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Roger Ferguson on racial inequality: education is a 'great equalizer'

TIAA President & CEO Roger Ferguson joins 'Influencers with Andy Serwer' to share his experience with racial inequality in American society.

Video Transcript

- On a personal level, Roger, what challenges did you face as a black man at elite institutions like Harvard and the Fed, and how did you overcome those?

ROGER FERGUSON: So I grew up in Washington DC when it was a segregated city. I grew up desperately wanting to go to an amusement park. And in Montgomery County, Maryland, they were segregated. So instead of driving 30 minutes to get to an amusement park in the summer, we'd have to drive two-plus hours to go to Hershey Park, which was integrated.

So I have a sense of what this challenge is like. That's not the same as being physically threatened by a policeman because of the color of my skin. But even now in parts of New York City, I find it very hard to get a cab going uptown. I've been at social events with other corporate leaders at a country club. Someone invited me as a guest. And as I walked from the table, another person in the country club called me over and said, waiter, I've just dropped my spoon here. Can you pick it up and get me a new one? And so it's important for people know that even CEOs of Fortune 80 companies face micro-inequities on almost a daily basis because of race.

Having said that, my philosophy has always been two or three things. First, I'm a real believer in education as a great equalizer. And so I stayed in school at my mother's request, probably longer than she expected to, until I was 30 years old. Because she had already said to me, education is the one thing they can't take away from you. That degree is the one thing they can't deny.

Secondly, I've always taken a point of view that the ignorance of someone else around race and other things is not going to undermine me as I pursue what I wanted to do. I think if I had been thrown off the path because somebody else said something stupid to me or treated me disrespectfully, they would have been the winners. And that is not where I want to go.

And the third-- you raised this issue of elite institutions. To be fair, I've been fortunate to be a child of the civil rights movement, to be a child of affirmative action. So when I went to Harvard, we had a very large number of African-Americans. And I found the institution working really hard to figure out how to make sure that we felt welcome.

At the Fed, I was the third African-American governor, the first person to be-- the first African-American to be the vice chair. But I found that, again, to be a very collegial organization. Chairman Greenspan is just a superb observer and supporter and nonjudgmental person when it comes to these types of issues. I couldn't have asked for a better leader and better colleague.

And finally, the Fed is very much, as we said earlier, a place that's driven by technical expertise. And I spent many, many hours learning as much of the detail of the Fed's operations as I could. It came to play in 9/11. It came to play in other ways as well.

And so from my standpoint, while I was historic in being the first African-American vice chair, what the Fed really values is not what one looks like. It's what you can contribute based on technical expertise. And I've worked really hard to develop as much technical expertise across all the domains as I possibly could. And that was ultimately rewarded on 9/11 when that expertise came to play.

- I believe with the stepping down of the CEO of Tapestry, you are one of only three Fortune 500 African-American CEOs. Why is this so hard, Roger, to have black people in leadership roles in this country?

ROGER FERGUSON: I think the answer to the question has everything to do with pipeline. Getting to be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company is obviously the exception for sure. The pyramid gets narrower and narrower and narrower. In order to have diversity at the top ranks, one needs to have diversity at the bottom levels. And then you need to nurture that all along the way-- not in the form of affirmative action in a negative sense, but in the form of appropriate mentoring and counseling and coaching and giving people opportunities.

And that has not always been the case in American business. Again, I'm proud of our company. We were the first one to have an African-American corporate officer in a major insurance company. That was in the 1950s. My great predecessor, Cliff Wharton was the first African-American CEO of a Fortune 100 company when he was the CEO here in the 1980s. And so we've got a long history of trying to develop and promote people along.

But having said that, we also cannot be complacent. And so we've put in place a training program called Journey to Inclusion that helps to remind all of our leaders that we're on a journey to inclusion. And that is one of the many tools that we are trying to use to keep our strong leadership role in diversity, inclusion, and equity by being very intentful about it.

And the final point I'd make-- I mention earlier our board is very diverse. And believe me when I tell you that our board takes a look at the diversity numbers on our HR committee. They want to know how we're doing at all tiers in terms of maintaining a broadly diverse population. And so you need that kind of pressure from the board to make sure the company is paying attention. And that helps you to build the kind of culture that we continue to strive to build and maintain here of diversity, inclusion, and equity.