How We Begin to Move Forward on Equality
I’ve just returned from the Longfellow neighborhood in south Minneapolis. It’s Sunday, less than a week after the death of our fellow Minnesotan George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers.
It’s one of those “top 10 weather days” that prompts locals to rush outside with bikes and barbecue supplies. Today, many of us grabbed brooms instead to help clean up after the destruction that erupted in our cities out of anger at injustice and too many years of inaction. Driving down Hiawatha Avenue, I see rubble still smoldering, incongruous against the backdrop of clear blue skies. The smell of smoke hangs heavy in the air.
The traffic approaching Sanford Middle School snakes for miles through narrow residential streets. People also come by foot and by bike, relieved to have a mission: feeding our neighbors. Sanford is surrounded by grocery stores that were burned down or looted. More than half of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. The school put out a call for 85 food kits; more than 30,000 were donated. As my family added ours to the pile that stretched across parking lot and lawn, it felt achingly heartwarming—and so very perfunctory.
Perhaps you saw the images of those grocery bags covering the entire schoolyard. Maybe you were there, too. The story made national news, no doubt because it felt like one of the first nice things to happen in a week that wouldn’t end. This is who we are, I said to myself as I stood in that sea of grocery bags: a community that rallies together to clean the streets, feed our neighbors, and raise money for small businesses.
And yet, it’s not the whole story of who we are. It’s time we face it—and change it. I’ve had so many productive, challenging conversations with business leaders, entrepreneurs, educators, and friends in recent days: about privilege and bias and systemic racism in our police force. The lack of funding for black entrepreneurs. The disparities in education and health care and homeownership.
But what’s really heartbreaking and shameful is that none of it is new.
I’ll share but one failure from our own organization: This issue of TCB includes our annual Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductees. They’re five worthy, hard-working leaders who have made an impact not only within their own companies, but in civic engagement, innovation, and the advancement of better practices like clean energy. We’re thrilled to recognize them and also painfully aware: All of them are white.
While TCB has recognized many people of color through the years as Hall of Famers and Outstanding Directors and people to know on our TCB 100, the lack of diversity this year speaks to our need to work harder. We don’t have a plethora of top CEOs of color here in Minnesota, but that can’t be our excuse. We need to look further, broaden our scope, expand our own network. It’s something we’ve been working on, and I pledge to intensify our efforts.
Businesses have an opportunity to lead, and I’m inspired by the concrete steps we see so many in our community taking. For example, U.S. Bank is granting foundation dollars, which so often go to nonprofits, to invest directly in black-owned small businesses. It’s one of the ways the company’s chief diversity officer, Greg Cunningham, believes we make progress. (To learn more, turn to “Moving Beyond the Rhetoric on Diversity.”)
If there’s a response even more encouraging than that sea of grocery bags and other donations in the wake of this most recent tragedy, it’s that CEOs are doing more than offering thoughts and prayers. Vowing to lead her company “down a path of systemic, permanent change in as many ways as we can find,” Best Buy CEO Corie Barry said the company would start by adding 100 Teen Tech Centers (30 now exist), with programs aimed at introducing tech skills to underserved youth.
Although Target was a focal point for looting and damage throughout the country, its Midway store in St. Paul quietly reopened within days of the unrest, and Target officials vowed to get its heavily damaged Lake Street store up and running by year’s end. “We’ll continue to invest in this vibrant crossroads of the Seward, Longfellow, Phillips, and Powderhorn communities, preserving jobs and economic opportunity by rebuilding and bringing back the store that has served as a community resource since 1976,” CEO Brian Cornell said in a statement.
It’s not just the Fortune 500s. In the midst of this tumultuous spring, engineering consultancy WSB marked the graduation of its inaugural class of Opportunity+ students. The Golden Valley-based company created the program to expand its own hiring pool and offer introductory training in civil engineering and construction for anyone with a high school degree who might not have been exposed to those paths or able to afford technical college. WSB hired two of the nine students in the first cohort.
“If you think about how you find staff, a lot of it is someone who knows someone. You’re always going to get the same people from the same communities,” says WSB CEO Bret Weiss. “Now we’re opening the door a little bit wider. The best organizations are more diverse.”
Weiss and his team reached out to other companies, to public agencies, and to nonprofit groups to figure out the best way to structure the Opportunity+ program and connect with interested candidates. “A lot of people said, ‘Don’t do it—you might say something wrong.’ But we’re willing to do what it takes. Hopefully it gives other companies in other industries the courage to say, ‘We can do it too.’ ”