Late in his life, congressman and prominent civil rights leader John Lewis wrote, "Every generation leaves behind a legacy. What that legacy will be is determined by the people of that generation. What legacy do you want to leave behind?"
If you’re a business owner eager to use your position to foster allyship, it helps to ask the same question of your business, over and over again. One approach is to start by committing to learning about racial equity and providing the right educational tools and resources to your employees that can help dismantle structures of bias and discrimination.
To help navigate issues of racial equity in the workplace, I spoke with an expert in African-American history and two Black women entrepreneurs who offer insight on how to work towards a more equitable business environment.
Dismantling Implicit Bias
As associate professor of history and director of African-American Studies at Hood College in Maryland, Terry Anne Scott, Ph.D., considers everything in context. Time and place matter. The author of several books, she is also resident historian for Project Pilgrimage, an organization that takes interracial participants on journeys through Southern states to explore — and apply lessons from — the history of the modern civil rights movement.
She highlights multilayered reasons to foster a learning environment around race, pointing out high humanitarian and economic benefits of doing so. "New moral paradigms are being created as we speak," says Scott. "There are new expectations among patrons that businesses not just comply with, but become pioneers in, racial and social justice."
"If you have an employee who harbors implicit bias, that can come out in the way they treat customers of color, perhaps falsely implicating them, following them around or providing poor customer service," says Scott. "In today's age of social media, you run the risk of really damaging or destroying your business without proper training of your employees."
To mitigate this risk, consider engaging your team in a series of implicit bias trainings, Scott says, leveraging resources like online tutorials or discussion groups around anti-racist books, videos, podcasts and ally groups. For live training, invite local experts: Contact a nearby college or university, she advises, to ask if an instructor might visit your organization — virtually or in-person — to facilitate a conversation about dismantling implicit bias and attacking issues of racial inequality. This type of community service, often at no cost, can count toward professors’ tenure-track responsibilities. To generate more high-impact, creative solutions within your budget, it can pay to solicit input from your team, especially those whose voices need encouragement.
Chicago entrepreneur Danielle Mullen opened Semicolon, the city’s only Black woman-owned bookstore, in July 2019. Despite the business’s rapid growth in the past several months, Mullen kept her small, all-Black staff to a team of five. Amid the jump in average weekly book sales from $3,000 to $50,000 — due to a spike of interest in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and other race-focused books — and lines around the block, she relied on this small but mighty team. They all worked long hours, sometimes 16-hour days, while serving a radically new customer base. Prior to late May 2020, Semicolon buyers were 80 percent Black, Mullen estimates. Now they are roughly 70 percent white. The intensity of change, coinciding with increased anxiety over historic and current racial violence, prompted Mullen to grant $1,000 bonuses for self-care and to cover mental health therapy costs for her employees.
Though she might not need to teach her Black team members about implicit bias, Mullen does provide an education in caring for their own well-being during difficult conversations with some customers. She says that by her example, her young staff has learned to model Mullen’s way of responding constructively to the feelings of guilt and grief of white patrons as contextualized in Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
They’ve had the opportunity to listen to Mullen communicate a message like this; now they have the tools to relay a version of their own: "I understand your tears. But… the problem is not solved with your tears, it’s [solved with] actual allyship. You need to be breaking down the systems of oppression that hold people like me down." This message, says Mullen, is often a customer’s first real-life introduction to anti-racism — and now her young employees, who learn by watching her, are equipped to provide that education as necessary.
In today's age of social media, you run the risk of really damaging or destroying your business without proper training of your employees.
—Terry Anne Scott, associate professor of history and director of African-American Studies, Hood College
Encouraging and Rewarding Participation
Kaneisha Grayson founded her company, The Art of Applying, with a $10,000 entrepreneurship fellowship from Harvard Business School. A graduate of its MBA program, Grayson also earned an MPA (Master of Public Administration) from Harvard Kennedy School. Since launching in 2010, her business has helped more than 1,000 clients gain admission to top national and international graduate programs, with more than $12 million in fellowships awarded. With a full-time staff of three, her team also includes more than 20 independent contractors who work as consultants, coaches and content creators. Several are former clients of The Art of Applying who returned to the company for part-time work and to "pay it forward," in Grayson’s words.
"The work that I do is helping create a more socially just world. In most cases, I'm helping marginalized people gain access to elite education that will position them to be able to take on leadership roles in business, government and the nonprofit sector," she says. Her team broadly represents people of color and Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ and non-binary individuals. When calling on a few existing team members recently to co-host a panel on "How to Navigate Corporate America as a Woman of Color," she provided additional compensation for their work.
"It’s important for business managers and leaders not to assume that people of color are necessarily diversity-and-inclusion experts. Or that they have a more advanced vocabulary to discuss these issues," she says. "It’s best to hire paid professionals — or, like me, if you can tap into the experiences of people of color already on payroll, they need to be paid separately, above and beyond their normal rate. This is beyond their job description."
If we think about the modern civil rights movement, much of the leadership came from the bottom up. The work of John Lewis was very much about participatory democracy and grassroots organizing. It does not require top leadership to facilitate change, but it does require top leadership to support change. "Small-business leaders should understand that the point is not to get it perfect. There is no way to get it perfect," says Grayson. "The point is to put forth real effort and resources: time and money toward better understanding and committed action."
Photo: Getty Images