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Reclaiming DEI: Uniting Business and Society for Progress

This past month, a conservative group racked up the latest in a string of legal victories against diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts – this time shutting down Fearless Fund’s program supporting Black women business owners. That same day, Bridge Partners released new data showing that 72% of executives plan to increase their company’s DEI efforts. The whiplash you might have felt seeing those headlines next to each other is understandable. It shows, though, how attempts to hijack and distort concepts like DEI – both in the public discourse and in the courtroom – can’t change the growing recognition that a fairer, more diverse, and more inclusive society is good for everyone, including businesses. Forward-thinking corporate leaders get it, but weathering this storm of attacks against DEI will require leaders to implement and talk about the topic in a way that reclaims the narrative around business’ role in society.

It’s never been more important for businesses to take bold action to secure our common future. DEI initiatives reach far beyond hiring practices and working environments. Healthy, thriving workforces have a powerful ripple effect that leads to stronger communities and greater stability for our economy and democracy. Despite this, advocates for DEI initiatives have been fending off a barrage of attacks and political maneuvering that associates social good with “wokeism.” And the fear of being called into the debate has prompted some businesses to downplay or rename related programs. Unfortunately, this defensive stance has eroded public understanding of the substantial benefits these efforts offer to companies, communities, and society.

Lineup of smiling diverse people

​Knowing how to stand firm and connect DEI to business strategy is the only way to ensure businesses can focus on long-term success rather than short-term distractions. Numerous studies have shown that advancing equity, inclusion, and socially responsible business practices is a source of strength and resilience for businesses. This is especially true in challenging economic times. Following the 2008 Great Recession, companies that stayed the course in their diversity and inclusion efforts flourished financially, outperforming their peers by 400 percent. Commitments to DEI have also led to a greater focus on supplier diversity, pay equity, and skill-based hiring that unlocks opportunity for the 60 percent of adults without a bachelor’s degree. At a time when nearly one in three people in the U.S. are economically insecure, we all have to make a concerted effort to translate these outcomes into tangible, non-partisan messages.

Weathering this storm of attacks against DEI will require leaders to implement and talk about the topic in a way that reclaims the narrative around business’ role in society.

Business leaders who believe in the value of DEI and who are committed to continuing this important work must use their platforms to highlight the positive community, societal, and business outcomes these efforts have. That doesn’t mean every business leader needs to take to X (formerly Twitter) to state their position, although Mark Cuban’s willingness to take on the opposition on their turf provided balance to a lopsided media cycle. However, we live in a world where workers and consumers expect more from businesses, and progress is paramount. It’s time for leaders to shed their fears and align their organizations with the greater good.

Three diverse women working together

For example, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon made headlines when he asserted that he’s “a full-throated, red-blooded, patriotic, unwoke, capitalist CEO” before explaining why the company would not be reducing its diversity efforts despite the anti-DEI attacks. The bank’s $30 billion commitment to close the wealth gap and fight inequality has so far yielded positive results. The community-focused program unlocked access to capital for small businesses and first-time homebuyers who had previously been unable to get financing. According to Dimon, this is because the team approaches DEI like any other line of work, with a focus on facts, data, and analysis.

Diverse fists in circleCompanies that have not yet achieved similar results have an opportunity to improve how they operationalize their DEI commitments. We know businesses struggled to deeply integrate these commitments following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 as they attempted to build the proverbial DEI plane while flying it. Not surprisingly, they’re now caught in a similar reactive stance while navigating attacks from a vocal minority. A new standard of operating, informed by data and expert insight, is needed to break out of this reactive cycle. Companies that proactively target inequalities and develop plans to address them will gain credibility with all their stakeholders, create a more stable business environment, and strengthen their communities in the process.

To help make this happen, the Corporate Racial Equity Alliance recently released a draft of the Business Standards for 21st Century Leadership. These standards provide a performance-focused, actionable roadmap for how to integrate DEI and other socially responsible practices into everyday operations. Equally important, it offers a common language to help businesses discuss, evaluate, and defend the value of these efforts. As we enter a public comment period to solicit feedback on the standards, one thing is already clear: Businesses reaping the full benefits of these practices aren’t shying away from the subject. It takes a boldness to do it well and ignore the naysayers in the process, but it pays dividends for all stakeholders.

This is the time to set a stake in the ground that there is only one way to do business in the 21st century, and that is by valuing shared prosperity and well-being for all, just as much as a company’s bottom line. No amount of bullying or twisted narratives should change that. Business leaders must seize this opportunity to foster a future where all individuals have the opportunity to engage, thrive, and reach their full potential. Now is not the time to retreat. Now is the time to make lasting progress in all the ways that only businesses can as proven engines of innovation and prosperity.

Dr. Michael McAfee is the president and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute working to build a future where all people in the United States of America can participate in a flourishing multiracial democracy, prosper in an equitable economy, and live in thriving communities of opportunity. Michael ... Read more
Mahlet Getachew is the Managing Director of Corporate Racial Equity at PolicyLink. She is a former corporate lawyer and works to ignite new norms in corporate America that value people and our planet just as much as the bottom line. She leads a portfolio of strategic initiatives, including the Corporate ... Read more
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