Protests in support of Black Lives Matter swept the globe this year, including this one in London (Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash)

In response to the George Floyd protests of this summer, companies and other organizations released a flood of statements in support of Black Lives Matter. Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race (WISER), intentionally decided not to.

“It was not just the feeling of ‘Here we go again,’” she said in reference to past statements on racial justice that never lived up to their promise. “But that there was so much pressure, not just from the racial injustice we saw, but that it was on top of this political climate.” She worried that if Donald Trump were not the president, the business world wouldn’t pay as much attention to these longstanding issues. (Update: With the confirmed election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the U.S. will have the first woman, Black person and Indian-American to serve as vice president.)

Yet as Sharpe’s work consistently grapples with, racial injustice is baked into the past, present and future of this country. And awareness of that within the larger business community will only matter if it’s followed by action. “For me,” she said, “I want to know, What are you going to do?’”

Sharpe joined three other speakers for a From Day One webinar last week that explored the challenge of building an anti-racist culture in the business community. The moderator, Erica Licht, a senior fellow at the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project (IARA) at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, opened with a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.” It set the tone for a conversation on what business leaders can do to follow through on increasing diversity and inclusion at all levels of their organizations.

Kendra Proctor Goldbas, director of professional development for McKinsey & Company’s West Coast office, described three steps in the realm of talent development and professional growth. “There’s the work we need to do around knowledge, skills and then creating the space for engagement,” she said. Self-awareness, personal growth and knowledge should lead the work; that’s followed by skill-building to engage in anti-racism. “The third piece is the notion of engagement,” Goldbas said. “How do we engage one another, take action and be vulnerable?”

Speakers on the panel, clockwise from top center: Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe of the Women's Institute for Science, Equity and Race, Kendra Proctor Goldbas of McKinsey & Company, Bobby Griffin of CBRE and moderator Erica Licht of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project at Harvard (Image by From Day One)

Bobby Griffin, VP of diversity and inclusion for the commercial real-estate company CBRE Group, said the diversity commitment needs to encompass workplace culture, talent acquisition and the broader marketplace. “We want to enhance our relationships with diverse customers and our relationships to the various diverse communities in which we reside. It’s an ongoing effort,” he said. ‘It’s more like being in a relationship than speed dating.”

Sharpe emphasized the importance of data. In her work at the WISER institute, she supports more inclusive women-focused research. “We really advocate for a micro-analysis,” she said. “And that is to have folks disaggregate that data by the characteristics you think influence the outcome, and then take an intersectional lens to talk about why you might see a particular outcome.” She notes that a categorical term like “women of color,” for example, is far too sweeping to shed light on the experiences of individuals.

When it came to the topic of “uncomfortable conversations” on workplace equity, the panelists shared insights on their impact and how to go about them. “Growing pains don’t always have to be uncomfortable,” as Goldbas put it. Later in the conversation she offered a different term: “Radical candor.” She explained it as “a notion of how you provide both caring personally but challenging directly in the way you engage in feedback, discussion and conversation.” The key, she added, is that such conversations must start with a desire for change.

What could that change look like, beyond the solidarity statements released this summer? Griffin noted that CBRE set goals around “visibility, capability and accountability” and outlined specific and intentional actions to back them up. “For visibility, for example, we want to make better data-informed decisions,” he said. “So how are we providing information and metrics from a data standpoint?”

McKinsey set ten actions in place this year to move toward a more anti-racist culture, Goldbas said. The key will be tracking the progress of such actions in a year. “We have to be held to account for what we’ve committed to,” she said.

Sharpe echoed the importance of transparency. “When I think about accountability, it’s the transparency in what was your goal, what was it you were planning to do?” she said. “A huge part of that is who is making decisions. And when companies are talking about diversity and inclusion, who are they having conversations with? Who are you speaking to so that you get an understanding of the work you need to get done?”

A company that sets goals and is held accountable must respect the people who call them out. “Folks have to know they can speak up about injustice, in that moment, without losing their livelihoods,” as Sharpe put it.

In a robust Q&A session with their audience, the speakers discussed confronting racism head on as a systemic power structure. “White people historically and currently hold power–this shift of power has not changed,” Sharpe noted. Allyship with white people who want to “utilize their power for good,” as she put it, is far from impossible. “It’s incredibly important to explain to them, in your situation, what do you need from them as an ally?”

There’s no monopoly on diversity, Griffin added. It has to be about everyone, including those who still have some learning to do about people who are different from them. “It’s very important to have conversations in a way that doesn’t distance imperfect allies,” he said. “And allies have to be willing to show up and support with their imperfection.”

The panelist’s insights suggest that the conversations around racial justice may well lead to real action in the coming seasons. To wrap up the session, Licht left the audience with a fuller quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “What always bothers me is that the long, hot summer has always been preceded by a long, cold winter, and that the nation has not used its winters creatively enough to develop the program, to develop the kind of massive acts of concern that will bring about a solution to the problem.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who supported this webinar: McKinsey & Company. You can watch a video of the conversation here. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.