Moving Beyond the Rhetoric on Diversity

Months of crisis, from Covid-19 to the fight for racial equality, highlight the importance of corporate diversity and inclusion efforts.

Houston White has known setbacks.

In 2008, he was a self-employed contractor building million-dollar homes in Golden Valley when the foreclosure crisis hit, taking down his business along with it. “I went from making $100,000 a month to nothing. I had to reinvent myself.” He was only 28. He decided to buy a building in the Webber-Camden neighborhood on the north side of Minneapolis and open a barbershop. “I had always loved Camden,” says White, who attended nearby North High and got his barber’s license right out of school, before setting aside his scissors to pursue more lucrative opportunities in construction. “I realized I needed north Minneapolis more than it needed me. Purchasing a building gave me something to focus on, to build.”

The Houston White Men’s Room brought new relevance to the old-school neighborhood barbershop. It became a gathering spot for the neighborhood at the corner of 44th and Humboldt—and for more than just a fade or a buzz cut. HWMR, as it is known, is also a retail store selling apparel designed by White, whose work has caught the eye of some larger retailers and even led to a collaboration with JCPenney.

What White is ultimately selling is community pride. His T-shirts and caps feature the mottoes “Black Excellence” and “BE the Change.” And change is exactly what he was getting ready to embark on, in the form of a remodel and expansion, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced him to close the shop in early March.

The only money coming in now is from e-commerce sales. As of late May, White hadn’t decided whether it was worth reopening the barbershop at the state-mandated 25 percent capacity. “We’re putting together some ideas for PPE, disposable capes, but the more we ideate, the more holes I find. I’d rather go slow,” he says. “For the last 12 years, I’ve worked really hard not to be overleveraged; 2008 taught me a lot. I’m moving forward. I’m going to focus on our expansion and spend the next eight months providing jobs for construction workers. We’ll come back stronger.”

Phase one of White’s plan calls for a sleek new barbershop and retail space with a new café and patio seating in partnership with Dogwood Coffee Co. Phase two includes the addition of three housing units on the back of the building. White’s broader blueprint: renaming the neighborhood Camdentown (he already calls it that) and attracting more upscale businesses and residences that give the area the same sort of cachet as the North Loop. It’s more than just a business, he says, and more urgent than ever in the wake of the city’s worst riots since the 1960s, sparked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody, handcuffed and gasping for breath as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for more than eight minutes.

“I felt numb,” White says when he watched the video that has now been seen around the world.

But it made him more resolute in his mission.

Greg Cunningham
Greg Cunningham

“Minneapolis has to get serious about erecting viable, strong neighborhoods for black folks,” White says. “That doesn’t exist for black people in this state. We’re always having to assimilate to fit in. When people don’t see themselves reflected, it’s not their community. They don’t take pride in it. That’s what this boils down to.”

White’s vision resonated with U.S. Bank chief diversity officer Greg Cunningham. “Houston really has a vision centered around how you give a community the amenities it needs to sustain itself.” The U.S. Bank Foundation recently granted White $50,000 for phase one of his expansion.

“They directly invested in me, forming a partnership with a black business owner,” White says. “That’s how you start to get at some of this. A lot of corporate responsibility departments will find a couple of pet projects and fund them. Here’s the reality: The jobs in the inner city come from real people doing real work, and only the people on the ground know what the people who live there need. You’ve got to fund the entrepreneurs. My partnership with U.S Bank—that’s the blueprint.”

Even before the civil unrest sparked by Floyd’s death, the pandemic was making racial inequities more palpable and urgent.

“For those companies that care about their corporate citizenship, it’s personal,” Cunningham says. “Our headquarters is 2 miles from north Minneapolis. The impact [of Covid-19] is so unmistakable on communities of color. It’s time as a region we’re honest with ourselves about what’s going on. We need to change the practice of diversity and inclusion.”

“It’s time as a region we’re
honest with ourselves about what’s going on. We need to change the practice of diversity and inclusion.”

—Greg Cunningham, chief diversity officer, U.S. Bank

Empathy accelerator

For many companies, the work of diversity and inclusion officers has traditionally emphasized the numbers: bringing in more employees of color and creating more opportunities for promotion to executive ranks.

Read more from this issue

General Mills, among others, has been trying to broaden that agenda. Covid-19 accelerated the need. CEO Jeff Harmening “put a heavy focus not only on representation but on the experience you want to stay for—building a culture of belonging,” says James Momon, senior director of global inclusion for the packaged foods company. “You have to be far more intentional with creating a culture of belonging when the only means of communication is the computer or phone.”

James Momon
James Momon

Momon describes the pandemic as an “empathy accelerator.” With most corporate employees working from home, General Mills has been hosting virtual town halls featuring national experts the company likely wouldn’t have been able to get to its Golden Valley campus. “It allowed us to bring in David Kessler,” Momon says, a well-known author and speaker on death and grieving. “It created a great platform for us to talk about how to mourn the loss of key moments in life and talk about things our employees want to talk about.”

General Mills adheres to an action pledge that includes understanding unconscious bias and how to mitigate it. But one of the roadblocks to progress, particularly in large organizations, is getting training to those who need it most. “Often it’s the Kool-Aid drinkers who are always at the events and active,” Momon says. “A lot of white male employees don’t know how to participate.”

“A lot of white male employees don’t know how to participate.”

—James Momon, senior director of global inclusion, General Mills

The company is making education on biases and their potential implications part of leadership training. So far, 1,300 employees have taken advantage of optional resources—webinars, speakers—made available by General Mills. Momon hopes to double that by next year. “We’re saying if you want to be a great leader, a great manager, this helps. We’re publicizing it and making it as known as possible.”

