Greg Cunningham: Seizing the ‘Biggest Opportunity’

Greg Cunningham: Seizing the ‘Biggest Opportunity’

U.S. Bank chief diversity officer Greg Cunningham advocates investments over charity to close the racial wealth gap.

Greg Cunningham’s cell phone rang early that Tuesday morning, the day after George Floyd died in police custody, a Minneapolis officer’s knee pressing on his throat. It was U.S. Bank CEO Andy Cecere on the line, wondering whether his chief diversity officer had seen the news.

Black people have run into the consistency of no. There’s an incredible trust gap between people of color and the financial services industry.

Diversity and inclusion work requires bringing your whole self to the job. That late-May day, as shock spread across the nation and protesters began to fill the streets, Cunningham feared for his college-aged children—wondering if he’d done enough to prepare them for a world in which a 6-foot-2 Black man like his son can’t walk across campus in a hoodie with his head covered, for fear of raising suspicion. He worried about his community, including minority-owned businesses already hit hard by the pandemic. And he found himself reliving painful childhood memories, growing up in a largely segregated neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where his father’s butcher shop burned to the ground in the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Still, Cunningham was prepared for the call from the bank’s top leader.

“We had a very long discussion,” Cecere recalls. “He helped me understand the implications—much deeper and wider than I even realized. And he told me what it meant to him.”

That’s what Cunningham remembers most about the conversation: Cecere’s concern for Greg Cunningham the person.

“I processed first from a cultural perspective, being Black and male in America,” Cunningham says. “I was terrified.”

But that fear morphed into a realization of opportunity. This summer’s uprising was different from the one he lived through in the late 1960s. This time, people of color weren’t the only ones in the streets. This time, his children’s generation demanded answers from leadership. “What has struck me more than anything,” Cunningham says, “is there’s a greater sense of responsibility on the part of leaders to lean into it and own it”—that is, the need to work toward racial equity. “None of us are truly free until all of us are.”

And so Cunningham became more vocal about closing the trillion-dollar racial wealth gap in this country. He encouraged his company, and others, to move beyond philanthropy and invest in economic inclusion. He advocated for loans for Black entrepreneurs and aspiring homeowners.

“We are sitting on a moment in history when this notion of inclusion is the biggest business opportunity that’s ever been in front of us,” Cunningham says. A 2019 McKinsey report indicates that closing the racial wealth gap could increase U.S. gross domestic product by 4 to 6 percent in less than a decade.

On July 29, Cecere called Cunningham again—this time, to promote him to senior executive vice president, which elevates the role of the chief diversity and inclusion officer. It means Cunningham now reports directly to the CEO, making him the first African American to serve on U.S. Bank’s management committee. Cunningham thought first about his Black colleagues. “I think about what it means for other employees of the bank to look at that management photo and see an African American man and go, ‘It’s possible.’ ”

Cunningham never wanted to be “the Black guy doing DEI work.” He didn’t have experience in human resources, which is where diversity, equity, and inclusion roles typically land in the corporate hierarchy.

Growing up, his idea of success was Cary Grant playing an ad exec in North by Northwest. But he had no role models in Pittsburgh. His father died a year after the MLK riots, when Cunningham was just six. Because he seemed more studious than his older siblings, his mother scraped and sacrificed to send him to a private Catholic school. But after years of working hard to fit in and make good grades, the high school guidance counselor who steered his white classmates to Duke and Notre Dame asked Cunningham, “Are you sure you want to go to college?”

“I was so defeated,” Cunningham says. “He didn’t see my value.” Cunningham attended Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black university, then earned his MBA at Fordham University. Today, he serves as a national board member for the United Negro College Fund. But for years, he downplayed his degrees, worried they lacked the prestige of the Ivy League institutions many of his high school classmates attended.

Cunningham carried around that same psychic shield as a Target Corp. marketing manager—until one day, six years into the job, he decided to share something personal at the Monday-morning staff meeting. Over the weekend, he had taken his kids to see Akeelah and the Bee, the movie about a young girl from South Los Angeles who tries to make it to the National Spelling Bee. Cunningham pointed out to his Target colleagues that Starbucks helped fund the movie. “Their CEO said the reason he got involved was because he wanted people to appreciate the fact that Starbucks was in the experience business.” Suddenly emboldened, Cunningham issued a challenge. “It’s a good question for us to ask ourselves: What business are we in?” He could see the chief marketing officer’s eyes light up. “He saw me for the first time.” In that moment, Cunningham embraced what he calls his superpower. “From that day forward, I was going to show up and bring my full self.”

He developed Target’s multicultural marketing team and continued to move up the ladder. Five years ago, U.S. Bank enticed Cunningham with his first official DEI role. What helped him get his head around the work was thinking both internally and externally. “DEI is certainly about your people, but it’s also about customers—do we have the right products and services? Do we have the right representation? When people walk into the branch in north Minneapolis, it should look like a mirror and feel like part of the neighborhood.”

Cunningham implores corporations to think about low-income communities as more than charity projects. “We need more organizations making a meaningful investment,” he says. “The two fundamental things that drive wealth: small businesses and homeownership. Owning a home is a path to self-respect and self-worth, and it’s the most efficient way to build wealth and pass it along.”

Minneapolis has one of the nation’s lowest rates of Black homeownership among U.S. metro areas with more than 1 million residents, according to Minnesota Compass, a nonpartisan resource for data on social indicators. Just 25 percent of Black households own their home in Minnesota, compared with 77 percent of white households.

“Black people have run into the consistency of no,” Cunningham says. “There’s an incredible trust gap between people of color and the financial services industry.” He thinks back to his mother’s loan from a small neighborhood banker. “He went to church with us; he knew our family. If my mom’s mortgage had been with a large bank, we would have been on the street.”

In August, U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation and U.S. Bank Foundation gave $1 million to more than a dozen Black-led Community Development Financial Institution partners and $150,000 to the African American Alliance of CDFI CEOs. That followed $50 million in low-interest-rate loans, which U.S. Bank directed to seven CDFIs to support their ability to fund small businesses affected by Covid-19.

“If the Payroll Protection Program taught us anything, it’s that many small businesses didn’t have a bank relationship that worked,” Cunningham says. U.S. Bank committed to doubling the number of Black-owned businesses it contracts with for products and services as part of its supplier diversity program. “We’re focused on meaningful relationships with small businesses that allow those businesses to grow, create jobs, and funnel resources back into the community.”

These efforts have long been a priority at U.S. Bank, but Cecere says promoting Cunningham increases the level of awareness and intensity within the bank and beyond. “It allows diversity, equity, and inclusion to be front and center in our discussions.”

Cunningham knows he’s in the spotlight, but he emphasizes that this moment is larger than any one executive. “I’ve been called to service and I’m here to answer the call,” he says.

He works for the day when the bank no longer needs a diversity officer to push for equity and inclusion, and he’s already got his next job in mind. “The role will be called chief growth officer,” Cunningham says. “That’s my job of the future. I’m going to create it.”