Diversity & Equality

Ursula Burns and Darren Walker Tackle Diversity in Corporate America

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  • As powerful leaders in corporate America, Ursula Burns and Darren Walker discuss ways companies and executives can promote diversity and change.
  • "The ultimate objective of the work that I am doing, and the work that Ursula is doing, is to move from tokenism to transformation," Walker said.

The lack of diversity in corporate America is not a new issue, but it is an issue that has taken on increasing importance in recent years as the nation reckoned with LGBTQ rights issues, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and calls for racial justice in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, voting rights legislation, and Stop Asian Hate.

There remain too few women and people of color in powerful positions, and throughout the ranks of organizations at all levels.

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, and Ursula Burns, former CEO and chair of Xerox, are among the most prominent Black executives in the U.S., and serve as directors at several high-profile companies, including Uber and PepsiCo.

They shared insights on how far the business world has come in promoting diversity — and how far it still has to go — at CNBC's Evolve Global Summit on Wednesday.

Time to move beyond tokenism

Change at the top is important.

"When you start to make those changes at the board table, in the C-suite and on the operating committee, it is remarkable how quickly you see other things change," said Walker, who serves on the board of directors for Square, PepsiCo and Ralph Lauren.

But it's not enough.

Walker said in the past he has had the experience of being the only Black director in a room filled with white directors and, in these cases, companies thought having one person of color meant they achieved diversity.

One person of color on a board of directors doesn't mean it is diverse, Walker said. It is a sign that the company is mistaking tokenism for diversity.

"The ultimate objective of the work that I am doing, and the work that Ursula is doing, is to move from tokenism to transformation," Walker said.

Leaders should think before they speak, or 'shut up'

"There has never been a harder time to be a leader in America, certainly the leader of a public company," said Walker.

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate and #MeToo movements, leaders across companies and corporations are being held responsible for what they say and do. And they don't always get it right.

Snowflake CEO Frank Slootman recently suggested diversity came second to merit in the hiring process, and his comments came against the growing push for corporate America to reflect the country's demographics. He later backtracked, and said it was an issue of lack of clarity rather than lack of belief in the importance of diversity, and he apologized for his words and any offense they had caused.

Burns says CEOs and other leaders should think before they speak on these issues.

"Before you use language that is inappropriate, before you use examples that are inappropriate, think about it a little bit and if it's too far on the edge, then I would say shut up," said Burns, who serves on the board of directors for companies including Uber, Exxon Mobil and Nestle.

Leaders need diverse voices around them before they launch into conversations about topics surrounding race, gender and diversity.

"The leaders that are doing that best are leading conversations on trust, and they also have qualities of grace, compassion and empathy," says Walker.

Uncomfortable conversations need to happen

Being careful with words does not mean leaders shouldn't encourage honest conversations.

While the Covid-19 pandemic brought systemic racism to the forefront of conversations, Burns said everyone needs to be open to having conversations with people from differing perspectives.

"We are all learning how to have a conversation that is not divisive," Burns said. "The important thing is we cannot stop the conversations. We can't pretend like we know all of the answers. We have to power through things and learn."

Having uncomfortable conversations is part of the journey towards change in corporate America. 

"My job, as a director in the spaces and places I am present, is to help facilitate conversations so that we have a safe space," Walker said. "Everyone needs to have a safe space, including white people, for us to actually make progress."

Understand diversity is foundational

Diversity can become an idea that leadership thinks about as being on a checklist to complete before moving on. That's wrong.

Burns said diversity is part of the foundation of a company — diversity is necessary, not optional.

"You can have a little bit less money, but you can't have a little bit less diversity or a little bit less ethics and be a successful, future-ready, longstanding company," Burns said.

Diversity, equity and inclusion don't need to be at the top of the agenda every day, but it is always foundational to the success of a company, she said.

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