The Benefits Are On The Balance Sheet: Corporate America Must Stand By DEI And Chief Diversity Officers

The Benefits Are On The Balance Sheet: Corporate America Must Stand By DEI And Chief Diversity Officers

Corporate America cannot – must not – sacrifice progress to short-sighted political pressures.

This week in New York City, BLACK ENTERPRISE is set to host its second annual Chief Diversity Officer Summit and Honors, presented in partnership with Fidelity Investments, Merck, and The Executive Leadership Council, the preeminent organization representing senior Black executives in corporate America and corporations throughout the globe.

The event’s purpose is to highlight the contributions of great champions of corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), including impactful industry leaders such as trailblazer James Lowry, former Dell EMC CDO Jacqueline Glenn, and the dynamic duo that designed and drove the inclusive culture at PepsiCo, Ronald Parker, and Maurice Cox. Perhaps more critically, the summit serves as a platform for conversation about the status and future of DEI as it faces withering attacks on all fronts.

Indeed, DEI needs its champions now more than ever.

It was just four years ago when the murder of George Floyd and the galvanizing global protests that followed seemed to inspire a racial reckoning focused on the systemic discrimination of African Americans, and corporate America was very much a part of it. Corporations across industries declared their renewed commitment to DEI goals with grand pledges of support for equity and fairness. We seemed to be on the precipice of great change.

We were, but it was not the change we’d hoped for or anticipated.

The landscape has shifted dramatically in recent months. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down affirmative action in college admissions has opened the floodgates for legal challenges to DEI policies in the workplace. A federal appeals court’s recent ruling to end Fearless Fund’s grant program for Black women entrepreneurs could potentially set a chilling precedent that undermines measured and effective efforts to level the economic playing field.

And in March, another federal ruling similarly gutted the Minority Business Development Agency, a potentially devastating blow to minority businesses that have long struggled to overcome systemic barriers to advancement.

As political pressure on companies to abandon DEI has intensified, the chief diversity officer role in the corporate hierarchy is being increasingly marginalized or eliminated altogether. And those lofty statements of commitment to DEI that beamed so proudly from company websites in the wake of the Floyd protests have quietly vanished.

Is this how DEI ends? Are we about to lose the chief diversity officer permanently? Or will corporate America come to its senses and acknowledge the value of equity and inclusion in its growth and profitability?

To answer that question, it’s important to remember that the business case for DEI has been made and reaffirmed in study after study, contrary to the hyperbole of its critics.

Chief diversity officers have redefined how companies recruit and develop talent. They have elevated the profile of HBCUs as a rich, viable, and long-underutilized recruitment resource and demonstrated the importance of mentorship in opening the leadership pipeline beyond the traditional white male boy’s club. Most significantly, the rise of the CDO helped countless corporations establish profitable relationships with diverse suppliers, identifying growth opportunities that allow companies to capitalize on emerging trends. This kind of collaboration leads to new and wider access to unexplored markets and untapped talent.

On another front, the CDO role provides governance and practices that underscore the necessity of DEI in the workplace. Studies show that 41% of Black employees say they have experienced discrimination at work, from the hiring process to being passed over for promotions to disproportionate compensation. For CEOs, these numbers represent a genuine threat to a company’s health and stability, leaving the firm open to damaging and expensive lawsuits. The CDO’s role ensures compliance and mitigates risk.

Bottom line: CDOs make companies more agile and responsive to marketplace trends and, yes, better places to work.

Corporate America cannot—must not—sacrifice progress to short-sighted political pressures. It’s simply a bad business strategy.

Rather than running from controversy, our leading corporations should proudly own DEI’s successes within their organizations and the contributions of their CDOs.

Moving forward, it’s essential for corporate leaders to recommit to DEI and the CDO role substantively, not in name only. If not properly championed and supported by leadership from the top down, DEI will continue to prove vulnerable to the kind of coordinated, negative attacks we’re witnessing.

BLACK ENTERPRISE was launched 55 years ago to ensure that African Americans become full participants within the economic mainstream and gain unfettered access to equal opportunity in corporate America with the ability to rise as high as their talents can take them—including the C-suite, boardroom, and the CEO’s chair. The Executive Leadership Council was founded 38 years ago to develop Black executives for the highest business echelons and simultaneously eliminate institutional barriers or excuses that denied them power positions as corporate decision-makers.

So, it falls upon Black senior executives and corporate directors to use their positions to be proactive and ferocious voices in protecting and advancing CDOs, DEI policies and practices, and the elevation of current and future generations of Black professionals. BE Founder and Publisher Earl G. Graves, Sr. continuously asserted that we can ill afford high-ranking Black executives willing to accept the role of window dressing for their respective companies but need Black men and women of position and influence to “stand in harm’s way” to ensure that all Black professionals gain opportunities across the board in corporate America.

Black C-suite executives must stand firm and uphold DEI, challenging corporate leadership to be accountable to their diversity statements and create a more equitable organization where all employees can thrive.

When C-suite executives champion the CDO role, they encourage other leaders to do the same, fostering a culture of inclusion and respect. The benefits are on the balance sheet.

President & CEO,

Earl G. Graves, Jr.​​​​​​​​​​ ​​

The Executive Leadership Council,
President & CEO,

Michael C. Hyter