How Can You Start Shifting Your Business to Be Actively Anti-Racist?
Entrepreneurs play an outsized role in our society and we have an opportunity to play a significant role in dismantling racism on an individual and institutional level.
An “entrepreneur” is a person who organizes and operates a business while taking on greater than normal risks in order to do so. To be successful, you must possess limitless courage, unwavering determination, and unparalleled levels of resilience. And that’s if you’re a white, middle-aged, male like me. For BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) entrepreneurs, you must possess these same qualities while simultaneously navigating exponentially greater challenges on a daily basis in the form of biases and racism—from individual behavior all the way through every institution, including the businesses we lead.
Systemic bias and racism is pervasive. I saw it 10 years ago when I served as the CEO of The Startup America Partnership—an alliance of the country’s entrepreneurs, corporations, and other private sector leaders working to dramatically increase the prevalence and success of high-growth enterprises in the U.S. In my role at Startup America, I traveled around the country and met with a diverse range of entrepreneurs across industries all with the dream of scaling their businesses while overcoming various challenges.
I started to get a glimpse into the challenges that BIPOC founders faced at a deeper level. They had many of the same hurdles, but they were much higher and they faced greater friction on top of it all.
At the time, I made two assumptions that turned out to be wrong: 1) That the problem of racism was one that I, as a white man, could not speak to because I had not experienced it. And, 2) That the problem of racism was on an inevitable path to be resolved without any action on my part. The evidence is clear that not only is this not true, it has arguably gotten worse in the last 30 years. I understand now that my role is to understand, be an ally, speak and take action. Only in the last few years have I come to start to really understand the depth of the problem and started to make changes.
Where do we start?
The first step is to define what we mean by racism and anti-racism and the best definition I’ve found is from Ibram X Kendi:
“RACIST: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or INACTION or expressing a racist idea.
ANTIRACIST: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”
The key is to shift from inaction to action. And if we want to be part of the solution, I believe we—as entrepreneurs—have an opportunity to lead as anti-racists in America.
As entrepreneurs, we’re already highly motivated to achieve things that seem impossible. We battle with complex systems everyday. We thrive on diverse thought and novel solutions. We are powered by our conviction for a better version of the future. If we want to move us toward a system that is inclusive, equitable and empowers all people—then we must apply this same determination towards dismantling the racism that infects our society.
And we don’t have to go far to begin making an impact. We can start with ourselves and the companies we lead. We can start changing how we work, who we partner with, and how we make business decisions.
Doing the work in the context of our businesses is a powerful step toward chipping away at the mammoth racist boulder in front of us. It requires us to be intentional, to have really hard conversations—often with ourselves—to recognize when we are complicit in a system and perpetuate behaviors that keep the inequitable system in place. While there are many resources and ways to take action, here are a few ways as entrepreneurs we can build anti-racist strategies into our businesses.
1. Diversify Relationships
Take a moment and picture your closest colleagues—the people you go to for advice and counsel when gnarly issues are facing your business. What do these allies look like? Are they roughly the same age, race, and gender as you? For me, the majority of my go-to advisors are white and of my generation. I’ve spent the last decade investing in expanding that group to encompass more people of color and a wider range of demographics. Those relationships continue to create value in multiple ways for everyone involved.
We need people we trust who can give us advice and connect us with people who can provide fresh thinking and approaches as we scale our businesses. The smartest thing we can do is to surround ourselves with a set of diverse relationships—particularly with other entrepreneurs and founders—that we can lean on during tough times, and who we can, in turn, support when they need it. If our inner circle of advisors all look the same and have the same life experiences, we’re not going to get as far or fast as we’d like.
2. Build A Bias Yardstick
One of the most direct ways we can combat systemic racism is to start within our own companies. We can build policies and processes that detect and overcome bias. At Upside, we established hiring objectives and key results that measure our progress toward diversity goals, and we started this process from day one of the company. Is there equal representation across teams? If not, how can we intentionally invest in building out more diverse candidate pools?
We also publish our stats to the company quarterly—broken down by gender and underrepresented minority (URM) for the overall company, leadership, and in our case technical roles. What gets measured, gets fixed.
3. Recognize and Minimize Bias
As a leader, it’s our job to hold those we engage with accountable when we see bias or racist behavior. Especially when it is subtle or unintentional.
For example, when I’m asked to participate on a panel or as a speaker, I check the roster of other speakers and when I, all too often, see a slate of mostly white men, I push them toward more diverse speakers. Sometimes I’ll go so far as to decline the invitation and recommend a female or BIPOC colleague in my network to take my place. Doing this not only sends a message to the event organizer that there should be a more diverse panel of participants, it also gives someone else a chance to elevate their presence in the industry.
Now, I recognize that white, male entrepreneurs might be reading this and thinking, “Why do I have to give up my spot on a panel for someone else?” Giving someone else an opportunity sends a vital message to those around you about you and your organization. That’s part of the burden and blessing of leadership.
We exist in a country that perpetuates systemic racism, and our businesses are inherently built on foundations that will continue to perpetuate inequality unless we actively work to dismantle them. Ending racism in America is going to take generations of people working together. But I believe that one of the ways to make progress in our lifetimes is for entrepreneurs like us to realize how much opportunity we have to accelerate change. We have a role to play in challenging the system we engage in and it is time to do what we do best: get to work.
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