Black executives: Here's how to advance workplace equity

Katy Smith
Ian Labitue, Kaufman Development

Ian Labitue had checked all the boxes for a young Black man aspiring to join the ranks of business leadership in America. His mother had risen through the banking system in Boston to a corporate role, and he grew up listening to her advice on how to be strategic, how to find mentors, and how to find people who looked like him to guide him.

He graduated with an undergraduate degree in finance from Morehouse College in Atlanta, a historically Black men’s college—the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr.—with a powerful alumni base. Labitue added a law degree from the University of Michigan to that. 

Yet he experienced loneliness and isolation early in his career. 

“When you show up to meetings or attend conferences, show up to work every day and you’re the only [Black person] or one of very few… I didn’t work with another Black male legal associate until I moved to Columbus, and I was already six or seven years into my practice,” Labitue says. “That is troublesome to me.”

Now the director of finance for Kaufman Development, Labitue says he’s found a place where he feels optimistic and confident, where his talents are recognized and rewarded. But over his nearly two decades of corporate work, being one of few Black people put him in a vulnerable position that led to uncomfortable, and many times insulting, moments in his career. Like the time a law partner asked him to join a project pitch team because the client demanded contractor diversity. 

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“I was confused, because I had never really spoken to this partner before about work stuff, and also it was a litigation matter, and I was a corporate associate,” Labitue says. “I soon realized that I was being invited to the pitch because there were no African American lawyers on that team. I was one of the few in the firm. And to win the business, they had to look for a team that showed diversity.” 

He imagined what sitting in the pitch meeting with no real connection to the project would be like. “I was going to be there feeling awkward and anxious, hoping that I didn’t get called on to answer a question, because I wasn’t equipped to do that. And the monetary benefit coming into the firm and the prestige of having that client wasn’t going to be something that I could use to elevate myself, say, when I’m up for partner saying hey, look at this company that I helped bring in. I was really only asked to be there because of my skin color. And that’s just not OK.”

Labitue told the partner he would not feel comfortable participating in the pitch. “And the response was, that’s not what’s going on, we really just think this is a great opportunity for everyone involved.” Labitue declined the offer—for him, it was a risk worth taking. “There have been other times where I have not felt empowered enough to stick up for myself in that way,” he says. “More often than not, the higher you go, the riskier it is, and the higher the stakes for you to stick up for yourself as a Black person in corporate America. Because then you put a spotlight on yourself, and you might take yourself out of another opportunity, or someone may not think that you’re a team player. You might not get invited to the next dinner, where important conversations are had. And all of those things happen.”

The summer’s protests following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery sparked a movement for racial justice and equality unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes. For large organizations with powerful platforms, such as the member companies of the Columbus Partnership, the movement brought new urgency to the conversation on why there are so few Black people among the ranks of business leadership.

A series of video calls were convened by the Partnership early in June, as protestors filled the streets of Downtown Columbus, to engage CEOs and Black corporate leaders in how they could use their collective voices and their considerable power to bring about meaningful change. “We tried to be very proactive in the moment to make sure that we were both listening and letting our voices be heard,” says Alex Fischer, CEO of the Columbus Partnership. Robert Livingston, a lecturer of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government with whom the organization works—he has a home in Columbus—led one of the calls, which also featured small-group breakouts. 

Building trust within and across organizations was one of the goals, Fischer says. “It all starts with being in fellowship and trusted relationships with one another to have sometimes tough, emotional conversations that are going to help us better understand everybody’s perspective on the issues that we’re facing.” The work will continue, he says, with activities this fall around best practices for businesses in advancing themselves—and society—into an equitable future.

It is very much the domain of businesses to fight racism, says Karen Morrison, president of the OhioHealth Foundation and senior vice president for OhioHealth. “I’m of the opinion that corporate business leaders can focus first on [what they’re close to]: board diversity, diversity in their C-suites, and making executives and others feel included in their organizations,” says Morrison, who marked 32 years with OhioHealth Aug. 9. In that time, she rose from her first job as an epidemiologist at Riverside Methodist Hospital to one overseeing external relations, corporate reinvestment, community health and wellness, government affairs and strategic philanthropic advancement for one of the Columbus region’s largest employers.

