2020 saw a global pandemic and a reckoning on race —and both further exposed long established systematic inequalities in business and beyond.
Those inequities are especially apparent at organizations’ top levels. An analysis published in October by Crain’s Cleveland Business highlighted the “woefully poor” lack of women and minorities in the region’s corporate boardrooms, underscoring how the gap is far wider for people of color.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s unfortunate. And it needs to change,” Fred Nance, global managing partner with Squire Patton Boggs and a director on the board at RPM International Inc., told Crain’s.
With the protests and boycotts that followed the death of George Floyd in May at the hands of Minneapolis police serving as an inflection point, many companies in Northeast Ohio spent the second half of the year pledging to boost their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
Perhaps one of the most powerful statements in the wake of the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor came from Craig Arnold, CEO of Eaton, a global power management company whose North American headquarters are in Beachwood.
“I’m sure many of you are struggling to understand why,” Craig wrote in a letter titled “A call for compassion and courage in a time of unrest” that went out to employees. “Why does a police officer force his knee into the neck of another human being for nine minutes, ignoring pleas of ‘I can’t breathe,’ while three other police officers stand by and do nothing to help?”
Arnold talked of how little has changed since the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but pledged to be part of the solution and called others to do so as well.
“It’s time for us all to get involved and to have our voices heard. I often quote the words of writer and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, who said, ‘We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,'” Arnold wrote.
In terms of looking at diversity and equality, among the early steps for several organizations, ranging from Case Western Reserve University to software company Futuri Media, included marking June 19 — or “Juneteenth,” which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. — as a paid company holiday.
A July editorial in Crain’s included a mention of a New York Times article that featured a look at FirstEnergy’s hiring practices, saying how the company links part of executives’ bonuses to its goal of hiring and promoting more employees from diverse and underrepresented groups.
“Turns out not many companies actually do this,” the editorial said.
While FirstEnergy committed to doing more, another Akron institution was struggling. After facing claims of management engaging in racist and sexist practices and bullying in the spring, the Akron Art Musuem’s board of directors announced a “transformation plan” to move the organization in a better direction. It had seven components, including mandatory implicit bias training and the creation of a board transformation task force.
Other organizations formed groups or did research, too. The Greater Cleveland Partnership’s Equity & Inclusion Division surveyed businesses that were a part of its Inclusion Marketplace initiative. GCP’s senior vice president Brian Hall talked about some of the struggles organizations discussed in a “Personal View” column in August.
“COVID-19 did not create the economic disparity between minority-owned business suppliers and their counterparts: It has only magnified it,” Hall wrote.
He also included several suggestions for companies to embrace, encouraging leaders to have a minimum of one minority-owned business to compete for opportunities and develop mentoring programs for minority suppliers.
An offering like that was on the agenda for some of the state’s sports teams, too. Diversity for the top spots in NFL’s hiring record for top spots has been dismal. To help combat that, the Cleveland Browns introduced its Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship, where an up-and-coming minority works with and learn from the team’s coaching staff.
And in September, the Haslam Sports Group introduced a Diversity and Opportunity Fellowship. The program slates four spots for recent college graduates to spend a year rotating through several departments with both the Browns and the Columbus Crew. It provided a salary and housing stipend.
As the tumultuous year wound down, what some hope to be a lasting sentiment toward improving went up. The Cleveland Cavaliers unveiled plans for a huge new banner set to go on the wall of Sherwin-Williams’ downtown headquarters.
The renderings depict several hands — Black hands, Brown hands, tattooed hands, one with rainbow-colored nails, another displaying a Cavs championship ring — on top of a basketball.
“For the love, for the land,” the mural says in bold letters.
But perhaps Arnold said it best in a sentiment that many Northeast Ohio businesses and organizations are embracing more and more in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion.
“History is once again presenting an opportunity for us to become better. This is the time for us to come together, to truly listen and learn from one another, and to embrace this moment to become the nation we were meant to be,” Arnold wrote.