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'Jury is out’ on corporate commitment to racial justice: former Citigroup chairman

Max Zahn with Andy Serwer
·4 min read

The siege of the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump this week prompted condemnation from many of the country’s most prominent business leaders, including J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon and Alphabet (GOOG, GOOGL) CEO Sundar Pichai.

The wave of denunciations echoed a similar outpouring of lament from corporate America over the police killing of George Floyd last summer, when just about every major company pledged to help address racial injustice.

In a new interview, former Citigroup (C) Chairman Dick Parsons, who also served as CEO of Time Warner, said the “jury is out” on whether corporations will follow through on commitments to fight for racial equality that many made roughly seven months ago.

Parsons, who became one of the nation’s first Black CEOs in the early 2000s, said the greater attention paid to racial inequality in the present day increases the likelihood of change. But ultimately, the pursuit of competitive advantage will be the mechanism that forces companies to recruit and hire diverse talent, Parsons said.

“There’s a lot of talk, but we haven't seen the results of any activities or actions taken,” he says.

“You'll see some some progress speed up,” he adds. “I thought so 20 years ago, and it didn't happen. Now, there's more focus in the corporate community and in the political community, and the community at large on equity and justice.”

“So I have my fingers crossed, but I'm not predicting that everything's going to be right 10 years from now.”

Diversity remains a significant challenge at many major companies, including in the lucrative banking and tech sectors. A study released by the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services last year found that minorities make up 19% of executive senior leadership positions in the industry.

Meanwhile, Black people made up 9% of workers in core information-technology occupations in the U.S. in 2019, up slightly from 8% in 2015 and 7% in 2010, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited by MarketWatch.

All in all, there remain only four Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

From left, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Richard Parsons ceo of AOL Time-Warner, and Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., pose for photographers at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2002, in Washington. (AP Photo/Ken Lambert)
From left, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Richard Parsons ceo of AOL Time-Warner, and Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., pose for photographers at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2002, in Washington. (AP Photo/Ken Lambert)

‘The secret sauce that makes equality’

Despite the sluggish pace of progress, Parsons said the competitive pressure of a global economy will demand that companies prize talent and abandon bias as they hire workers.

“The world frankly just globalizes, even against the will of those who would like to keep our stuff and not let others in,” he says. “Businesses are finding you have to get talent wherever you can find it.”

“If you believe — as I do, as most people do — the talent is randomly dispersed among populations. It's not white, it's not black,” he adds. “There's talent everywhere — people are going to be forced to go out and get that talent if they want to compete successfully.”

“That’s going to be the secret sauce that makes equality,” he says.

Parsons spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Known for leading organizations through crisis, Parsons took over as chairman of Citigroup in 2009 after the financial crash, and he became interim CEO of the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014 after the league removed owner Donald Sterling.

He also helped rejuvenate the Apollo Theater over more than two decades on its board of directors, from which he stepped down last month.

Parsons, who served in some fashion every Republican president from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush, cited as a sign of racial progress the election victory on Tuesday of Democratic baptist preacher Raphael Warnock, the first Black person elected to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate. Warnock defeated Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who had criticized the activist group Black Lives Matter on the campaign trail.

“I regard it as a marker of progress in the state of Georgia,” Parsons says. “That there were enough open-minded people.”

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