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How corporate America can advance social justice and racial equity

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In September of 2020, Citigroup calculated that two decades of discrimination against African Americans, starting in 2000, had cost the U.S. economy $16 trillion. The release of this figure came four months after the murder of George Floyd, amidst unprecedented social mobilization and unrest that began in the United States and spread around the world. Leaders from every sector of the economy grappled — and continue to grapple — with the implications of this moment. What must be done about racism, about gender disparities, about the grand, overarching question of equity?

“Consumers and employees are no longer accepting brands that are irresponsible about social justice and race and LGBTQ status and women,” saida lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management group at MIT Sloan. “Companies need to realize that statements aren’t cutting it. They’re going to have to do more to satisfy consumers’ expectations.”

What precisely this “more” looks like is a difficult question to answer. In a wide-ranging MIT Sloan Experts Series talk, available below, Lazu spoke about the ways in which the private sector is, and ought to be, engaging with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. With Maureen White, principal at Maureen White Consulting, Lazu explored the complex work of creating an organization that advances social justice and racial equity. A few highlights include:

  • Believe intentions, but move beyond them. Lazu noted that corporations are increasingly embracing the need to examine and address structural biases and DEI. This progress should be recognized in good faith, but it should also be recognized for its limited force; these are intentions. “That’s where we are in the journey: accepting that [DEI] is something,” Lazu said. “We need to build actual change out of this moment.”
  • Highlight good examples. Show that aspirations are achievable. Lazu mentioned KeyBank, where in 2019 67% of new hires were women or members of a racial minority. That’s a case study of the way in which companies can make deep and effective changes in a relatively short time, she said.
  • Make DEI a practice. Both Lazu and White analogized expending effort on DEI to exercise. You’re at first stretching and straining yourself in uncomfortable ways, but the work gets easier, and you get better, as the practice becomes habit. To be of value, DEI needs to be the same: a habit built into a company’s daily routines.

Ultimately, Lazu said that the present moment reminded her of the murder of Emmett Till, a Black teenager whose death in 1955 became a catalyst of the civil rights movement. Society has collectively witnessed brutality and is trying to understand the ramifications. Companies are not exempt from this moment of reflection. “I like to say that everyone is invited to the justice barbecue,” Lazu said, “but folks notice how late you come.”

Learn more about 'Leading a Diverse Workforce,' a new live online course from MIT Sloan Executive Education.

For more info Zach Church Editorial Director (617) 324-0804

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