Equity and injustice are global issues that surface in the lives of all chief executives. YPO members from around the globe have been working to create learning opportunities to help guide their fellow YPO peers and other leaders to be agents of change.                       

While the current protests that began in the United States were kindled by the death of George Floyd, it is about so much more. It’s about the many eyes that are now wide open after witnessing a Black man’s murder under the knee of systems that have been failing so many for so long. It’s about a demand to those of us who are privileged to commit to equitable dispensation of power, justice and economics.

I find myself these days recounting historical pains and working to democratize common sense because we are so polarized as a people that common sense isn’t so common.

Here is what I mean in the form of an equitable life outcomes litmus test. If there is an “event” like a police officer with a knee on the neck of an unarmed alleged bad guy and you exchange out the actors based on race, meaning the one who is being knelt on is now white and it “becomes” criminal, it was criminal from the beginning.

Stated differently and less graphically but nonetheless as insidious, if two people of equal merit, accomplishment and credit score apply for a loan, and you give the one with lighter skin the loan, most of the time at the expense of the darker-skinned person, it is likely not only illegal, but amoral.                    

Many colleagues within my network have reached out to ask my opinion on a way forward and to memorialize how they might affect significant change. I could devote considerable time to many topics around power, justice and equity. However, I want to provide my business peers some personal insights into our current moment and what we, as corporate leaders, can do to ensure that we don’t waste this crisis. My hope is that we leverage these action steps to facilitate a sustainable path forward.

Here is a glimpse into my organization’s — Midwest BankCentre — journey over the past decade in becoming more diverse and inclusive and striving to create economic opportunity for more people. I don’t claim that we have everything right; we fall short of the victory lap, but through a sustained effort, we’ve made great progress.

A wholesale change of heart

While today we are committed to inclusion and providing access to capital for all within our span of care at Midwest BankCentre (MBC), our commitment to traditionally marginalized communities is a relatively new development in our venerable history. 

MBC is St. Louis’s second largest local privately owned bank with assets exceeding USD2 billion. A mainstay of St. Louis community banking since 1906, the bank employs a staff of more than 250 at locations throughout the St. Louis region. Today, we are a nationally recognized leader in community and economic development. In addition to our digital bank that is in 48 states, we have 17 physical branches, some of which are in St. Louis’s most economically challenged communities, while others are in the most affluent. In banking, proximity matters, but accessibility is about more than location. MBC is committed to providing access to opportunity to all people. We are committed to making meaningful, long-term investments in communities that lift more people up.

But, as I have intimated up to this point, less than 10 years ago, the bank’s narrative was very different. 

Blessings in disguise

In 2009, SLEHCRA (St. Louis Equal Housing & Community Reinvestment Alliance) accused MBC of “redlining,” or withholding home loans from neighborhoods often considered poor, economic risks. Redlining is generally defined as the unethical practice that puts financial and other services out of reach for residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity. It can be seen in the systematic denial of mortgages, insurance, loans, and other financial services based on location, and that area’s default history, rather than an individual’s qualifications and creditworthiness. Notably, the policy of redlining is felt the most by residents of minority and Black neighborhoods.

The lawsuit alleged that the bank served the credit needs of the residents of predominantly white neighborhoods to a significantly greater extent than they have served the credit needs of majority African American neighborhoods.

In June 2011, the bank settled the case. And, while not seen that way at the start, the bank’s leaders and majority ownership now consider these events as blessings in disguise and defining moments. It helped open their eyes, minds and hearts to broader challenges that they were in a position to influence and change. Rather than approach the project as a “series of boxes to check,” which is typical in the business and financial realm when it comes to race, they treated it as any business venture that they wanted to succeed. 

What we as corporate leaders can do                        

When there is a crisis or potential watershed moment, in an effort to do something, and to do it quickly, charity often becomes the first step — but the last one, too. Charity alone, while valuable, will not achieve equitable outcomes for more people. Let’s do the right “something.” That means thinking about and engaging in a range of high-impact activities that are tied to shared prosperity.

It’s about more than writing checks                   

In addition, because there is no correlation between the magnitude of charitable investments and the outcomes of citizens, my plea is that we not be satisfied to simply write checks — and that those on the receiving end not take money without a sustainable path forward. Minorities need to demand tools like access to education and capital. Those of us in power need to personally commit to help more people succeed.

We need to demand that charitable organizations that do receive our funding be held accountable to verifiable outcomes.

The only way diversity and inclusion efforts will prove worthy of this newfound fame is if they are embedded in the hearts of leaders and at the core of enterprise. ”
— Orvin Kimbrough, Chairman & CEO of Midwest BankCentre share twitter

Commit to investing in Black businesses

So often, we limit our ability to truly impact diversity, inclusion and equity by solely focusing on one dimension of how to promote equity with the Black community. I believe we must embrace a refreshed pipeline approach.

That includes affirmative action, which sought to remedy a “marketplace of opportunity” defect and continues with workplace programs.

