In the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death and the Black Lives Matter protests that ensued, like many others Rachel Rodgers fumed at the thought of yet another death that didn’t have to happen – in fact, shouldn’t have happened. Many Black Americans (in particular) found themselves trying to reconcile the reconcilable – on the heels of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others, we found ourselves here yet again. As people of all races took the streets to demand action and corporate public relations machines worked overtime to churn our corporate statements on racism, business coach Rachel Rodgers decided to act in a different way.
An intellectual property attorney by training, she left her mark on the legal industry by showcasing how attorneys could build online-based practices, then moved on to teaching other women how they could build successful businesses as well. She launched her coaching business Hello Seven with a mission to help women entrepreneurs build seven figure businesses (without sacrificing their families and their sanity). Indeed, Small Business Administration statistics indicate that small businesses actually comprise 99.7% of U.S. firms with paid employees. Acknowledging their collective power and responsibility in this moment, Rodgers decided to not just call companies out, but also call them in to an honest discussion of racial justice to help them determine how they can and should be part of the solution.
Rodgers decided to host a town hall event – Reimagining Small Business: A town hall to listen, learn and commit to building equitable, anti-racist organizations. Flanked by DEI experts and small business leaders, the town hall explored concepts around racism and white supremacy and ultimately challenged all small business to take the Anti-Racist Small Business Pledge. “I didn’t want this to just be a moment in time” insists Rodgers. “My goal was to create lasting change among small businesses. I wanted to call small businesses in and give them some basic tools and strategies to begin doing the work of building anti-racist companies.” So far, over 25,000 companies have watched the town hall replay or attended the event and 2,000 companies have taken the small business pledge. Indeed, Rodgers hopes this is just the beginning.
What is the “Anti-Racist Small Business Pledge?”
The Anti-Racist Small Business Pledge includes five key components.
1. Name white supremacy and the impact of racism on both our personal and professional lives.
2. Engage in anti-racist education for you and your team.
3. Commit to open conflict and allow discomfort.
4. Invest a portion of your monthly company budget to the Black community.
5. Express your sincere, long-term commitment to becoming an anti-racist organization.
Rodgers asks small businesses to complete the pledge on her site and is working on strategies for holding them accountable long term.
Among the businesses taking the pledge are email marketing company ConvertKit, acupuncture provider and natural health company Zócalo Wellness, and wedding stationery and letterpress print studio Paper & Honey. “I signed the Anti-Racist Small Business Pledge because not signing it wasn’t even an option,” insists Paper & Honey owner Laura Joseph. “I am doing the work in my personal life — learning from and listening to Black women, critically examining how white supremacy has shaped my human existence in this world and working to dismantle it, making the effort to re-learn history that wasn’t taught in my schools — and it is obvious I need to do the work in my professional life too.” Joseph views the pledge as a tiny step in her lifelong pursuit of building a life and a company that are both actively anti-racist. She also views the pledge as a way for small businesses to amplify their collective influence. “It feels like I’m joining my voice with entrepreneurs all over the world to make a public statement. It’s no longer just a bunch of individuals shouting individually — together we are amplified in demanding change and real action.”
Zócalo Wellness owner Adrianna Locke says she took the pledge to reinforce her commitment to operate in the world through a justice lens. “Culture changes as individuals change,” insists Locke. “It is slow at first but once there is a critical mass the change becomes rapid, like dominoes. I think the pledge is part of this domino effect. It shows group intent and support for operating a business from a social justice perspective – that it’s time to change the foundation of how business is done.”
What about large corporations?
While Rodgers welcomes large corporations’ recent anti-racism related pledges and donations, she insists that it’s not enough. “My message to big business is that you are behind and you have to make this a top priority and do a lot more than make a statement and donate,” explains Rodgers. “We want to see your leadership teams. We want to know whether your Black employees would back you up on your diversity statements. We want to see you back those big lofty statements up with unequivocal support for Black Lives Matter and long-term actions that are measured and reported.”
Certainly, she’s not the only one who has noticed a stark disconnect between the public platitudes from many well known brands and their strikingly dismal diversity records. The Washington Post article “As big corporations say ‘black lives matter,’ their track records raise skepticism” highlights these sometimes glaring inconsistencies. The article asserts, “Corporate America — including Wall Street and Silicon Valley giants — is now pledging to play a bigger role in combating systemic racism across the United States, but an examination of companies’ track records shows that they have repeatedly stopped short of major overhauls during prior opportunities for change.” As part of its analysis of dismal diversity statistics in various industries, the article cites, “African Americans comprise a fraction of the senior leadership at the largest tech firms — 3.1 percent at Facebook, 3.6 percent at Google, 4.4 percent at Slack, 5.3 percent at Twitter and 2.7 percent of executives at Microsoft, according to company data.” As a result of this long, well documented exclusion from top levels of corporate success, for many of these companies’ Black employees, consumers and stakeholders, the hurried corporate statements ring hollow. Instead, arguably what this moment requires is not words, but action.
Seemingly, some companies have heard that message loud and clear and are defining clear actions to reflect their commitment. Recently, Google announced a pledge of $175 million to support Black businesses along with a promise to further diversify its leadership. Similarly, YouTube, Sephora, Adidas, and others have announced specific tangible actions designed to elicit long term racial justice benefits within their company and beyond. Sadly, Ben and Jerry’s stands out as one of very few well-known names with a long track record of authentic commitment to racial justice having publicly announced their support for Black Lives Matter way back in 2016 long before such action became acceptable if not popular. The June 2020 Harvard Business Review article “U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism” offers a list of dos and don’ts to help guide companies trying to navigate the best path forward in pursuit of long lasting change, and Rodgers insists that her pledge can be a great accountability tool that big business can use to codify their long term commitment to anti-racism.
Tragically, Black America has seen this moment many times before and even heard pleas of intended change – turning the page – eradicating racism – becoming better, but the truth is that typically for most businesses what gets measured is what gets done. Sending out a public relations statement too often is just crisis management and once the crisis has passed, normal operations resume. In many ways Black America is holding her breath waiting to see what happens once this public relations emergency fades. Indeed, the difference for many organizations may be the public pledge that they make now in this moment. A pledge to their shareholders, employees, customers and their own conscience to not just denounce white supremacy and racism – that’s the easy part, but instead to call themselves out for not just their passive complacency but too often for their active participation (whether intentional or not) in the oppression of black America. Possibly, this moment’s unique blend of public pressure and perceived public relations risk combined with the cacophony of newly emboldened internal black voices will shame them – require them – to do what years of diversity reports and their collective consciences could not seem to do for decades. Confront this racism pandemic as they would any other crisis – with measurable goals, ample resources and decisive action. Arguably, this will become an inflection point for many companies that could change their company’s cultural DNA forever.