

“Systemic racism is pervasive, and the U.S. private sector is not immune,” says Irene Alvarez, vice president of engagement, marketing and communications for the Columbus Partnership. “The underrepresentation of Black workers in leadership and industries that often have higher levels of income and job growth is one example.”

A 2019 study by the Center for Talent Innovation reported that only 3.2% of all executive or senior leadership roles at for-profit companies are held by Black professionals. And they account for less than 1% of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies.

Underrepresented ethnic and racial groups make up just 16.8% of board directors, according to a 2020 data analysis by the ESG division of the Institutional Shareholder Services firm, which provides investment solutions.

Alvarez pointed to a 2021 report from McKinsey & Company, which estimated it would take about 95 years for Black employees to reach talent parity across all levels in the private sector.

“Barriers must be addressed to shorten that timeline,” Alvarez says.

That also means the Partnership must get honest about its own gaps in diversity. Of its 78 members, only 18 are women, and only three are African American.

“Our membership is comprised of top-ranking officials and CEOs, and there’s no denying those roles across the U.S. lack diverse representation,” Alvarez says. “Partnership companies are focused on internal examination of how to change that over the long term in their own organizations.”

In addition to increasing diversity of leadership teams, companies also are examining supplier networks and philanthropic giving, Alverez says.

In the meantime, the Partnership has been engaging with a diverse group of leaders outside of the organization.

One of the newest Black Partnership members is Mark Cain of Smoot Construction. He is co-president of the Columbus headquarters and president and CEO of the company’s Washington, D.C., office. He says he has been pleased with the Partnership’s DEI efforts so far.

“It’s been a huge focus that I didn’t anticipate coming in,” he says. “In a way, it’s given me an opportunity to step up quicker. We certainly have a unique perspective in terms of diversity initiatives (at Smoot).”

As a 75-year-old Black-owned, family business, Smoot represents a minority in the construction industry.

It’s apparent whenever Cain looks around the Construction Industry Round Table (CIRT), a national association of CEOs in the field.

“I walk in with two or three other Black leaders in a group of 250 across the nation,” he says. “The longevity of Black-owned businesses in this industry is pretty short.”

Smoot has overcome many challenges over the decades.

Cain shared stories of racism his grandfather and the company’s founder, Sherman Smoot, faced during this career.

“He had to travel to find work because not everybody would hire a Black crew to do masonry,” Cain says. “(Originally) based in Charleston, West Virginia, he would work the Eastern seaboard all the way down to Florida, wherever he could get work to feed the family.”

After Smoot relocated to Columbus, Cain’s uncle, Chairman and CEO Lewis Smoot Sr., took a more active leadership role. He grew the business from a small masonry subcontractor to a full-service general construction company.

Along the way, he advocated for the advancement of minority businesses in the construction industry.

Cain says the company joined protests demanding that Black masons be able to work on the construction of Lincoln and Morrill towers at Ohio State University in the 1960s. Ultimately, Smoot was able to perform the masonry.

Cain recounted that history in a letter he sent out to the company following the death of George Floyd. He asked employees to reflect on what they have done to eliminate racism.

Chrystal Stowe, Smoot’s director of community affairs, says she appreciates Cain’s guidance on DEI.

“I think it’s important in our company to know that the commitment does come from the top,” she says. “That also lets employees know that this is a safe space to have what are sometimes uncomfortable conversations. As a Black woman working in this very male-dominated industry, it’s great to work for a company that actively supports the professional development of Black women.”

Cain says there are still opportunities for Smoot to improve. For example, it is exploring how to increase Latinx representation among its leadership. “We’re not exempt, and we’re not experts just because we’re Black,” Cain says.

Smoot has intentionally invested in underserved neighborhoods like Linden, and Cain is looking forward to seeing other businesses follow suit.

“I think the diversity initiatives are helping people realize what it takes to have a truly vibrant city,” Cain says. “It’s got to represent all walks of life. People have learned that we haven’t shared the wealth. They’ve also learned you can’t take it for granted just because you’re doing well. It doesn’t mean everybody’s doing well.”

That is especially top-of-mind for longtime partnership member Tanny Crane, president and CEO of the Crane Group. She says she is especially concerned about the racial wealth gap.

In 2019, the median Black household wealth in the country was 13 cents for every $1 of wealth for median white households, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization.

“We’re coming together now saying we are all responsible, and we all have to play a role,” says Crane, who is on the DEI steering committee at the Columbus Partnership. “And now we’ve got some (key performance indicators) so we can see where we are and where we want to be as a community.”

Crane says the Partnership’s DEI focus has opened her eyes to work already being done in the community—especially by Black leaders and organizations.

“What we can do is help support through funding or our members participating on boards,” she says.

Crane says she has been working to diversify the board of her own company. And she signed the letter from business owners to Columbus City Council declaring racism a public health crisis in summer 2020.

“Now, we’ll have accountability, certainly to our own company, but also to the Partnership in terms of how we’re doing. That just reflects what I think each company has the opportunity to do within the Columbus Partnership.”

The organization is developing short-term and long-term goals, and Fischer stressed DEI efforts will be an ongoing commitment.

“Not every member of the Columbus Partnership is going to be on board,” Crane says. “There’s a large part of the population that doesn’t believe that racism is an issue. There are some who will move through education. There are some who never will, but that just can’t stop us from doing the right thing. And it doesn’t mean that we have to be enemies. We have to agree to disagree and move forward.”

Erica Thompson writes about issues of race, gender and the economy for the Columbus Dispatch.

Making the list

The following Columbus Partnership members were included on
Forbes’ list of Best Employers for Diversity in America.

• Fifth Third Bank

• Ohio State Wexner Medical Center

• Abercrombie & Fitch

• Nationwide Children’s Hospital

• Cardinal Health

• Huntington National Bank

• Alliance Data Card Systems

• Nationwide

• White Castle System Inc.

• American Electric Power

• Express


• Abbott Laboratories

• JPMorgan Chase

• Deloitte



• AT&T

• PricewaterhouseCoopers

• Honda