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Black Leaders Get Candid About the Massive Overhaul Required to Fix Corporate Diversity & Inclusion Issues

Samantha McDonald

It’s no secret that diversity and inclusion plays a critical role in the success of a business. Although diversity is often highest at the store level, inclusion in other facets of a organization is often missing for these employees. Meanwhile, in boardrooms and C-suites, Black and other minority leaders are hard to come by — and where they do exist, they may be ill-equipped to drive change, said panelists during a session today at FN’s first-ever virtual summit, “The Way Ahead.”

“A lot of these organizations are operating within a white supremacist work culture,” said Darla DeGrace, CEO and diversity, equity and inclusion strategist at DeGrace Group Consulting. “It’s a culture that is biased and racist. There are a lack of opportunities for the marginalized community to advance. They are pigeonholed into their roles. They are not given constructive feedback.”

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During the panel conversation, part of FN’s two-day summit that is sponsored by Klarna and held in partnership with FFANY, FDRA and Two Ten, deputy editor Sheena Butler-Young and three industry experts, including DeGrace, discussed the importance of diversity in the current national climate as well as what’s at stake if brands don’t take the necessary steps.

To make progress, brands should be thinking about D&I down to the store level: According to D’Wayne Edwards, founder of the Pensole Design Academy, stores themselves should be able to reflect the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds of their markets — particularly since retail associates often serve as the point of contact or liaison between a shopper and the company itself.

“The retail associate is probably one of your most valued employees because they’re the closest to consumer,” Edwards said. “Most of these brand’s [headquarters] are far away in suburban areas where they have to rely on data that comes from a retail level, but it’s only a one-sided conversation.”

If companies worked more diligently to recruit for corporate roles from the store level, they may find they have a more attractive candidate pool when it’s time to hire for key roles, added Edwards. Be that as it may, DeGrace suggested that many retail associates might not even recognize their own talents, which could prevent them from taking on more responsibility or a better title.

“[An employee] may come in and kill it on the sales side not realizing how that translates into a role within marketing or within sales in the corporate side,” she said. “Oftentimes these young people coming into these roles don’t really understand what the career trajectory is or how they can move up within the organization — and that onus is partly on that manager to better understand where the opportunities are for advancement.”

However, due to the inherent nature of the retail workforce — made even more volatile amid the coronavirus pandemic — store associates might even go head-to-head with their own department managers, which could result in a cannibalization of diverse talent.

“At the retail level, it’s competitive,” said Drew Greer, cofounder of Brand I Am. “I think you need sort of a pipeline or ecosystem that sits outside of that [company] setting that interacts with those personnel because a lot of times the managers go on to the same corporate job as [store] associates.”

To build diversity within their companies, experts have suggested that retailers source talent from local colleges or universities, seek referrals from their employees or look within their own workforce. Companies must also strive to not only retain their top talents but also bring in fresh faces that can help build a workforce and culture that connects with the country’s changing demographics.

In recent months, the national discussion surrounding D&I initiatives has reached a fever pitch following the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of white police officers in Minnesota in late May. A number of companies across the country have spoken out in support of or pledged donations to the Black community — but experts noted that, while such actions are commendable, businesses need to make a deeper commitment to diversity and integrate them into every aspect of their corporate culture.

Last month, two fashion industry thought leaders — Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and communications consultant Sandrine Charles — launched the Black in Fashion Council to help the advancement of Black men and women in the fashion and beauty sectors. The council, among other ambitious goals, is asking companies to commit to the inclusion of Black people within their workforces.

“All of that suppression that has happened for years or decades now [are now] showing up at the expense of the company — just not being transparent and owning up to the issues that they’re having that they have within their organizations,” Edwards said. “The need for an outside association to police the organizations, specifically around racial injustice, is a much-needed resource more than ever.”

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