Throughout his career, Michael Gee ’81 has worked as a vice president at companies spanning industries from tech business development to nonprofit advancement, and has garnered many lessons both as a business leader and as a Black man. Now, he’s made it his mission to share some of those lessons, authoring multiple articles on race and diversity in the workplace for numerous publications including Harvard Business Review and Philanthropy News Digest.
Below, Gee shares his insights into strengthening the pipeline for Black executives, considering the issue of reparations, and talking about racism at work.
You wrote “The Talk About Racial Bias Companies Should Be Having” for Harvard Business Review in 2016. What has changed since then?
It’s good to see the increased focus on racial bias in organizations, but “the talk” is just as important today as it was four years ago. It’s not just talk about how to interact with police, but also how to navigate your career if you are a person of color. Seek help and guidance from many sources. On a personal level, Black families have felt the burdens of systemic racism for too long. Don’t be shy about reaching out to others of all races.
The George Floyd protests most certainly opened a floodgate of discussions about racial equity. Many corporations have announced intentions to do better in diversity hiring and in making investments in minority communities – over $2 billion at this point. Business leaders need to measure impact and have clear metrics regarding improvements in the communities they serve. Junior-level staff can initiate discussions by sharing articles, community events, and thought leadership for how their companies can better live their mission.
Most major corporations say that they are engaged in DEI efforts, but there still isn’t representation in the C-suite. Why do you think that is and what will it take to change that?
Progress has been very slow. What got me to write about this topic was the fact that I saw very few minority executives in meetings I personally attended over a 30-year career. Not much had changed despite corporate rhetoric on diversity and inclusion. Executive compensation systems need to be linked to improved performance in this area. This should help get folks’ attention. There is no shortfall of diversity talent. An interesting model was announced by Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that focuses on developing minority candidates for MBA programs and placing them with corporations. In a partnership with Greylock Partners, a large Silicon Valley venture capital firm, they will also source talent to startup tech ventures and participate as a partner in a new venture fund. We need to see more of this in under-performing industries.
You’ve written about the importance of reparations: What are some forms of reparations and how do they fit in when it comes to business leaders and corporate America?
Reparations have always been a controversial topic, although implementation would be acceptable to many Americans. Educational funding, home and business ownership loans, and direct payments to families are all options. HR40 is a congressional bill to “study” the issue. In my view, we must be more aggressive in addressing income and wealth inequalities. Many studies have concluded that white people have 10 to 20 times the net worth of Black people. Closing this gap should be an imperative for corporations. The GDP impacts and benefits are substantial – estimates are around $1 to $2 trillion annually.
Reparations promote national healing – many prominent African American businessmen, such as Robert Johnson, founder of BET, have offered specific proposals in this area. My fellow Columbia Business School alum, Robert Smith ’94, CEO, Vista Equity Partners, has also offered a “2 percent solution” where corporations invest 2 percent of profits into economically distressed communities. A national apology, financial restitution, and government leadership help create a more equitable society.
How do the election results factor into conversations about race, equity, and inclusion in corporations around the US?
More people peacefully voted in this election than ever before in American history. That’s in the middle of a pandemic! Exit polling indicates that racial equity was on the mind of many voters. The demographics of the country are changing. We all have a responsibility to be good stewards of the environment and advocates for human rights, and to be grateful for this democracy. It takes work and empathetic understanding. Corporations have a social responsibility to foster these aspirational goals. My mom was an active supporter of the Civil Rights movement throughout her life and I can hear her saying, “The future is determined by what you do now!”