If there’s one message Momon hopes to convey to his colleagues, it’s allyship. “We’re trying in global inclusion to engage everybody. We want people to reflect on why they see the world the way they do and focus on empathy for folks who don’t have the same experiences you have.”

Kendall Harrell
Kendall Harrell

Acknowledging biases is the place to start, says Kendall Harrell, vice president of people and culture for Caribou Coffee. Harrell led the creation of the Brooklyn Center-based company’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Alliance. “If for just a moment we allow ourselves to be OK with the fact that we all have biases, some can be quite healthy,” Harrell says. “We need to understand when they stop us from being our best. We need to move toward using tools and inventories to understand where biases lie.”

Having worked in human resources and talent development for several Minnesota companies, Harrell uses his own career as an example. “Caribou is the first company where I haven’t felt like a ‘diverse hire,’ ” says Harrell, who is black. “So often there’s an air of conformity, and so much is rooted in metrics and percentages of gender and color. It’s less about diversity and more about individuality. Caribou gave me the ability to bring who I am as an individual to work and see that embraced in others.”

It starts by shifting from tolerance to curiosity, Harrell says. “Be curious about everyone on the other side of the table.”

The un-equalizer

In the early days of the pandemic, many talked about coronavirus as a “great equalizer.” Suddenly, we were all vulnerable to the same invisible threat; we were all staying home, shushing barking dogs during meetings, juggling childcare with sales calls. But, of course, that only applies to those privileged enough to be able to work remotely.

Black Americans have died from Covid-19 at more than twice the rate of white people, according to a May study by APM Research Lab. Experts offer several explanations, including a higher likelihood of pre-existing health conditions as well as more structural problems: Black people are more likely to work in lower-paying front-line service jobs, and they’re less likely to have access to good, or even any, health care. The social challenges that make them more vulnerable to the disease are the barriers that diversity and inclusion officers dedicate their careers to overcoming.

“We can no longer ignore these disparities, the systemic problems that have plagued us for too long,” U.S. Bank’s Cunningham says. “We have to rise to the occasion and be much braver in the work. We have to hold our leaders accountable in a different way.”

For Nancy Lyons, co-founder and CEO of Minneapolis tech firm Clockwork, the key is matching values to policies. “I can say we allow flexible hours, but if your co-workers don’t subscribe to it and stigmatize you for taking Fridays off, that’s not a true policy. Everyone shows up differently, and we need to allow for that.”

Nancy Lyons
Nancy Lyons

The pandemic is forcing businesses to evolve their work culture, says Lyons, an architect of the Minnesota Tech Diversity Pledge, which calls on companies large and small to hire, promote, and be more welcoming to underrepresented communities.

“Work used to be really cookie-cutter. Now our work lives and personal lives have collided dramatically,” Lyons says. “Inclusion requires a sense of belonging and a real understanding and acceptance of the differences in all people. It’s not just about increasing our numbers of people of color; it’s about increasing psychological safety at work. The pandemic is forcing us to be even better at that.”

If some good is to come out of the crisis, it could be shifting the corporate mindset to think about employees beyond the role they play at work. “We don’t leave our entire selves outside,” says Demetha Sanders, Cargill’s global head of inclusion and talent management. Her objective now: How do we take care of people personally and professionally? In some cases, that means eliminating the expectations that employees will be available during the conventional 9 to 5. It means helping employees find childcare and mental health services. And moving leadership development programs online, where more staff members can take advantage of them. “The classes on unconscious bias keep filling up—they’re our most consumed.”

Demetha Sanders
Demetha Sanders

Long term, Sanders sees increased acceptance of flexible work as a way to amplify diverse hiring. “As we focus less on when and where people work, it gives us opportunity to expand the talent pool.”

“As we focus less on when and where people work, it gives us opportunity to expand the talent pool.”

—Demetha Sanders, global head of inclusion and talent management, Cargill

What leaders should do now

But for those on the front lines of diversity and inclusion conversations, now is a time, first of all, to listen.

“Listen to the voices of your employees, customers, and key stakeholders,” Cunningham says. “We too often rush to do something just because it makes us feel better about ourselves.”

Adds Lyons, “One thing I think is important is not leaning on black leaders to fix us [white people]. White business leaders have got to do the work. The emotional and physical and intellectual labor of fighting for equity has always fallen on black humans, and without white people working to dismantle systems of racism and supremacy everywhere, including work, nothing will happen. So we can ask [people of color] what they need and what we can do and how we can lift up their work and services. But we cannot ask them to fix us.” In other words, listening is key, but it’s not enough.

Businesses of all kinds and sizes are suddenly more intent on learning how they can break down systemic barriers to progress. Cunningham offers three actions:

  1. Focus on advancing black leaders. That means recruiting and hiring African American executives and advancing others to positions of influence.
  2. Invest in black-owned businesses. Make meaningful and significant investments and partnerships, Cunningham says, pointing to U.S. Bank’s partnership with Houston White as an example.
  3. Make sure your advocacy is visible. “Leaders, and specifically CEOs, need to both professionally and personally denounce oppression and racism and acknowledge privilege.”

Learning should never stop, even at the top, Cunningham says, adding that the most thoughtful leaders “are willing to acknowledge their personal journey is not done, that they are not a finished product, but they are listening and learning.”

TCB Talks: Diversity & Inclusion

Join us online June 24 at 3 p.m. for expert advice on how your business can make meaningful progress on diversity, equality, and inclusion. Sponsored by RBC Wealth Management.

Featured panelists include:

Kendall Harrell
Vice president of people & culture, Caribou Coffee

Nancy Lyons
Founder & CEO, Clockwork Interactive

James Momon
Senior director of global inclusion, General Mills

Register at Webinar recording available after the event at

Allison Kaplan is TCB’s editor in chief.

Photo by Rebecca Slater