2020 DE&I Executive Summit: A CEO to CEO Discussion on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

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Carolynn L. Johnson, Chief Executive Officer at DiversityInc
Dave MacLeod, Chief Executive Officer at ThoughtExchange

Carolynn Johnson: This is not an easy time for me as a 40 year old, four foot 10, Black woman. It’s just not. And certainly not as a CEO who has to talk to white-male-privileged, sometimes tone-deaf CEOs about the fact that Black lives do matter. It’s a lot. And so, again, as we think about yet again another confirmation that not everybody believes Black lives matter, have some grace with us today.

So Dave and I are CEOs of data companies. I view a lot of what is going on in the world as I do because I don’t view it from a place of emotion. I view it from understanding the numbers. And the commodity that is the most important right now that will move mountains and change things is trust. And so that’s really the conversation that Dave and I are going to have today. We’re going to talk about building trust because that’s how you get seen. That’s how things happen that are sometimes viewed as miracles.

But before we do that, when we talk about co-conspirators and when we talk about allies, I think we have to acknowledge people who showed up as allies and they didn’t even know we viewed them as such. And so it was amazing to see Deb Langford today because I remember seeing Deb for the first time when she was at Time Warner when I was, I don’t know, a 25 years old and she showed me that you could be authentic and still win as a woman of color. She had this beautiful hair, her walk was that of “Here I come and look out world!”. And it was on one of those days where I was just like, wow, okay, I can do this as myself.

Also thinking about Ken Bouyer. In the 17 years that I’ve been at DiversityInc., Ken has been there no matter when I have called, he has shown up so I appreciate you for that. Forest Harper, my mentor. And now I’m on his board of directors. So while everybody on this call has touched me in some way, just wanted to point out those three individuals because you have certainly made a difference as an ally, even when you weren’t trying to be.

And so with that, for those of you who are not familiar with DiversityInc, we have, talking about trust, built up an amazing amount of trust with Fortune 500 organizations. To the degree that they give us more data around the dimensions of diversity than even the United States government has at this point. And so I was going to use a cute and light example around how interesting uncommon trusting relationships are but I don’t think that’s the time right now. The words of many of you on this call have told me that’s not the direction we need to go right now.

And so I am going to give the example that when people take the time to let down walls and assume good intent then you can get to a place that you never even saw yourself. And so I think about an interview that I recently conducted with Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International. On that day, what we had in common is that he was dealing with pancreatic cancer and that I was myself having some health challenges and I didn’t know what was going to happen. And during that interview, Arne talked about the fact that he was made CEO because people believed that he could do the job. There were some major gaps in experience but people believed that he could do the job. And that is not the experience for a lot of Black people in this country. Which is why to some, we don’t show up and we actually don’t even exist in a talent pipeline.

Dave and I are actively working right now on building that trusting relationship. I guess you could say I’m developing an ally in the tech space. And for anyone who will carry this message back, I want to talk about the fact that with data, there are plenty of Black people in the talent pipeline, specifically STEM talent if we want to kind of dig a little deeper. There are some studies that have been done, the National Science Foundation did a study looking between 2008 and 2018 and they focused on undergraduate degrees, focused on STEM graduates. And they found that there were 221 that went on to ultimately get a PhD, a STEM focused PhD. And I’m sure you all can imagine that a majority of the schools, the top 10 were HBCUs. I want to give you a story here about punching outside of your weight class. Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Yale, produced 220 in that period and the endowment in 2018, combined endowment of those schools was $111 billion. Howard University produced 221 during that period and the endowment at Howard at that time with $750 million. So when we get attention, when we get resources, we show up and we show out. And so if there is ever an example of understanding that there is Black talent in the pipeline, there it is.

And so with that Dave, I want to bring you into this conversation because that’s what it’s all about. And I’m not going to grill Dave, this is a conversation. So Dave, I want to start by just asking you what has been your experience with being an intentional active ally and finding allies that you can trust?

