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6 steps company leaders can take to address systemic racism

Innovation Works President A. Jay Nwachu shares a roadmap for discussing George Floyd's death in the workplace, and creating a path for sustained action.

Inside a 2019 Innovation Works program. (Courtesy photo)

This guest post is a part of Racial Equity Month of's editorial calendar.

This is a guest post by A. Jay Nwachu, president of Innovation Works and Ignite Capital.

At social enterprise network Innovation Works (IW), we are taking steps to unpack the issues before us today, understanding their context within history and thinking about sustainable actions for the future. While this is a journey for us, I want to share how our team is approaching this with hopes that it helps my colleagues in Baltimore, as we lead companies that have a potential to truly move us forward. At IW, addressing the racial wealth divide is core to our mission. Closing the wealth gap while building more Black owned enterprises is critical to addressing inequities that plague us.

Most of us will spend close to a third of our lives at work. It is rather difficult to expect anyone to spend that much time within a context and continue to compartmentalize in a healthy manner. As leaders, we owe it to ourselves and our teams to embrace and address these challenges that we have contended with for a long time as a nation.

Naming the challenges we face

If we choose to take bold steps, we start by naming the challenges. When we pay lip service to a new product line or strategy without addressing the root problem, progress is fleeting. Simply put, we live in a nation steeply rooted in racist systems and the manifestation of these systems are evident in our everyday lives. There is often anxiety in naming such large complex issues as they might numb us because of the burden of the task. At this moment, if necessary, I would recommend narrowing the issue to police-community relations and police accountability.

Honor each individual’s journey

Even as leaders, we do not have to be fully equipped with the latest statistics and research on systemic racism or police accountability to create space at work. It is okay to even admit how upset, emotionally wrecked or even disconnected we are at this very moment. Honestly, I think our employees who care would rather us admit to it and be open to honest productive dialogue rather than remain silent out of fear of being misunderstood or judged.

While it is understandable to recognize that we all do not arrive at the social justice dance at the same time, we cannot pretend that the dance is not happening. As leaders, we have to lead the way by doing better, because there is no patience for hypocritical leadership. There are many recommendations available for those wanting to do better, especially white leaders. Some resources can be found in essays provided by Jessica Watson and Alanah Nichole.

Make space, intentionally

How are you allowing your team the space to acknowledge these issues openly? Do you have a workplace that encourages your employees to be their authentic selves? Do you intentionally provide spaces where your employees can learn from each other and be led by experts in the field? I recommend bringing a reputable professional or company to guide you and your company through the journey, so that you may and learn alongside your employees, as well. Consider local resources such as the Baltimore Racial Justice Action and Out for Justice. In doing this, we should learn to show up, abandoning what we think we know, in order to truly understand other experiences. Far too often, defensiveness pushes many to deny other people’s humanity.

At IW, we are not only trying to be intentional about making the space – we are trying to honor our individual journeys while striving towards collective action. Too often, we leave it to minority groups in the organization, especially the Black people, to be proactive in creating the space, which is simply not fair.

Recognize the urgency of now and taking action

Honestly, one of the most frustrating parts of it all is recognizing and accepting the tension between the urgency of now and the long-term systemic shift that needs to happen. As I think about IW’s mission, I recognize that this tension exists daily in our work – the urgency to “fix it” now versus building a system that is futureproof. For those who truly care about long-term systemic change, as individuals or companies, it is too tempting to come up with knee-jerk responses to crises, especially for leaders of companies with missions that are not justice-oriented. How many statements are we seeing from leaders expressing their frustrations and “allyship,” but are not willing to take bold steps in fighting systemic racism?

I would recommend partnering with another organization to help advise you on what next steps can impact the fight for justice — a one-time donation is nice, but is not sufficient. Using a public education context, here is a great framework for balancing the urgency of now versus the focus on long-term sustainability.

Sustain hope

Hopelessness can really cripple even the best of us. I readily admit that I struggle with hopelessness often, especially when we are fighting the same battles as generations before us with incremental changes. It is difficult to help others remain hopeful, if we are not hopeful. Hope is sustained by goals, pathways to success and self-agency. As with any company goal, a hopeless staff leads to a doomed company. If your employees truly want to collectively move towards action, then as leaders, our responsibility is to help ensure that goals are set, pathways are cleared (no matter how difficult) and each individual feels that they have the power to navigate through the challenges.

We have to stop giving ourselves a pass for doing the bare minimum when the roots of systemic racism, especially police accountability, are so deeply entrenched in our culture. No matter our company’s missions, we have a moral obligation and collective responsibility to address these challenges. As Rajon Rondo put it, “Talk is cheap, but when you go out there and prove it – you’re the first one to show up for practice, and you’re the last to leave – that’s how you lead by example.”

Take inventory

At IW, we are taking the time to revisit all of the resources that we have put in place for our employees, including health and wellness benefits, professional development stipends and more. We are asking ourselves if these are enough, and what more we can do to make our place of work a healthy one. In addition, there are other ways a company can look within, beyond individual offerings. For example:

  • Who influences the company’s decision making? Start with your board and leadership teams — how diverse is it? What excuses have you accepted as to why you could not be more diverse and inclusive?
  • Can your company, if not already social justice-oriented, adopt a social justice issue that is part of the company’s active strategy? Strategize to the extent that employees can engage, are resourced to do so and ensure KPIs are tracked alongside the core outputs of the company.
  • As a leader or a company, are you using your voice to stand for a social justice issue — perhaps one that is close to your core mission? Is there a legislative policy that you can champion that leads to systemic change, even if such policies might force you to sacrifice something as a company? Such policies could include mandating livable wages, removing barriers to employment for returning citizens, equitable access to quality education, etc.

While IW continues on this journey, I am happy to be a thought partner to others seeking to move us closer to a society where one’s zip code of birth is not a major determinant of their life outcome. You can find me here: jay at iwbmore dot org, or on Twitter: @bmore_jay

Series: Racial Equity Month 2020

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