A Black Lives Matter rally at Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza in June 2020 was one of hundreds that rose up after the May 25 killing of George Floyd (Photo by Kathy Willens/AP)

When a group of business leaders decided to launch a new organization to respond to last year’s cries for racial justice, they knew that small, earnest measures weren’t going to cut it–they wouldn’t succeed where so much has failed. So the executives raised their ambition and recruited 37 major corporations from Allstate to Walmart in a campaign to provide life-changing opportunities for 1 million Black Americans.

With prominent Black executives at the forefront, including Merck CEO Ken Frazier and former American Express CEO Ken Chenault, the OneTen coalition is pushing for nothing less than business transformation in support of diversity and inclusion, “literally woven into the DNA of a company,” the new coalition’s CEO, Maurice Jones, told From Day One. “Diversity initiatives were all focused on this north star of hire, hire, hire,” he said. However, “you’ve got to hire, retain, create career pathways, promote, provide wraparound supports–you’ve got to change your corporate culture.”

OneTen, with the specific goal of hiring and advancing 1 million Black Americans without four-year college degrees into family-sustaining careers over the next decade, is just one of the initiatives launched by Corporate America in the year since the police murder of George Floyd. Amid the protests that followed, corporate leaders promised to “do more” and “do better,” to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a genuine priority. PepsiCo promised to increase its number of Black managers by 30% by 2025, while Facebook pledged to double the number of Black and Latino employees by 2023. America’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase, committed to a $30 billion, five-year plan to provide economic opportunity to underserved communities.

Yet such promises stand against tough realities and deep-rooted inequalities embedded into the capitalist system. A Bloomberg report released this March found that only 4 of the 37 companies surveyed had Black employees in 10% or more of executive and management roles. And while companies made promises, they don’t want to be pushed. In March, five of the biggest U.S. banks–including JPMorgan Chase–asked their shareholders to reject calls for racial-equity audits, arguing that they’re doing enough already.

But are they? With the approach of the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25, From Day One surveyed experts across the equity field–in human resources, DEI, academia, consulting and corporate leadership–to assess the progress made, and the challenges that persist.

The First Response Was Conversation

Dionne Poulton, an HR and leadership consultant, has been speaking and writing about topics like unconscious bias since 2003. In late 2019, she took the inaugural position of chief diversity officer for Care New England Health System, just in time to support the company as it navigated the Covid-19 pandemic and protest movement. Her immediate takeaway, as employees talked about George Floyd and the meaning of Black Lives Matter: “The conversations have become deeper,” she said. “I’ve been talking about bias and racism for a while, but it’s more acceptable–so to speak–to go deep into the issues.” In response, Poulton organized targeted training sessions, discussion groups, and company-wide town halls.

In George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, a mural marks the spot where he died outside Cup Foods (Photo by Stephen Koepp/From Day One)

Other experts testify to the emerging role of companies in mediating and providing intentional space for conversations that can be emotional and put people on the defensive. Laura Sewell, executive vice president and North America HR leader for the IT company Avanade, said the company’s predominantly-white leadership held “listening sessions” to hear from employees and discuss how the company's core values should tie into diversity initiatives. Alexandria Ray, the DEI leader for the law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson, now distributes a monthly “Culture Corner” article among the firm’s employees, followed by action items on issues including gender identity.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which have historically been underfunded and under-resourced, suddenly rose in prominence for their role in such conversations. A June 2020 survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that 9 out of 10 large companies were taking some kind of action on racial equity and almost half were tapping into one or more ERGs, asking for the group’s participation in developing action plans. Such reliance on ERGs has led to demands for more resources, mental-health support, and formal validation from leadership.

New narratives supported in the workplace may seem like just talk, but they represent a huge shift in how Corporate America has engaged with diversity, according to Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of the workplace-culture company Emtrain. “It’s treating these topics as competencies to be learned over time and developed,” she said. “Previously, it was treated like policies and rules to be memorized in one sitting.”

The Rise of the Chief Diversity Officer

Between 2015 and 2020, corporate diversity and inclusion jobs increased 71% globally, according to LinkedIn. The racial-justice movement further accelerated demand for these leaders, but left room for concern about how seriously companies were taking this role. “Many CEOs were scrambling, without recognizing this is a significant position and that person has to be qualified to do this,” as Poulton put it. A second concern, which she discussed with the CEO of Care New England Health System before she accepted the role of chief diversity officer, was: “Am I a figurehead, or am I here to do the job? It’s important to get the answer.”

Research shows diversity roles have an impact: LinkedIn found companies with a DEI team were 22% more likely to be seen as “an industry-leading company with high-caliber talent” and 12% more likely to be seen as an “inclusive workplace for people of diverse backgrounds.” Experts stressed to From Day One that the role must come with power. “The work requires you not only to speak it, but have actions that follow,” says Jamal Lopez, senior director of institutional equity for Weill Cornell Medicine’s Office of Institutional Equity, a department created last summer as part of a set of actions by Weill Cornell to advance equity.

Lopez says he has support from leadership as well as significant backup for future initiatives, including a second dedicated office for DEI and a Staff, Equity and Inclusion Council composed of senior leaders. The company-wide embrace of DEI roles, he said, shows that “diversity today is trending away from the moral-imperative argument. While it's still the right thing, these are businesses that need to fully understand how the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda is going to impact the bottom line.”

New Thinking on Early Skills Development

There’s a growing acknowledgement that companies must change how they’re recruiting a diversity of talent and supporting those people in the workplace, with the goal of uplifting them into leadership roles. For Jones, at OneTen, that means rejecting the a four-year college degree as a prerequisite for career advancement. “In our country, we have been obsessed with the four-year degree,” he said. “It turns out 80% of jobs that pay $70,000 or more require four-year degrees.” OneTen’s program instead focuses on skills training, mentors and sponsorship. The organization has also kicked off discussions with CEOs and HR leaders to change the expectations and culture built around the college degree.

