Rhonda Foxx is the newly-minted Head of Social Equity Policies & Engagements at Intel. Before that, she was chief of staff for Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and ran for Congress earlier this year.
During a recent talk at Duke University, she called the current pandemic “a period of great reset.” It’s a chance to solve social and racial inequality issues.
“If we don’t…who’s going to work in our workforce? Who’s going to buy our technology?” she warned.
Here’s our In Conversation with Rhonda about what steps companies can take during the current coronavirus crisis that could immediately lead to progress. Duke professors Ken Rogerson and David Hoffman join in.
cc: David, Ken
Rhonda, you said several times during your talk that companies shouldn’t only serve their customers — they need to serve society.
You made a point of saying that governments are often too slow to enact important changes, but corporations can be more nimble, and used voting as an example. The notion of making Election Day a national holiday has really never gained traction, but we see more and more corporations giving workers time off to vote, for example.
So, as you said, “companies need both profits and purpose.”
We’re hearing language like this more and more from company executives, and that’s welcome. Still, to make it more than talk, what are three (or more!) things that companies can do right now that would have immediate, but also lasting, impact?
To: Bob, David, Ken
#1: Equity & D&I dialogues have to begin at each respective company internally. We have to get serious about retaining diverse talent (it’s not good enough just to recruit diverse leaders). This requires having hard conversations about internal culture and holding middle managers accountable – like any other priority, incentivize diverse recruitment and retention. According to current statistics, I will not last more than 12 months at my company – this is a significant issue that needs to be addressed by the private sector.
#2. Equity & D&I commitments then need to extend beyond our walls and into our communities. In terms of education, we don’t invest in course curriculum and infrastructure development at minority-serving institutions like we do PWIs. Traditionally, we just come and recruit talent (that inevitably leaves our companies). Additionally, corporate executives don’t maintain a presence at most MSIs (graduation speeches, guest lectures). Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not. And as this world becomes more dominated by connections and networking, what does this mean for diverse students?
#3. Don’t over-complicate equity and inclusion. If you walk into a room and every leader looks like you, then you have a problem on your hands. Accept the problem and commit to fixing it (with resources, metrics for success, and accountability – not just words), we can have Al, but we can’t eliminate inequity?
From: David Hoffman
To: Rhonda, Ken, Bob
Companies tend to reflect not what is said by their leaders, but the visible actions of company management — and not only actions of one-time donations to deserving causes, but visible accountability of middle management to accomplish measurable goals. We have yet to see companies publish measurable social equity and criminal justice reform goals. Those goals need to be put in place and then specific members of company management need to be held accountable for accomplishing them. There are a number of great opportunities for this, starting with local and state laws in areas where companies have sizable presences. Measurable commitment to support historically black colleges and universities with financial resources and hiring is a great way to start.
From: Ken Rogerson
To: Rhonda, David, Bob
There has been criticism that corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, for example, are simply avenues for good publicity and that companies only emphasize CSR-related activities when they need some good PR. While the CSR programs and activities will probably do some good, it is important for organizations to think about diversity and equity differently. As already said, the audiences are BOTH internal and external. Employees need to see – and feel – that there are efforts to improve the diversity and equity environment in a company. In addition, companies need to be transparent about successes and failures and what they will change when they fail. Commitment to diversity and equity cannot just be in the service of some mandate from higher up, but needs to feel that it is a part of the company’s core.
Every company that can should hire a diversity and equity ombudsperson, someone who is 1) allowed to keep confidences, 2) trained in how to respond and 3) empowered to respond and implement change. To borrow a phrase I have heard, in order to effect real change, organizations need to have someone who wakes up every morning thinking about how to improve diversity and equity. If this responsibility is simply tacked on to a person’s other duties, there is less of a chance that things will get better.
To: Ken, Bob, Rhonda
Building on what Prof. Rogerson added, one thing we see on campus is how important these issues are to students. These students want to work for companies that advance social equity and racial justice. Students are not looking just to what companies say, but what they are doing. They want to see a corporate culture in line with their values. Back in the 80s and 90s the best and brightest on college campuses would no longer work for tobacco companies. Now students are evaluating companies based on their commitment to social equity and racial justice. Embedding those issues within company culture is increasingly not just good business but a strategic necessity.