‘Talk less, do more’: Minority CEOs discuss racial equity in business community

Charlotte Regional Business Alliance hosted business leaders in virtual discussion on the impact of racial inequalities.
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When protests ignited last summer following the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the U.S. business community flooded airwaves and social media channels with statements promising racial justice and equity.

But what has happened since then?

At a Tuesday event hosted by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, four CEOs — three of them Black — met virtually to talk about steps their companies have taken to promote equity and inclusion. The roundtable discussion was titled “Exploring the Impact of Racial Inequalities.”

Marvin Ellison, president and CEO of Lowe’s, said he tries to lead by example, being one of a few Black chief executives of a publicly traded company.

“There are obligations that come along with the role besides just a P&L and the shareholder engagement,” Ellison said during the hourlong virtual broadcast. “There’s an obligation to have a voice on the concerns and the issues that are impacting our society and our country.”

Ellison, who has led the Mooresville-based company since 2018, said it’s about talking less and doing more. Last summer, Lowe’s announced $30 million in grants for minority-owned businesses across the country. It also teamed up with Daymond John of ABC’s “Shark Tank” to help expand the company’s supplier diversity.

More than 1,300 business owners applied for “Making it… With Lowe’s,” a pitch competition for minority entrepreneurs looking to place their products on Lowes.com and in the company’s physical stores. 

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All told, more than 400 minority entrepreneurs will be selling their products through Lowe’s this year, Ellision said.

“We’re striving to do all we can to be part of the solution, while representing everything that matters to us regarding diversity and also being a great community partner,” he said.

Roger Ferguson of New York-based financial services provider TIAA said the United States is witnessing the results of centuries of racism, and “we should call it as we see it because truth-telling is incredibly important.”

Ferguson and Ellison were two of only five Black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies in 2020.

During the Tuesday roundtable, Ferguson advised Charlotte businesses to “create a race to the top” in terms of best practices and then share what works. [Ferguson plans to retire on March 31.]

“What are the best standards in terms of promotion in an organization? Where are those broken rungs in the career ladders where African Americans and other minorities tend to fall off, and White males tend to progress?” he asked.

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As the Covid-19 pandemic has stalked Black and Brown communities disproportionately, Novant Health’s president and CEO, Carl Armato, said the Charlotte-based health system has worked to eliminate health disparities and gaps in care. More specifically, he noted the two Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinics in west Charlotte, which allow Novant to offer walk-up Covid testing in predominately Black communities.

At Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, CEO Dr. Tunde Sotunde said raising his organization’s minimum wage to $16 an hour was a positive step toward closing the racial wealth gap, as was setting targets for supplier diversity. 

Sotunde, who is Black, was named CEO of the Durham-based health insurer on June 1, 2020, at the height of the racial-justice protests and months into the Covid-19 pandemic. He said he has pushed to make diversity and inclusion a priority within the company, where a diversity council of cross-functional leaders is charged with finding sustainable ways to drive those efforts. Sotunde chairs the group.

“If you asked me, ‘Who is your chief diversity officer?’ you’re looking at him right here. I am the chief diversity officer, because I believe that the tone has to be set at the top,” he said.

Katrina Louis
Katrina covers Charlotte's Black business scene for QCity Metro. She's a Miami transplant, pescatarian and lover of the arts. She earned a public relations degree from the University of Florida. Got a news tip? Email her at katrinalouis@qcitymetro.com.

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