This year the HR consulting firm Randstad launched the program Transcend with the goal of training 40,000 Americans for high-demand jobs with a skills-first model similar to OneTen’s. “A four-year degree no longer directly aligns with success,” Keith Brown, Transcend’s community-impact director, told From Day One. “There’s a huge opportunity in terms of the skilling platform. That is going to change the entire framework of how organizations see talent transition into an organization.”

What that looks like for Transcend is no longer requiring a degree on a job application, with a stronger focus on in-office mentorship and sponsorship, specific skills training, and partnerships with companies to help with job placement. Cisco, for example, is both a founding member of OneTen and the first major corporate partner of Transcend. “We believe Cisco will be able to deliver this program in a very comprehensive way based on its commitment to OneTen,” said Brown. “That is huge.”

Facing the Need for More Diverse Leadership

As Avanade leadership held employee-listening forums that acknowledged the mainly white leadership team, they began thinking about initiatives to change that. “Our senior leadership team fully committed and engaged in a reciprocal mentorship program with mid-career diverse talent,” said Sewell. “The reciprocal nature of it was us as senior leaders reaching in the organization to build this population up, but their role was to help us as leaders become more empathetic and have better understandings of diversity.”

According to a McKinsey & Company report, the U.S. population is 13.4% Black, but only 7% of management roles are filled by Black people. The effort at Avanade reflects an emerging commitment among leaders to diversify leadership through active measures. At Hinshaw & Culbertson, the firm’s chairman took part in the development of a Black Attorneys Matter Referendum, which Ray called “the foundation to holding the firm accountable to what we wanted to implement,” including career development.

The development of Black leaders is a business opportunity as well, recognized by the founders of Valence, a social network with the mission of creating new pathways to success for Black professionals. The startup, which recently launched an executive-development program called BONDS, has funding from venture capitalists including Upfront Ventures, GGV Capital and Silicon Valley Bank.

The Communities Beyond the Corporations

As part of the mainstream embrace of the racial-justice movement, a Who’s Who of American companies made financial commitments to greater economic equality as well. Airbnb announced in a tweet it would donate $500,000 to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter; Etsy announced a donation a total of $1 million to Equal Justice Initiative and Borealis Philanthropy’s Black-Led Movement Fund; Walmart announced a contribution of $100 million over five years to create a new center for racial equity; Target pledged $10 million to advance social justice.

All well and good, but statements and donations in the name of social justice should not be mistaken for real systemic change, according to Erica Licht, a senior fellow with the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. (Walmart, for example, is well known for suppressing unionization efforts by employees.) “There are real gaps between the claims of companies and their history of actively exploiting and oppressing Black, Indigenous and people of color,” Licht said.

Not far from George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, the "Say Their Names Cemetery," created by two young artists, commemorates people who died in infamous episodes of police violence (Photo by Stephen Koepp/From Day One)

She noted that more investments will be needed for companies to make an impact: “That’s time investment, personal investment–especially for white people putting in the work–and more generally it’s financial investment to address and advance racial equity.” That means making direct investments into marginalized communities more akin to reparations than one-off donations, Licht said. "It's not just about statements or numbers, it's about substance. It's also not about short-term thinking," she said. "Racial-equity work, working toward anti-racist structures, systems and values, is long term Take, for example, in grassroots philanthropy, the journey of the Haymarket People's Fund in Boston."

Taking Stronger Stands on Social-justice Issues

As Licht points out, “companies have always been weighing in on politics, in ways we may or may not know about.” She pointed to the history of corporate donations backing candidates who support explicitly racist policies. She noted a shift triggered by Georgia’s new election law designed to suppress Black voters. When Black business leaders spoke out against the laws, as well as similar GOP-proposed bills in statehouses across the U.S., the leaders of major corporations headquartered in Georgia began to take a stand for voting rights. “They’ve been actively pressuring politicians to block these harmful policies,” Licht said.

That led to an even larger coalition of business leaders stepping up their efforts to oppose such laws and defend voting rights across the U.S. In Texas, for example, two broad coalitions of companies and executives released letters calling for expanded voting access after Republican legislators’ proposed new restrictions on balloting. While the emerging boldness of corporations to take stands on these issues led to a wave of Republican outcries about "woke capitalism," corporate leaders have come to realize they answer to a much more diverse collection of stakeholders than most GOP politicians do.

The Urgency of Public Pressure–and the Question of Accountability

Ultimately it wasn’t the C-Suite that spurred change–it was citizens pressuring companies, and society at large, to address the longstanding issues of racism and inequality. In the workplace, that meant greater cries for companies to follow through on their commitments and statements of racial justice. There are new accountability tools, like the Corporate Racial Equity Tracker, to help stakeholders gauge how companies live up to their promises.

Public pressure tends to translate to investor pressure. In April, a record 30 resolutions focusing on DEI were on the ballots at annual company meetings–and advocates were closely paying attention to how companies asked shareholders to vote. In the same season, U.S. securities regulators turned down an exemption sought by Amazon to stop its investors from considering a shareholder proposal on racial equity.

At Hinshaw & Culbertson, public pressure has translated to the firm’s bottom line. “The clients we’re serving are demanding this, not just our direct clients but potential clients,” Ray said. She pointed out how the Coca-Cola Co. now requires its law firms to staff its matters with diverse lawyers or risk losing fees and business.

The promises of 2020 come down to accountability and longstanding commitments to equity, Licht said. “We have to be very careful that the momentum doesn’t fizzle out,” she said. “I think the real question is if people, especially white people and white people in power, are actually interested in undoing these systems of harm and systems of oppression.”

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.