How U.S. Companies Can Lead on the Road to Racial Equality

Leaders of diversity and inclusion initiatives across the private sector discuss the role companies can play in advancing racial equality in the United States.


Air Date: November 18, 2021

Moderator: Rick Wade, Senior Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Outreach

Featured Guests: Crystal Barnes, Senior Vice President, Culture & Corporate Social Responsibility, ViacomCBS, Gawain Patterson, Senior Vice President, Action for Racial Equity, Citi

During the past few years, companies have begun seeking new ways to further their commitment to diversity and inclusion. A growing number of these initiatives are focusing on closing the racial wealth gap.

Two leaders who are spearheading these efforts in the private sector joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation at the 2021 Business Solves conference to discuss the role companies can play in advancing racial equality.

The Road to Racial Equality Starts With Corporate Accountability

For many business leaders, advancing racial equality begins with holding their companies accountable to this mission.

Crystal Barnes, senior vice president of culture and corporate social responsibility for ViacomCBS, described how a commitment to responsible storytelling drove her company’s accountability journey.

“We understand that we have the ability to positively influence social outcomes as well as stories,” she said. “And in that, there's a responsibility to leverage our content … to shape the values and the perceptions that we know shift cultural change.”

For Gawain Patterson, senior vice president of action for racial equity for Citi, corporate accountability means infusing the values of diversity and inclusion into every level of the organization.

“It’s about continuing to look at the policies you have [and] your business practices so that tackling racial inequity is part of your DNA,” he said.

Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Will Benefit the U.S. Economy

In addition to the social justice implications of addressing racial inequality, Patterson emphasized the economic incentives for closing the racial wealth gap.

“If we had closed the racial wealth gap 20 years ago, we could have added $16 trillion to the U.S. economy,” he said. “More importantly, if we close it now, we could add $5 trillion to the U.S. economy in the next five years.”

“That's a huge opportunity, not just for communities of color, but for the nation as a whole,” Barnes added.

Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Should Be Data-Driven

Both panelists underscored the importance of using research and concrete data to guide diversity and inclusion efforts. Barnes described how ViacomCBS has begun relying more on data to direct, assess, and revise its strategic initiatives.

“A lot of [past] decisions have been made on instinct rather than impact measurement and research,” she said. “There's an opportunity to dig deep into the research and analysis of it all so that we can ... alter our strategies [and] build best practices.”

“Measurement drives your ability to understand the impact,” Patterson added. “Anecdotes are great, but real data can help you actually understand the progress that's being made.”

Everyone Shares a Social Responsibility to Advance Racial Equality

Barnes and Patterson both agreed that the social responsibility of forwarding racial equality belongs to everyone.

“Knowing that we're all on this journey together ... keeps me going,” Patterson said. “Being reminded on a regular basis that you're not alone and that other people are there working on this with you … makes [this work] a lot easier.”

“It is our collective journey to be on,” Barnes agreed.


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