Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in an 5-part series on Shared Prosperity: Our Corporate Responsibility in a Time of Consternation.

So often, we limit our ability to truly impact diversity, inclusion and equity by solely focusing on one dimension of how to promote equity with marginalized community. I believe we must embrace a refreshed pipeline approach.  In my position paper, Shared Prosperity: Our Corporate Responsibility in a Time of Consternation, I make it clear that embracing and fostering diversity, beyond being the right thing to do, is a smart business decision.

So what do I mean by a refreshed pipeline approach? Higher education is charged by society with preparing students for the workforce. Part of this preparation is showing students they can be anything, do any job. Yet in a 2017 study by the American Council on Education, a higher education association, researchers found that individuals who identified as something other than white held just 17 percent of college and university presidencies in 2016, while representing 42 percent of students enrolled.

Why does that matter? The overrepresentation of white people in the top campus leadership role discourages students of color from considering the upper levels of academia as a career to which they could aspire on graduation. Without diversity throughout most fields, participation wanes among marginalized groups. Without participation from a range of workers, we can’t maximize talent or economic growth. Without growth, we lack resources to develop current and future members of the workforce. The country becomes less innovative and economically competitive when we’re less diverse. (add footnote)*

Through the years, I have heard a good deal of commentary denigrating Affirmative Action. But the truth remains, if our systems at the front, middle and end were equitable, we wouldn’t need programs like these. In our 21st century America there is still a need for policies that ensure that preparation and opportunities are appropriately distributed. Affirmative Action was one attempt to level the playing field.

In the 1990s when I decided to pursue college, I most certainly was a beneficiary of Affirmative Action, which was an intentional governmental effort to get more African Americans and other underrepresented groups into college and beyond. At the time, my class at the University of Missouri, Columbia, boasted the biggest enrollment of African Americans in its history. And we still represented less than one percent in a state whose black population was 12 percent.  Let’s be clear, Affirmative Action sought to remedy a “marketplace of opportunity” defect. There was (and still is) a near monopoly on opportunity and Affirmative Action simply tried to create the legal conditions to allow African Americans and others to go as far as their talent and will would take them.  Like white students, those of us who got into the University due to Affirmative Action had to work hard to maintain our place. Preparation is always a combination of part nature (genes) and part nurture (environment). Many of us who got in did not make it, perhaps due to a combination of genes, environment and the invisible system that takes over once you are actually admitted. Disclaimer, I actually flunked out my freshman year, before getting back in, gaining my footing and excelling.

As individuals make their way through the professional ranks, we should acknowledge that systems are still at work undermining the outcomes we want to see—a more diverse executive team. One way to combat this is to strengthen sponsorship programs and tie the compensation of sponsors partly to helping individuals navigate the complexities of organizations. “Despite spending millions on corporate diversity efforts, U.S. companies aren’t retaining Black professionals or promoting them to top positions, causing many of those workers to walk out the doors in frustration,” according to a new report. Black people account for about 12% of the U.S. population, but occupy only 3.2% of the senior leadership roles at large companies in the U.S. and just 0.8% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions, according to the analysis by the Center for Talent Innovation, a workplace think tank in New York City.

As leaders in our community we can change those statistics. We can deliberately and actively recruit Black and Brown talent to join our team. We can ensure that they have allies and mentors within our areas of influence so their agency carries them to the highest ranks of our organizations. We will all flourish and grow if we keep our eye on the prize: a prosperous region serving diverse communities. As leaders, let’s commit to Shared Prosperity.

*January 06, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS Affirmative Action in Higher Education: Relevance for Today’s Racial Justice Battlegrounds by Genevieve Bonadies Torre

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