Barron Witherspoon leads P&G’s Corporate Race Initiative

by cdawkins

Does Corporate America have a role to play in driving Racial Equity in the United States? Procter & Gamble (P&G) believes the answer is a resounding—yes, and the company has tapped Barron Witherspoon, a senior P&G executive, to define that role in his new capacity as Head of P&G’s Corporate Race Initiative. Witherspoon is not only charged with defining the role for P&G, he is leading a national effort across corporations and geographies to collectively “define, declare and demonstrate the specific role Corporate America must play in advancing Racial Equity.”

P&G has built its “street cred” in recent years by carefully wading into the national discourse on Race. In 2018, the company was awarded the Outstanding Commercial Emmy for an ad called “The Talk” which captures the conversations African American parents often have with their children about the impact of racial bias and prejudice in America. In summer 2019, P&G followed with another short film called “The Look” highlighting the various “looks” African American men encounter as they move through their daily lives. Like its predecessor, this piece very effectively helps to open viewers to discussions about race and the day-to-day implications of racial bias in our society. P&G is determined to use its voice as a force for good and a force for growth. A powerful example of this is their effort to eliminate image bias by accurately portraying Black & Brown people in advertising and programming.

Since his appointment in March 2019, Mr. Witherspoon has been building upon P&G’s street cred and methodically tackling this enormous and timely task. It is enormous because somehow Witherspoon and P&G must seek broad-based alignment across economic sectors and geographies. It is timely because consumers across many market segments are now expecting companies to play a much more direct and active role in addressing the nation’s (and the world’s) most pressing societal challenges—and you can hardly go a day without seeing the impact of race-based, institutional bias upon our society.

“My mission is clear,” says Witherspoon, “I must answer this business question — What is Corporate America’s role? — in a way that can be applied to any company, and I am thoroughly convinced, the only way to do this is to create a movement which engages leaders from across Corporate America to discover the answer together.” His approach has been deliberate and effective. To anchor the work, he sought to link P&G’s Corporate Race Initiative with the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, which was spearheaded by PwC, and has now grown to nearly 1,000 signatories including P&G.

His first task was to stand up a coalition of like-minded companies that were willing to journey with P&G and PwC to define Corporate America’s role in advancing racial equity. A clarion call was issued throughout the CEO Action signatory community, and Mr. Witherspoon now has a working group of corporate leaders from over 20 major companies who meet regularly and help shape the approach. Witherspoon has led this group to coalesce around a strategic frame-work, which calls for coalition companies to regularly convene with partners from academia, media, research entities and others who are interested in helping Corporate America to define its role in racial equity.

Witherspoon says, “When you think about it, many of our institutions have weighed-in and defined their role in racial equity. Faith-based groups have pondered the moral questions embedded in racial inequality; government has sought to regulate equitable treatment across people groups; academia has proffered curricula especially in the social sciences. Yet, Corporate America has been conspicuously absent from the dialogue.” In this context, the group’s work now centers around a focused strategy which P&G and the coalition have branded as “Take on Race: Advancing Equity Together.”

Their work has been buoyed by several important recent developments that reinforce the timeliness and urgency of this work. First, key data compiled by the Racial Equity Institute (REI) clarifies the extent to which institutional racism and bias have impacted access to the core benefits of American society (e.g., access to health care, education, wealth creation, social justice, etc.). Related data released by The Kellogg Foundation brings greater clarity to the multitrillion- dollar value proposition of eliminating race-based economic disparities. Second, in August 2019 the Business Roundtable released a new statement on the purpose of a corporation. It reinforces the broader stakeholder responsibility beyond its shareholders to include customers, employees and communities.

These and other developments are helping to create momentum for companies to engage in the work of addressing institutional and structural racism and bias in America. The coalition of companies is using this momentum to help fuel its new conference format, called Take on Race, which was successfully piloted in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Take on Race conference was hosted at the P&G worldwide headquarters and held in The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

The inaugural conference convened 125 leaders from over 80 companies to roll up their sleeves and work together in examining racial inequities and designing solutions. The two-day conference facilitated conference participants through a careful exploration of the value proposition for racial equity and the benefit of applying Corporate America’s muscle to dismantle the structural barriers impeding progress of Black and Brown people and constraining their access to society’s benefits. Using a compelling and non-competitive approach, speakers and presenters addressed participating leaders from companies including JPMorgan Chase, Edward Jones, Lilly, EY, AT&T, Walmart, P&G, PwC and Merck.

The Take on Race conference model is designed to assist participating companies in the effort to define the Corporate role in advancing racial equity. The model uses compelling data to level-set participants on the case for change. Participants are then invited to engage in collaborative problem solving in a venue which provides a rich cultural immersion. By hosting the conference in spaces like the Freedom Center, organizers tap into and further deepen the personal awareness and felt needs of participants.

The Take on Race conference features carefully curated “Corporate Race Disruptors,” initiatives currently being led by individual companies. These Disruptors are efforts designed to upset the status quo and to help eradicate disparities in access to wealth creation, education, social justice and health care. Conference attendees are exposed to specific Disruptors and challenged to determine how best to scale this work.

Companies like JPMorgan Chase are pioneering community-facing programs. Their Advancing Black Pathways program helps to address the wealth gap by bringing innovative wealth creation solutions directly to Black and Brown communities. Walmart, through re-engineering hiring practices, is helping to address possible disparities in our criminal justice system. As a prime mover in the Ban-the-Box movement, Walmart is helping provide gainful employment to those with non-violent criminal records. Featured Disruptors like these efforts at Chase and Walmart will be monitored post-conference to evaluate the scalability and the potential impact of scale upon the out- come gaps currently experienced in Black and Brown communities. Regional Take on Race conferences will crisscross the country during 2020 and culminate with a national conference in Washington, D.C. near the end of the year. There are opportunities for your company to get involved as a sponsor or host in any of the selected cities. Corporate engagement is growing, and this new work seems to have given voice to the corporate value proposition for advancing racial equity together. Are you ready to join with Witherspoon and others as they endeavor to Take on Race?

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