During INROADS’s 50th Anniversary Diversity Summit, which took place Nov. 4-6, 2020, DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson delivered a virtual keynote address on the power of disruption to create irreversible, sustainable change. Her speech conveyed why diversity, fairness and equal access are relevant to business leaders — and society as a whole — and she also outlined her vision for a future of gender equality and racial justice.
Johnson is a board member of INROADS, a professional development and networking organization that focuses on helping students from underrepresented groups find career opportunities. She opened the conversation by discussing examples of large companies tapping into the power of disruption. Johnson lauded Nike’s campaigns to disavow gender stereotypes, Tesla’s work to bring sustainable energy to the luxury car industry and even Netflix’s ability to shift the primary medium of consuming films and television series to streaming.
“There will always be an appetite for profitable disruption in the consumer world. And the C-suite is no different,” Johnson emphasized.
New York, Dubai, London and Singapore are the most innovative, disruptive and prosperous urban centers around the world — and they’re all international melting pots, Johnson added.
“The business case for diversity is about more than just gender, race and ethnicity. It is also about employees with diverse religious and political beliefs, education, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, cultures and even disabilities.”
When companies tap into their diversity, they’re gaining benefits that go beyond optics, Johnson said.
She gave the example of Michael Dowling, the president and CEO of Northwell Health, who is one of the most influential — and disruptive — voices in the healthcare industry. Dowling has been candid and outspoken about issues including gun violence and racism, calling them public health crises. Northwell Health has 70,000 employees and is New York’s largest private employer. The company also consistently implements diversity mentoring and development programs for women and community health workers. Northwell Health has also enhanced the accurate collection and use of race, ethnicity and preferred language data as part of the American Hospital Association’s “Equity of Care” pledge. Northwell Health ranked no. 1 on DiversityInc’s Specialty List for Top Hospitals and Health Systems in 2020.
“Leaders like Michael Dowling and companies like Northwell Health are affective, effective and transparent, harnessing the power of disruption to create universal and sustainable change,” Johnson said.
She then moved on to discussing why racial equity is not just an issue that applies to Black, brown and Latinx communities. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are also the fastest growing ethnic population in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.
But Johnson said that even as the country diversifies, white supremacy leaves each racial group scrambling for a “piece of the corporate pie.” Many people fighting for few elite spots leads us to a zero-sum game, or a competitive situation in which there is no net gain. In a country and world where poverty is rampant, Johnson said the need for even minimum-wage work can spark jealousy and anger within groups rather than uniting them to protest against the system that is depriving all non-white demographics.
“If one gains, it means others must lose an equivalent amount. So, for example, if the only way you were to gain $1,000 is to deprive someone else of $1,000, you, my friends, are in a zero-sum game,” Johnson said. “But here’s the uncomfortable truth: People of color are in a zero-sum game fighting the model minority myth, distancing wherever possible from Blackness to get ahead [and] facing division that is inherent to capitalism. It’s no surprise employment and job opportunity pits us against each other.”
During her speech, Johnson also memorialized Bernard Tyson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente (DiversityInc Hall of Fame) who died in 2019. She recalled one anecdote he gave when he spoke at the 2017 TIME 100 Gala when he mentioned a lesson he learned from a conversation he had with his father years ago that taught him about using his privilege, influence and power for good.
“Bernard was a perfect example of a positive, powerful, impactful walking disruptor because of the rooms, places and spaces he entered and changed along the way,” Johnson said.
Johnson also congratulated Corie Pauling, TIAA’s chief inclusion and diversity officer, who was named one of North America’s most influential diversity leaders by Hive Learning. TIAA ranked No. 9 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020.
With these examples of fearless and accountable leaders fighting for equality and justice in the corporate sphere, Johnson said her hope was to leave a legacy for her children. She said in 2030, her son will be 14 and her daughter will be 17 and that she wants them to see the fruits of her efforts.
“I want them to see the tangible results of accelerated progress toward gender equality and race relations. I want each of them to know Mommy planted trees she would never sit under,” Johnson said.
But the murders of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, George Floyd and countless others “rip the Band-Aid off of the festering sore of racism in this country,” Johnson said.
“That sore of oozing, smelling and playing on repeat in a 24-hour news cycle is a direct result of unchecked racism,” she added.
To facilitate real change, Johnson said the business community and policymakers have to work together. She brought up a June 2020 CNBC interview where Randall Stephenson, executive chairman of the board at AT&T (DiversityInc Hall of Fame) said large companies are adept at affective change in Washington if it’s a priority. He went on to make a call to action for influential leaders like him to affect action and policy change. In regard to racial profiling and excessive policing, Stephenson said that if he were to use the same policies that led to the countless deaths of unarmed Black people by the police at AT&T, he would have promptly lost his job — and been sued.
“That people are treated one way in offices and on campuses and then are subjected to the exact opposite when they get in their cars and drive away — that is truth-telling, that is leadership accountability,” Johnson said of Stephenson’s comments.
She also said that aside from being a moral imperative, equality and justice are integral to a healthy free-market economy. She explained that in corporate America, most diversity efforts fail when they allow white male leadership teams to paternalistically decide to “do” diversity, equity and inclusion on their terms. There are no repercussions for failure, and therefore, their actions are pointless.
Johnson quoted DiversityInc Founder and Chairman, Luke Visconti: “It’s like a car dealership deciding to have a sale on a fleet of 2005 Pontiac Aztecs, which were suddenly discovered in Newark Airport long-term parking lot Q. It makes no sense and no one cares.”
She said leadership should take to heart that the absence of a negative is not a positive, and signs of progress is not the same as actual progress. Until professionals from underrepresented communities are given the same leg up as white men in their careers, there will still be work to do. For those who don’t believe white men are granted privileges in the corporate world, Johnson recommended they educate themselves before claiming to understand diversity and inclusion.
“Do yourself and us a favor and stop talking about diversity until you are slightly competent to do so,” she said, adding that DiversityInc’s Book Recommendations for Leaders page is a valuable resource for those looking to learn more about civil rights and antiracist leadership.
She also pointed out that gender equality for people of all ethnicities is necessary for a society to flourish. In the U.S., women are earning more master’s, bachelor’s and doctoral degrees than men, yet they are underrepresented in leadership and decision-making conversations. Around the world, there has been progress for women and girls, but when the pandemic hit, women bore the heaviest burden.
“A shocking 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September  alone.” Johnson said. “Across every sphere from health to economy, the global crisis has made it starkly visible that the world’s formal economies and the maintenance of our daily lives are built on the invisible and unpaid labor of women and girls.”
Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the crisis the pandemic has caused, Johnson said data shows organizations who are putting women and girls at the center of economies will drive better outcomes.
She reiterated that in order to achieve social and economic progress after the pandemic, society needs to focus on true equality for all.
“Bottom line: let’s all harness the power of disruption to create irreversible, sustainable change,” Johnson concluded. “Keep on measuring, reporting, improving and activating the power of transparency. Be an ally to others in this fight for equality. Own your power and walk in it proudly.”