How can businesses advance more Black people, people of color and women into leadership? It’s a topic Morrison and her colleagues at the Executive Leadership Council, a national member organization of 500 African American executives across industries, are keenly focused on. The council supported the 2019 report Being Black in Corporate America by the New York-based Center for Talent Innovation. While Black adults represent 10 percent of college degree holders in the U.S., they make up 8 percent of professionals, 3.2 percent of executives and senior managers, and just 0.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, the report found. This, despite that Black professionals are more likely than white ones to aspire to the CEO role, it found. 

But barriers keep Black people out of the C-suite. First, they have a more difficult time getting hired in the first place because of the tendency for people to hire people who are similar to them. “In the environments of corporate America, people like to be around and work with people that they feel like they have things in common with,” Labitue says. “And so you hire someone who went to the same school as you or from the same neighborhood or same church, and a lot of that stuff, unfortunately, is around racial lines.”

If they can get through that gauntlet, many experience stress and frustration in organizations and simply leave. “The hard part is creating an environment where someone will say, hey, I can not only see myself there, but I can also move to the right track in a law firm, I can be a partner, or at a bank, I can be a vice president, because they’ll be champions and advocates for me,” Labitue says. 

That dynamic is why Jocelyn Armstrong says “inclusion and diversity” rather than the common “diversity and inclusion.” The director of inclusion and outreach for the Ohio State Bar Association became one of the few Black women attorneys after she was inspired by Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. “We’ve been talking about diversity for a very long time. If I’m 40, they’ve been doing this probably as long as I’ve been alive,” she says. “And we’ve certainly seen some incremental growth. But there’s still such a long way to go. 

“The inclusion piece is where I think our profession and many others have been having struggles,” Armstrong says. “We have this great recruitment, but we don’t have good retention.”

The commitment to hire from a diverse slate needs to come from the top of an organization, Morrison and Armstrong say, and leaders should be held accountable for meeting that goal. That especially includes the board of directors. 

And, mentors and sponsors don’t need to be people of color—they should also be white men and women, those interviewed for this story say.

The same goes for leadership of diversity initiatives, says Autumn Glover, government affairs and community relations consultant with Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and interim president of Partners Achieving Community Transformation, or PACT, which is a partnership of the university, city of Columbus and the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority to revitalize the area around OSU Hospital East. 

“You shouldn’t always ask the brown people to lead the diversity initiatives, because the Black and brown folks are not in the positions of power to change things,” she says. And people should take chances on staff. 

“Sometimes you get a diverse candidate pool, and they don’t meet every single criteria. But you’re more likely [because of] implicit bias [to choose a white applicant] because of social capital—she worked for that person before, or her mom is a member of this Rotary Club—and that social capital does not translate racial lines,” Glover says. “So you’ve got to stretch yourself to say, we’re going to take a chance on this candidate because she’s going to bring something that we don’t have, and we’re going to grow her.”

Intentional mechanisms should be put into place, like one Morrison described at OhioHealth, to grow a pipeline of diverse executives through a formal mentorship initiative, giving people of color access to senior leaders, says Dr. Darrell Gray II, a gastroenterologist and associate professor at Ohio State University College of Medicine. In addition to his clinical practice, Gray holds multiple leadership roles in community health and racial equity programs. He and Glover, along with two others, recently authored “How Academia Should Respond to Racism,” a paper published in the journal Nature that calls for academic medical centers to incorporate anti-racism into all they do. “[These mentorship programs] should consider things like succession planning—It’s not about checking boxes to get X number of Black people or Latinx folks,” he says. “It’s creating the opportunities for people from different racial, ethnic, sexual orientation and gender identity backgrounds to be able to justly and fairly ascend into those positions.”

For people who don’t have the networks, or the money, or the influence, sponsor relationships are critical, says Elon Simms, who earned social work degrees from Ohio State and spent time at Franklin County Children Services and leading community relations for Mayor Andrew Ginther before becoming vice president of community impact for the Crane Group. 

“I would hope that when CEOs read stories like this, they begin to understand that the community is asking, has been asking, them to step up, to step out, to lean in, to call themselves into the work that is required to achieve great prosperity for this community,” Simms says. 

He says he was encouraged by the conversations he heard during the Columbus Partnership calls in June. “A lot of companies were putting out public statements expressing their solidarity and their allyship towards issues that affect Black and brown people,” he says. “It was powerful to have this group of leaders come together and purposefully and intentionally invite [Black executives] to be a part of these conversations. 

“Now let’s see organizations get out and do the work that is required.”

Katy Smith is the editor of Columbus CEO.

Elon Simms, Crane Group