Corporate America weighs in on protests, racism as companies struggle with diverse staffing

Only four US Fortune 500 company CEOs are black – less than a percent.

With Americans taking to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, corporate America is now using this national moment to speak out on racism and pledge a renewed commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Nike, a sports brand known for speaking out on social justice issues, released an ad telling viewers “don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America” and “not to accept innocent lives being taken.”

The company previously partnered with former NFL quarterback Collin Kaepernick in 2018, who gained attention after he protested police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem.

“Millennials are going to want to do business with brands that they trust that they have confidence in,” said Mike Jackson, founder of 2050 Marketing in the Silicon Beach area of Los Angeles. “There's been some that obviously have done it very well because it's consistent within their DNA like Nike, and there's been others that it's been a little bit awkward for.”

BET, MTV, VH1 and Comedy Central— entertainment channels all owned by ViacomCBS—went dark for nearly nine minutes on Monday, featuring the sound of a person struggling to breathe in an effort to symbolize the time leading up to Floyd’s death.

While branding experts believe the social justice message of some companies have remained steady well before the protests fueled by video of Floyd, an African-American man pinned down under a white police officer’s knee, they argue that other companies may only now be feeling the pressure to do so.

“We just saw that people were trying to be inclusive by accident or by impulse, rather than really being inclusive by design, which is more about being a real ally and more about changing structures,” said Asad Duhunna, founder of The Unmistakeables, a public relations consulting firm. “It takes more than a post on Instagram or tweet it takes real steps."

As CEOs continue to issue strongly worded statements condemning racism and announce multi-million dollar initiatives to advance cause of diversity, the violent arrest and death of Floyd has brought renewed scrutiny to the lack of diversity within the c-suites of corporate America.

Out of all of America’s Fortune 500 companies, only four CEOs are black – less than a percent.

According to the Center for Talent Innovation, African Americans hold 3.2% of senior leadership positions at large companies. 65% say they have to work harder to advance within the workplace, compared to 16% of white employees. While according to the U.S. Census Bureau, blacks comprise more than 13% of the population.

PHOTO: High-rise office towers are shown in this undated file photo.
High-rise office towers are shown in this undated file photo.
Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Getty Images, FILE

Bob Iger, executive chairman of the Walt Disney Company, the parent company of ABC News, last year said diversity was “lacking” in the company’s senior leadership. It’s an issue Iger, who stepped down as CEO earlier this year, said he wants to change. The Walt Disney company is pledging $5 million to support nonprofit organizations that advance social justice, and is starting with a $2 million donation to the NAACP.

Silicon Valley, home to America’s most prominent tech companies and startups, has long battled with its reputation for having tech firms run mostly by white men.

Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote this week that the company commits “to looking inward and pushing progress forward on inclusion and diversity, so that every great idea can be heard.”

Cook also announced that the company would be making a number of financial contributions to the Equal Justice Initiative, which pursues racial justice and challenges mass incarceration. In addition cook wrote, “We commit to looking inward and pushing progress forward on inclusion and diversity.”

When it comes to senior leadership at Apple, only three percent of the company’s managers are black, compared to 63 percent of whites and 26 percent of Asians.

The data paints a similar portrait at other big tech companies, which have committed to releasing yearly diversity and inclusion reports in an effort to be transparent about their staffing demographics.

Google’s top executives are nearly 66% white, while blacks make up less than 3% of the company’s top leadership. A spokesman for Google said the company has taken action since publishing its diversity report, launching programs supporting its communities globally.

Whites make up 60% of the senior leadership at the Netflix, while blacks hold just 8% of those roles. A Netflix spokesman said the company has been taking a direct approach by building relationships with historically black colleges and universities to develop a talent pipeline, and seek networking opportunities with black tech professionals.

Despite these efforts, workplace diversity and inclusion advocates believe many companies still have a long way to go in advancing minorities within their organizations.

“Without diverse talent, you're missing out on strong performing talent,”said Crystal Ashby, interim CEO of the Executive Leadership Council. “But you're also missing out on the diverse ideas that will come to the table when you're having a discussion that will allow you to get to the very best end result for the company and the best solution.”

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