July 24

The Story Ursala Burns and My Mother Share

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This time feels different. Lately our nation has gotten a sobering front row seat of what Black Americans have long known to be reality. Its spill-over has caused action for some. I’ve fielded calls from CEOs asking, “How do I get a person of color in my talent pool for xyz senior leadership opening?” “Got any relationships with xyz expertise for consideration of a Corporate Board seat?” And of course the less targeted, “What can I do to help?” 


Technically, nothing new here to see. Black and Brown people have long shared the stories and strategies for how to maneuver while minimizing risk. What becomes elusive is making more than a verbal difference and not losing yourself in the process. I watched Ursala Burns today talk about how she raised her children. How she was afraid. Ursala Burns. Afraid. Xerox CEO, Ursala Burns. She explicitly shared the directive given to her children. Funny thing, it was the very same story I heard from my Mom growing up in a shotgun row home in Philadelphia. My beginnings are a long way from the capability of a Fortune 50 CEO. Though the home is different, the story is not. In America, we can’t escape our skin. Even with one of the biggest titles America has to offer, she can’t escape her skin. Ask any Black man or woman and they’ll tell you, as it pertains to engaging with the police, it doesn’t matter. Ursala herself said that she was afraid. With a $1.3B net worth, I’m certain Ms. Burns can have most anything she wants. But the freedom to just be, is not for sale. For us to exist in this country, comes at a mental cost, with synapse ever engaged; sun up to sun down. As we’ve seen, for some, not even in your home can you escape the risks of your skin.


This is what it means to live in brown skin. To in certain situations be afraid and oftentimes incensed; but to push it down, to bottle it up, and slap a label of wide smile, respect and silence on said bottle. As this famed CEO confirmed this morning, a Black man’s shield from a bad encounter is but a, “Shut up, big smile, and respect.” Those are Ursala Burns’ words. As a parent, I know the armor is easily pierced. Black boys and girls are taught to simply focus on one thing, making it home. “We’ll deal with whatever happens later,” they’re told. 


Just. Make. It. Home.

As firms write letters of support and brand websites #BlackLivesMatter, know that it will take more. More time. More dialogue. More action. This time feels different. This movement is shifting and will continue to move from one of emotion to economics. Supporters of this movement are empathizing, strategizing, and mobilizing. With Blacks’ $1.3T buying power, coupled with the buying power of their allies, companies must take notice and take consistent action. Some may stumble, but like Starbucks, you can rethink and bounce back. College and professional players alike are exercising their voice and mobilizing their platforms. Platitude filled letters alone, fall on deaf ears like the proverbial thoughts and prayers. This is not a moment for a one-time gesture as a solution. Your employees, your customers and your future talent are looking for your actions. 


What are you doing specifically that we can replicate, support or leverage? What side of history will you fall on? 


This article written by Kevin D. Wright


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