Dave MacLeod: I mean I think I’m in the middle of the experience to be honest. For those of you who don’t know, before I say “about”, you’re going to figure out that I’m from Canada. And I’m not only from Canada, I’m from a small town in Canada. And I was raised in a town in the North, in small Canada, where pretty much everyone looked just like me. And I took to heart as I was growing up in my household and with the way I was raised, (my parents were special education teachers). I took to heart that it’s important as a human to provide opportunity for other humans.

Fast forward to now, we created a platform – and a lot of people say they want to be able to create a platform- to be able to provide a platform for change. In an interesting way, we literally created a platform and it’s real. And I’ve been realizing that one way I can be an ally is literally taking this platform and trying to make it optimized for change. And my definition that really helped me understand it is taking on a struggle as my own. And I think I want to go to a bit of a heavy place. Meaning in our company, I’m really proud we took on the gender gap, because this is a challenge that I understood. I come from a matriarchal family. My mother is a powerhouse, my father passed away but my mother has been in charge since I was born. And in our company we made sure we’re one of the few tech companies that has 50% men and women in our company, including the senior level, excluding the board and I’m working on it.

Being an ally in the conversation of diversity, equity and inclusion, I think it’s taking on the struggle that many of you I hear have been working in for 20 and 30 and 40 years. I’m just learning how to take on the struggle as a mountain, I guess is the way I’ll articulate it. And I’m fearful to get it wrong, but I’m willing to do such a thing. That’s what I sit in.

Carolynn Johnson: So we’ve had many conversations where I’ve got on my baseball cap, you’ve got your baseball cap, we’re comfortable. And during those conversations, you share with me that your dad would say that you were a weird mix of a kid. With one foot on the ground and one foot in the sky at all times. What did that mean as a child and how does that sentiment impact you now?

Dave MacLeod: I think… Yeah bringing up my dad is probably the one most impactful thing that happened to me as a human is his passing away. So when I think about my dad who passed away quite a few years ago now, he said of me that I sort of had this practicality but I was always dreaming way above myself. But the foot on the ground was an important part of that message. And so I guess that means to me is that I like to think about some ideas, “What can we do to leverage our platform to actually have this conversation?” And people say, “That’s a great dream.” And then I go, “Let’s do it. What are we going to do? Let’s start.” And the foot on the ground part is I feel this responsibility to not talk and wave my hands. I hate demonstrative leadership. I love that someone brought that up.

And I know as a white Dave, six foot one leading a tech company that leads to benefit from the outcome of hanging out on an inclusion platform, I realized that I could easily be labeled the performative leader and I need to actually go through that part and say, I don’t know, how do I actually take the thing that I believe to be important? And then what are we going to do tomorrow when I wake up to actually take on this issue knowing we’re going to get it wrong? I think that I talk too much, but that’s what I hear when my dad always says “It is ok to dream” and then “For God’s sake, do something about it”. “That’s what you’re good at, keep doing that, don’t do one or the other. Don’t just keep your head down, but don’t just keep your head up either”.

Carolynn Johnson: Now we’re going to talk about privilege, the privilege that you carry. And so a lot of people go through life and sometimes ignorance is a privilege for them. They don’t have to think about being Black. They don’t have to think about being a woman. And I just want to be very clear about something. We need to move beyond looking at gender as the diversity that matters. We have to focus more on ethnic and gender diversity and other dimensions. But I focus here because a lot of times people say gender or. No, it’s not an or. So about that privilege…As you have been interacting with myself and Kel and Forest and others, can you talk a little bit about greater understanding of your privilege and what that has meant to you?

Dave MacLeod: This is probably one of the ones that hurts the most to actually talk about. I grew up in a pretty unique situation where my family actually raised me with special needs kids more than my own sisters and brothers. I was raised with special needs kids and some of the kids were First Nations and some of those kids were autistic and I was sort of raised that these are my brothers and sisters. And people ask me, “What’s it like being raised like that?” And my answer was, “What’s it like having hands? This is how I was raised”. I can’t comment on how you were raised because I didn’t experience it. However, that actually put something in my mind that was really hard to erase. And it was that the world is like this, the world is a table that everyone can get food from my mom and that it doesn’t matter if you’re a First Nations disabled kid or you’re a blood sibling, it doesn’t matter.

