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Black Fortune 500 CEO: ‘Unusual things’ still happen to me because of my race

Roger Ferguson, CEO of TIAA, which provides investment and retirement plan services, is only one of four African-American CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. He made history as the first African-American Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in 1999. 

Yet even Ferguson isn’t immune from racial discrimination, and he shared his experience with Yahoo Finance’s “The Ticker.”

“We should be honest. All of us who are people of color have faced discrimination one way or another,” said Ferguson. “And even as a CEO I cannot walk down the street without sometimes having unusual things happen that might be attributed to race. Here in New York, trying to get a cab heading uptown continues to be a bit of a problem if you start in the wrong area. “So let’s be clear: there is discrimination still.”

Racial discrimination in the workplace is illegal and has been banned since the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since 2010, there have been hundreds of thousands of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

Ferguson, who holds a law degree and PhD in economics from Harvard University, says education is key to professional advancement. “My mother told me to stay in school for as long as I could,” he said. “And she also said education is the only thing that they can’t take away from you, so that’s really important.”

Ferguson highlighted the importance of always doing one’s work well. “Frankly, having the type of work ethic that says there’s really no job that’s really too small to do well,” he said.

“My first job as a work-study student in college was cleaning bathrooms,” he said. “I did it for two years in a row. Wasn’t exactly glamorous work, but you know what, dog-garnit, I was the best scrubber Harvard has ever seen. And so this notion of taking every job, doing it to your best. That’s how you earn the right to do the next thing.”

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