“There is no quick fix. This is about committing to going on a journey that will likely take many years—and not only committing to it, but investing in it and finding the best ways to hold yourself and your business accountable.”
This statement was part of a conversation I was privileged to have with Anthea Kelsick, co-CEO of B Lab U.S. & Canada, the North American arm of the global nonprofit that assesses, certifies and connects the community of Certified B Corporations. I wanted to talk with Kelsick after her release of a letter to the B Corp community earlier this month, as it provided both a personal and systemic call to action on the problems of racial injustice that plague the U.S.
She writes in the letter “These events are not simply the result of individual actions by bad people, they are born out of a system of structural racism that infects our society. If we want progress—if we want to be part of a solution that moves us toward a system that is truly inclusive, equitable and empowers all people—then we must talk about race and take action to dismantle racism and white supremacy.”
In addition to my personal commitment to interrupt racism and bigotry, as a business school professor at Cornell one way I can contribute is by helping to dismantle the structures of white supremacy through my students, most of whom go on to be entrepreneurs and company leaders. When I look out at the classes I teach, many times the majority of the faces looking back at me are white, like mine. So I wanted to seek Kelsick’s advice on what I can do to help my students, and also learn more about what I can do myself. As white man, I recognize I am in a privileged position, but I am also committed to creating the sustained change that Kelsick’s letter intoned through my regular interactions with students, entrepreneurs and fellow academics.
With that, I’ll let Kelsick’s words from our conversation speak to the long-term work there is to do.
Do you have any recommendations on topics, companies to study and/or readings that students need to learn about?
What has become clear in the last two weeks, as resources emerge from anti-racist or equity-building consultants, is that the work starts with the individual. And doing that work in the context of business is equally as powerful as doing it in your own home and in a classroom. It starts with the most personal level of naming acts of racism, systemic racism, White supremacy, and understanding what those things are and doing the work on yourself to continually dismantle those things from your own perspective and in your relationships and companies and classrooms. It involves going on an educational journey, reading and engaging in the literature, but it also involves a lot of discussion and personal acknowledgment.
We’re seeing some B Corps and some individuals collectively come together to educate themselves and have these discussions, to have the really hard conversations about how individuals can be complicit in a system without the intention of doing so, but by doing so blindly, they perpetuate behaviors that keep the inequitable system in place. Everyone can search for these resources and take action accordingly.
There are two specific places I would point people: The Dismantle Collective, which has a great page on what it means to be a White ally, to Tiffany Jana and her B Corp TMI Consulting. She has a great resource called Manifest Equity, which is a series of conversations with thought leaders on her website. She was also co-author of the second edition of The B Corp Handbook, which has a stronger focus on inclusion than the first edition and could serve as an interesting curriculum for a business leader or a student to understand what it means to be an effective business where JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) is not an adjacent activity that you do on the side in a separate department but is the filter by which you see the entirety of your business.
As I referenced in my letter, B Lab is going on this journey and we have two incredible women, among others at our organization, leading us: Dr. Ellonda L. Green, Ed.D., who’s our director of equity, diversity and inclusion and focuses internally on our team, and Dr. Sloane Kali Faye, Ph.D, who’s our director of inclusive economies and focuses on our external work. Together they are creating a program for us as an organization to go on to become an anti-racist organization. Even that statement—becoming an anti-racist organization—there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of what that means. It’s essentially saying you’re going on a journey, and committing to developing a practice of continually naming and interrupting racist practices as they arise.
We’re starting the journey at B Lab by having everyone in our organization read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s a practical guide that helps us all talk about these issues from a personal point of view using the same language and the same constructs and the same frameworks.
When I did the research for my book, I talked to 60-plus B Corps. Many of them expressed surprise and disappointment at how they had fared initially on the B Impact Assessment’s Inclusive Economy section and how, despite being committed to an inclusive company and recognizing their issues, they still found it hard to change and make progress. Based on your experience, how are purpose-driven companies falling short, including ones with inclusive policies in place, in building anti-racist businesses? What more could and should be done?
That’s the million-dollar question, right? Because we exist in this system that perpetuates systemic racism, businesses, including B Corps, are inherently built on foundations that will continue to perpetuate that unless we actively work to dismantly them. There isn’t a silver bullet. But I do think one of the things that starts to hopefully move companies in the right direction is to center Black people and People of Color, in a business’ strategy and practices.
For example, when a social-impact organization or B Corp says, “We are committed to equitable pay across every individual on our team,” or, “We are committed to professional development and support,” the approach is broad-based across the entire company and organization. What happens is that it perpetuates the system that inherently will prioritize the folks who’ve always come first. So, even in those practices, a company should reframe and be specific, and instead say, “We’re going to create equitable pay and ensure that is true specifically for our Black employees.”And by just nuancing the angle with which you’re looking at the problem, you will come up with a different solution and uncover different places where that problem exists.
Are there examples from the B Corp community or companies you’d recommend for other businesses to learn from in taking steps to building a more inclusive economy?
Yes, one is Sundial Brands, founded by black entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis, and became Unilever subsidiary in 2017. As a condition of the acquisition event, Unilever committed to an initial investment of $ 50 million through their New Voices Fund. The fund invests specifically in Black women entrepreneurs and is part of their philosophy of Community Commerce, where proceeds from every purchase go back into the community to support education, healthcare, safety, and fair wages.
Sundial is investing back in Black communities by design.
There are also examples of companies who’ve developed innovative businesses practices for an inclusive economy. One is Greyston Bakery, a company designed to employ people fairly. They happen to make brownies for companies like Ben & Jerry’s, but really their mission is to hire people without regards to their background. And that innovation, called Open Hiring, has become an example of excellence that many companies have adopted. Another is Rhino Foods, which led in launching the Income Advance program, which provides an employer-based answer to the question, “How do you create employee relief funds or a low-cost loan program when so many Americans don’t have access to capital in an emergency and then fall prey to predatory lending?”
And then you do have companies like Ben & Jerry’s, which is one of the companies that made a commitment to Black Lives Matter several years ago. As a White-led, majority White company, they’re calling out and being very vocal about the challenges of racism – it’s not just that George Floyd was killed, there’s a system that valued his life less than others. Ben & Jerry’s has named police brutality and White supremacy, and then they’ve backed that up actions. They have adopted a policy platform to combat those issue, which is rare in the corporate sector due to the risk of becoming ‘too political’. Obviously, in our political landscape, the risk is even greater, but the company’s leadership and team are willing to do that and stand by their values. And I hope that is a call to other companies, particularly those making the million-dollar donations in the last two weeks, to go beyond support in the moment, and dig into systemic change driven by policy.
Ultimately, there is no quick fix. This is about companies committing to going on a journey that will likely take many years. And not only committing to it, but investing in it and finding the best ways to hold business leaders and their companies accountable. And I’m hoping that the B Corp community can do that.