And what I had to learn is that this is not the case for very many people at all in the world. And this is a very rare experience to actually grow up in a place like that. And so the reason I said this hurts is that we sort of really fought as a company to make sure we had gender equity. And then I shared this with you and I mean, honestly, I was guilty of optimism. I was guilty of “Barack Obama became president and who’s president next? Michelle? We’re on this”. I don’t know. We got it solved. We’ve got a really genius lot of people working on it. I don’t know if I need to work on it. I did the thing I know, which is putting lots of women in power in our organization. I’m good. Aren’t we good? Aren’t we moving forward?

And I think part of my awakening is to go like, “No it’s responsibility. There’s no being okay.” I was really awoken to figure out that there’s either racist or anti-racist. That was a big aha for me. What am I doing to be an anti-racist because currently I was being racist. I was doing nothing. I was saying, “Of course I would happily hire somebody who is a different race. I don’t actively do anything about that because isn’t somebody else taking care of that. I’m from BC, I’m from Canada. Isn’t that someone else doing a great job there?”

Carolynn Johnson: I guess when we talk about racism, which is uncomfortable for a lot of people who are not immersed in it, the initial feeling is to become defensive, “Well not me.” And when you take a step back and when you talk about an anti-racist, Dr. Kendi’s work around How to Be an Antiracist, a lot of people don’t realize that inaction is also racist. And so I think that’s something that we really need to point out. And so thinking about the George Floyd murder, 8 minutes and 46 seconds, 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Police brutality, racism, social and health determinants, do you have any perceptions that have changed since you have been really focused on and getting a different view of the Black experience? The poor experience?

Dave MacLeod: Yes I have. And I think I learn it or unlearn more every day. I think the biggest thing for me personally was, I would say: “I’m sure there’s racism, I’m sure it’s such a thing”. I started having conversations about it and I guess people call it being woke. I have conversations with peers who I won’t name, but I have conversations with peers in the world that they just don’t believe this is even a problem still.

For me, just having taken this on, when George Floyd was murdered, the next day, we sent out a ThoughtExchange in our company and said, “What are the sorts of things that we need to do based on this?”. We had a conversation with all of our staff and I wanted to hear from them. And there was passion in our company and I was clear I was behind, immediately. Everybody’s been thinking about this a lot more than me and actually thinking, “Dave, you’ve got to do more about this. It’s not okay that I work in this organization. Look at our masthead. I mean, look at it in a year, but look at it today. We are white folks and not all of us, but you know, if you squint, if you squint, you see that.”

So for me it was education, it was action. And then it was diving deep in my soul and saying, what does it actually mean to be an anti-racist? What does it mean to hire a head of anti-racism and to put that out? What does it mean to talk to executive recruiters and say, “We are hiring a diverse people into this role because we want that skill set, we want that perspective and we won’t move an inch.” All those are lessons every day that I’m dealing with. And now I’m seeing all the barriers. Now that I’m having conversations with people, I see it everywhere. And it’s like I see dead people, it’s everywhere around you. I was dead the whole time.

Carolynn Johnson: I’ve got a question for you, not something that we talked about before, but really one around responsibility and power, “How much is given and how much is required?”. You said that there are some of your peers you don’t want to name. But then we talked earlier about creating co-conspirators. How do you interact with people after really having an understanding of what’s wrong? What has been done to not fix it?

A lot of people say that the police reform on the way in which policing is done is broken. No, it’s not broken. It is working exactly the way it was intended to. And so now that you are, and I hate this phrase, “woke”, how do you go through your days interacting with people who act as if there is nothing wrong for people not like them? Their worlds are just perfectly fine and it’s their problem, they did it, let them sit in it for a while and let them fix it. How do you do that? Or don’t you?

