When George Floyd was killed by police May 25 in Minneapolis, the response mirrored and magnified the reactions that followed many police killings of Black people in the last decade. Social media, online news, and citizen journalism have quickened the pace of information sharing and response, and did so again, leading to global protests and calls to defund police.
In the business community, employee voice and action, again aided by social media, breached the walls of C-suites that strive to appear apolitical. Brands, corporations, and executives learned that silence was not an option.
A group of Black business leaders saw this change and in June released the Business for Racial Equity Pledge, an opportunity for individual business leaders to publicly support and participate in the fight against “biased policing, electoral disenfranchisement, and economic exclusion.”
So far, more than 1,000 executives and other supporters have signed the pledge. The pledge was co-authored by Craig Robinson, SB ’97, the former global head of Powered by We, WeWork’s technology, development, and management services division.
We asked Robinson about how he works with ideas, and how the Business for Racial Equity Pledge came to be.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired to be living during a period of human history defined by a movement for social justice that I believe will be far-reaching in ways beyond the protests of this moment. While this social awakening was sparked by the killing of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans at the hands of police, it's inspirational to witness, literally around the world, a universal connection to this community’s pain that is sparking an even broader movement toward racial equity, gender equity, and more.
In the middle of a pandemic — which tends to focus people’s attention on their own family and personal safety — this movement has given people a reason to look outward to the greater human condition, and illustrates what we are capable of as a society.
Who inspires you?
My third-great grandfather, George Washington Gholston, who was born a slave in 1860 but went on to own a farming business, pastor a church, and serve as a trustee for a historically black college. In so many ways he embodies what is possible and serves as my inspiration. I feel proud to continue the work he started and be part of a Black community that has gone in a few generations from being traded as property to inspiring and leading this global movement. I’m also inspired by the countless people in our society who are rallying for change, who may not have the resources or influence we do as business leaders, but understand the power of their voices in this moment to drive society forward.
Where do you get ideas?
In my professional career as a commercial real estate executive at companies like WeWork and as an advisor to real estate technology startup founders, I’ve looked for ways to bring insights from the tech world to accelerate innovation in the real estate industry.
When the Leadership Now team asked me to lead our organization’s response to the movement for racial justice, I urged us not to simply “say something” but to actually “do something.” Similar to the ways companies launch products in environments where speed to market is critical, we determined that our “first release” of the Business for Racial Equity Pledge would need to be simple but powerful and targeted in its call to action. It would address pain points by building on the emotional resonance people feel with George Floyd’s murder, while being grounded in facts that generate awareness and learning.
The pledge doesn’t address every aspect of institutional racism, but as with any new product launch, we hope to build a customer base that we can then engage to expand the scope of what we develop together.
What can other leaders learn from how you developed the idea for the pledge?
Creating, aligning, and empowering diverse teams is one of the best ways to discover and develop new ideas. The pledge was developed by a group of diverse and committed individuals who were, in this case, brought together by the Leadership Now Project. My co-authors were all Black executives, who brought to bear the rich perspectives that come from different genders, professional experiences, and thoughts about how best to address systemic racism in our country.
As a business leader, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of humanizing the work experience. The pandemic underscored how much our personal and professional lives are blurring, and our pledge builds on that reality by inviting leaders to articulate their personal principles in a visible and measurable way through their organizations.
How do you test ideas?
I feel great ideas should be shared liberally and that the marketplace will let you know quickly if they are good. When we first thought up the pledge, we heard from some that Leadership Now didn’t have the status or reach it needed to make an impact. Larger-scale organizations were not ready to take a risk on specifically articulating a focus on policing, for example. But our agility and entrepreneurial approach allowed us to develop and release the pledge quickly and tap our professional and academic networks to not only convince 1000-plus signers (of which 50% are CEOs and executives) but also to gauge which channels and partners would be critical to ensuring that we realize and sustain meaningful impact.
As we build out the next phase of the pledge, we hope to work with domain experts in sustainable investing, for example, and other established platforms through which industry seeks to further the public good.
What, if anything, would have been a signal the idea was not taking or should be abandoned?
We weren’t sure the pledge would get traction: We said we’d give it a week and see what happens, and let it drop if others emerged with better principles or a better-articulated platform. Our going-in approach was to hold off on partnerships, since most established organizations were uncomfortable with some aspects of the pledge. We decided it was crucial to maintain our three pillars of police reform, civic engagement focused on protecting democratic access for Black voters, and economic inclusion. Knowing that we were moving faster than these like-minded groups were comfortable doing, it has been gratifying to see that over these few months the share of pledge signers who are C-suite executives has grown, showing that senior leaders are becoming increasingly courageous and endorsing this platform.
How do you know an idea is a good one?
I know an idea has potential when I feel my inner zealot rising and feel compelled to make meaningful sacrifices to see that idea come to fruition. And when I see others that I trust and who share my values also stepping up to commit themselves, I know we’re on the right track.
I’m also a big believer that good ideas just fly. We went in one week from the pledge being an idea to literally having hundreds signing on. In a crowded and noisy marketplace of ideas around how businesses can advance racial justice — with lots of statements emerging about what leaders will or won’t do — we saw this pledge unite a range of leaders in a way that gives me hope of creating long-term impact.
How do you ensure a big idea like this is sustainable?
I fundamentally believe that this is the beginning of a movement and not just a moment. Long after the smoke clears and the immediate impact of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police passes, we want organizations to continue to act toward measurable racial equity goals. I’m focused right now on building coalitions, leveraging my MIT alumni network, and working with others to make sure the goals of the pledge become and remain core business leader priorities.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
I invite leaders to sign the pledge now, not as a momentary act of solidarity but as a tool to help us center on key principles that we know are vital to develop our organizations and society. America’s founding ideals of liberty, justice, and equality were radical ideas at the time, and have been admired around the world since the nation’s founding. But our nation was launched and these principles were written at a time when Black Americans were enslaved, so it feels urgent to fight now to make these ideals actually real for the first time.