Companies can make their executive teams more diverse by strengthening sponsorship programs and tying the compensation of sponsors partly to helping individuals navigate the complexities of organizations.

Inclusive economic environments start at the top  

As the wealth gap grows, economic disparities are also diminishing our greatest strength: our diversity.

Embracing and fostering diversity isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also good business. By embracing diversity in people, geography and products, we spark innovation that allows us to better understand and serve all our customers.                         

Choose your leader(s) wisely: they must be an advocate, a bridge builder, a consensus builder, and above all, tenacious. If they are doing their job right, they may make people uncomfortable by pushing boundaries while simultaneously building deep relationships and formidable allies to achieve progress.                       

Use platforms to help others and occupy your space

In the face of repeated disappointment and the learned helplessness that stems from it, it is virtually impossible to muster enough energy to prevail. You need allies. In corporate America, using your voice is an essential tool to address the “wind in the face” challenge that so many people of color people experience.   

Oftentimes racial minorities in powerful positions choose not to use their voice on justice and equity issues because it is “what is expected of us” and not necessarily met warmly. I believe we have a responsibility to use our platforms to help others. We must occupy our space and provide sponsorship for others.

Company culture and community building

Shifting company culture is not easy and takes time.

If you are launching a community planning effort focused on economic inclusiveness, equity and diversity, be sure that the volunteer committee is diverse. Focus the group’s energy on high-impact activities with measurable outcomes.                                

Other activities that build company culture:                                                              

  • Make the time to understand and demystify “the systems” that marginalized groups speak about.
  • Create a safe space for marginalized groups to share their experiences, but don’t create an expectation that they educate you.
  • Be open to hearing. Operate in the uncomfortable zone longer than you typically would, and do not withdraw. 
  • Read three books about race in America and its impact on white people, Black people and the prosperity of the nation. A couple you might consider include, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson and The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

Look outside your network when hiring talent    

If the pipeline in your industry isn’t diverse or your network lacks diversity, be enthusiastic about looking outside your normal spheres.

Along with leveraging networks, the right platform, and positioning more people for success, the key ways to achieve success is to have the right players at the table. That will at times mean going outside your own network to hire diverse talent with diverse perspectives that will challenge your status quo. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but it will make everyone better and stronger. What would it look like for you to commit to increasing racial diversity in your c-suite?

Commit to supplier diversity and minority business development

Even supplier diversity and minority business development programs are prone to overlooking Black and Brown suppliers, due to the umbrella definitions we often use for stigmatized groups.

Although women and racial minorities are often considered under the same umbrella of stigmatized groups, the fact of the matter is that in the U.S., white women generally receive significantly more supplier contracts and they often comprise close to 40% of all employees in professional settings, whereas Black women and men, by contrast, rarely comprise more than 5% of employees in these same settings.

Typical supplier diversity programs are not focused on truly building capacity and sustainability of Black businesses. They are focused on hitting a spend target. In other words, the system is mostly set up to determine how much is going generally in the direction of diverse businesses, and minimal systems are in place to authenticate whether Black businesses are winning an equitable share. When there is no real focus on helping these businesses, who are generally starved of capital and financial acumen scale, supplier programs are prone to shell company fraud.

Instead, create an intentional supplier diversity program, ensuring that leadership reviews the metrics at least quarterly. Build an ecosystem: help introduce those successful suppliers to others within your network. 

Corporations should demand that their key vendors have someone of color and other diverse professionals on projects, so that firms start viewing diversity activities as an advantage. These individuals will grow to establish their own firms, creating a reinforcing loop of wealth creation.

This is a marathon, not a sprint                                         

So many organizations have gone on record in the past several months discussing the importance of creating a truly inclusive environment, from our academic organizations to major corporations. Diversity and inclusion sound bites have never been more popular.

The only way diversity and inclusion efforts will prove themselves worthy of this newfound fame is if they are embedded in the hearts of leaders and at the core of enterprise (nonprofit, academic, health or corporate). Equity, diversity and inclusion efforts must have strategic and operational influence and not be solely anchored in human resources or on an island by itself. Again, to achieve momentum and lasting change, we have to rethink how we foster equity, diversity and inclusion across our spheres of influence within industry and community.

It is incumbent that we the people embrace this sobering moment, challenge the condition of our heart, be conscientious and curious, and muster the stamina to do the hard work in our networks and beyond. 

Our eyes and hearts have been opened by the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death. And, while the intensity of these protests will ebb and flow, they will not go away until America adopts a new way of engaging with her people. Shared prosperity is our only sustainable course.

This work will take longer than you expect. There will be successes — share these as often as you are able. There will be setbacks. Don’t give up. The work is too important.

Read Kimbrough’s full “Shared Prosperity: Our Corporate Responsibility in a Time of Consternation” for Midwest BankCentre.

CNBC’s Tyler Mathisen asks Orvin Kimbrough, Chairman and CEO of Midwest BankCentre, what every businesses owner should do now to stay financially afloat.