Dave MacLeod: I do think it is important. I mean I think in supporting as a baton carrier in this, one thing I can offer is selling this wokeness to white people. And I realized that white fragility is a real thing and it makes people blind and defensive. When people go into their survival brain, they do not learn anything. And yet at the same time, this has to be a conversation that is brought up in a way that can open eyes and that’s not as simple as me confronting them when I hear that there’s a bit of ignorance on their behalf, but then I take it to heart. And yeah, I think it’s my response. It’s why I’m willing to stand in something like this and have a conversation so that I’m held accountable so that when people see me, they say, “Yeah, ThoughtExchange, Dave as a human.”

I wrote an article on Medium too and it was about how I was raised in a diverse way but I’m absolutely not a minority. And I believe that George Floyd’s murder was actually not surprising at all. It was a predictable action, that was systemically racist, and people have been talking about this for a long time. I feel a heavy responsibility as a CEO of a company built around voice to say if our platforms are around people giving them a voice, who can we give a voice to or not give a voice, you don’t give people a voice. You remove the barrier for them to actually allow them their right to their voice to be heard by the people that need to hear it. People have a voice. And I actually really hate that patronizing statement that you give people a voice because that’s kind of bullshit.

Carolynn Johnson: Whether we admit it or not, leaders have some level of fear and anxiety. To give an example: you’re in a conference room and the topic of what you watched on the news the night before comes up and people are scared to lose their jobs. They have family commitments and in that moment, you say how you feel and you’re fired. Now you got a mortgage, car payment, college tuition, there are so many things that you promise people that you would do for them. And your job is a means in which to do that. So fear and anxiety is a huge part of this which is why sometimes you don’t hear people’s voices as strongly as it may be coming out in their heads. So, as it relates to the success of ThoughtExchange, what causes you fear and anxiety? What are you scared of?

Dave MacLeod: I’m afraid of getting it wrong and hurting people. I’m afraid of making it about me. I’m afraid that when I spend time talking about myself, I’m not listening to Dr. Carpenter talk about Breonna Taylor and the tragedy that happened and the one that is the decision. I’m afraid of making things about myself when I write about it and I take it on. I even had a letter that I wanted to send out to people that I got talked back to for the right reason.

But I mean, growing up in a town that had no African-American or Caribbean-Canadian, African, Indian people, I remember knowing racist songs about Black people without ever having met one. I remember being scared of East Indian people because “they will be dangerous to me” and this was not coming from my parents. I remember being raised racist and not knowing why. Yet I think I should express that because it’s important.

At the same time I don’t want to make it about me. I’m afraid to actually say this but I want to empower the voice of people, people’s voice is critical in this. And is my voice important? I can’t tell. Should I just get the hell out of the way? Shut up? Should I stand up and say something? I’m afraid to get it wrong.

Carolynn Johnson: Yeah I’m afraid to get it wrong too. Day in, day out. I think of everything that is riding on my shoulders. If I say the wrong thing in front of the wrong leader who employs 250,000 people in the U.S. Are they going to view people like me differently? Am I ruining opportunities? And I don’t even know those folks, never have mentioned their names, they may not even know who I am. So that’s definitely one of my fears as well. The model Black woman, that’s a lot of pressure. And I’m sure right now as a white man who is trying, model white dude, woke dude, that’s probably a lot of pressure too. So I’m kind of just sharing one of my fears, I won’t leave you over there alone by yourself on that anxiety and fear, we got to do this together.

In the spirit of togetherness and doing this together, this is a heavy lift. This is not something that any one company, person, organization, college, university or research organization can do. We all have to do this together. And truth telling is a powerful thing as a starting point. So we have to keep telling the truth no matter how much it hurts, but the delivery must be on point. And it must hit people where they understand. I think the language we all understand is profitability. And so I think if we focus on what is to be gained or lost, I think that will kind of make the conversation a little easier to be had.

There are some folks that are asking about resources. Some titles that you can read if you are not informed. Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field by Howard Bryant is one book, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, The foreword by Michael Eric Dyson, that’s my dude, How to Be an Antiracist by Dr. Kendi, Opportunity Denied: Limiting Black Women to Devalued Work. Those are just four titles that you can read. And on our website, right in the header if you click on resources, there are about 13 or 14 books and we’re adding every day that you can read if you have some questions around language to use, facts to share when you’re trying to help people understand what side of the fence they really should be on.

And so I know Dave that I’ve been asking you a lot of questions. Do you have any questions for me?

Dave MacLeod: I have a half hour for questions for you but I think the one that I’d like to dig in with this group is when we were talking and you said you have a bunch of questions for me, I asked you a question, which was, “Are you okay with having this be about me? These are questions about me.” And you said, “Dave, you know what? A lot of this is about you.” And I really took that to heart. And I was curious if you could maybe unpack that for people in our last couple minutes here.

Carolynn Johnson: So I think first, this whole concept of power, I don’t think people really understand living all except their power. And so a couple of things. If we’re going to get to the right place, we have to understand that power can not be taken, it must be transferred, it must be given. And if we’re honest with ourselves, those who are doing the majority of the policy-making, decision-making are white men. And so this is about you. If I walk away with nothing more than knowing that from this conversation today, every person on this line has to influence a white dude to do something differently. I hope that everyone here walks away with tools and best practices, a different frame of mind, a different lens in which to use when they’re having those conversations. So it is about you. You’ve got to get in somebody’s mind and understand how they think in order to make real irreversible sustainable change. So that’s the first thing.

And then second, I think that sometimes when we’re so stressed, I mean we’ve been at home, we’ve been spending time with people that we thought we knew and now we’re learning who they really are because we’re home with them all day. My four year old and my seven year old are completely different beings today than they were in March. And so we’re under a lot of stress and sometimes that comes out in not wanting to interact and engage with people when they really can help us get to a different place. And so this whole concept of power I think we need to understand. But second, everybody has power. Every single person has power no matter how powerless you may feel at times. Doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO, a coordinator, a college intern, you have power because you have influence.

So if in that moment I am validating you and your commitment to people who are giving you a side eye, that’s my power. I am validating that you are real and that you in fact really do mean what you’re saying. And so that power is really important. And I think we have to remind people time and time and time again because you get beat up with the news. You get beat up with that promotion you didn’t get or that raise you know you deserve. That project lead that you should’ve gotten but it went to somebody else and you know why. And so that power is important and we’ve got to own that. And sometimes you just need to hear somebody else say it.

Carolynn Johnson: As far as the theme, I have been talking about irreversible sustainable change for a really long time, because I see what happens in the data. When we figure out talking about supplier diversity, that when you effectively manage it, it really does improve your bottom line, your relationships with the communities and other businesses. And so when we understand how that shows up in the data, we can then start talking about it in conversation. And that is why I am focused on the irreversible. Because to your point, we thought some of us that when Barack Obama became the president, that we were done. Close it out everybody on to the next thing. And I think we clearly see now where people say things like diversity training is divisive, the president says that. And my initial thought was, “You know what? Because I’ve got to listen to what’s important and not who said it,” there was some truth in what he said because everybody shouldn’t be a diversity trainer. And when it is done incorrectly, it is divisive.

We all have to listen to each other no matter who we are and take away from it the information that is helpful and leave the rest of it on the table. Irreversible and sustainable change isn’t going to be done if we don’t do that. So we’ve got to get together with the most unlikeliest of allies and get to work doing the work. And that was one of the main reasons why I accepted this invitation today. Dave, your honesty, vulnerability and commitment to just get in there and do the work and punch it out is commendable. And I really do hope to see more of it from you and those like you.

View all videos from the 2020 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Executive Summit here.

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