Martin Luther King Jr. 
Created by local artist Michael Bowser 
Photo by Duane Tinkey
Martin Luther King Jr. Created by local artist Michael Bowser Photo by Duane Tinkey

"When you make a commitment, that commitment needs to translate into courage, not only a signature on a paper." — Claudia Schabel, president and CEO of Schabel Solutions

 

The slaying of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020, sparked a racial justice movement that hadn’t been seen in more than 50 years. It also ignited a reckoning in the business community about what role it should play in the conversation and how community leaders could use their positions to influence action.

 

More than 200 company and organizational leaders signed the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s CEO Commitment to Racial Equity after Floyd’s death and the weeks of protests that followed last summer.

 

We wanted to revisit that commitment and see what action some of those companies have taken.

 

We spoke with leaders at Delta Dental, Deere & Co., EMC Insurance Cos., Hubbell Realty Co. and Bridgestone Americas to get a snapshot of what work is being done to keep the racial equity conversation moving forward. We also looked at ourselves and we will share what Business Publications Corp. is doing in its own diversity, equity and inclusion journey.


Bringing DEI into focus

The murder of George Floyd wasn’t so much a starting point for companies as it was a catalyst for them to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) part of their daily conversation and expand it to their overall mission and plan of operation. 

 

“EMC was already on this journey, but this was a chance to solidify our space in this community of saying we’ve committed internally, but how do we also commit externally,” said Lonnie Dafey, assistant vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. “The getting things going is more of us as an organization figuring out what it means to people personally, but also what it means professionally.”

 

Dafney, who was hired in March 2020, two months before Floyd’s death, said that work included building a foundation and setting up the “ecosystem” internally to support the work.

 

“I would say that commitment internally was actually having a focus on it, and that it actually is somebody’s day job to set up the strategies we need to do so it’s treated like a business initiative versus a project or a nice-to-have kind of thing. Putting some more teeth to it,” Dafney said. “I think it’s worth the challenge or it falls short because it doesn’t get the focus or attention that is necessary to move the needle and make a true impact.”

 

Jeff Russell, president and CEO of Delta Dental, said the work goes beyond simply putting a statement on a company website.

 

“It’s about how you sustain the action that’s happening and how you continue to get incrementally better day after day, and that’s not any different than a lot of things we address in an organization in terms of process and procedure,” he said.

 

Russell acknowledged that Delta Dental may have been slow in responding to Floyd’s death -- not releasing a statement until 10 days later.

 

“There was a lot of pressure on companies to come out and make a statement, and candidly I was probably a little delayed in that … because I wanted to make sure that we were committed to long-term action,” he said. “It’s really an evolving and learning conversation … but part of our agenda-setting for our board and for our team is that it’s top of mind and it stays in front of us.” 

 

It’s also about understanding the benchmarks set by the company, whether it be diverse candidates recruited or the number of women in leadership roles, and working to “continue to make sure that we’re taking those benchmarks and working to improve those,” Russell said.

 

Tharlyn Fox is project manager for Deere & Co.’s Leap Program, a coalition formed last year by the Moline, Ill.-based farm equipment company, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the National Black Growers Council to ease barriers to heirs property left to Black farmers without a will. Because the titles are clouded, the land can’t be used for collateral for loans or participate in government programs or incentives. It is the leading cause of involuntary land loss for Black farmers, often through the courts.

 

The Leap program helps provide resources to help clear those titles and the tools and technology needed to help Black farmers be sustainable and improve their wealth.

 

“This is not a project that we started last year and will end this year. This is something that has been going on many, many years – it’s not going to be solved overnight. It’s going to evolve. It’s going to mature, and part of my charge is to expand the partnerships, broaden that network, because this is changing lives for many, many people,” said Fox, who began her role on Nov. 1, 2020.

 

At Hubbell Realty, the DEI journey started long before Floyd’s death, but the events of 2020 caused the company to refine and advance its goals.

 

“Like many other companies, our DEI journey is just beginning and continues to evolve,” said Hubbell CEO and President Rick Tollakson.

 

“Along the way, we hope to create a safe, inclusive, and respectful environment where our associates truly know they are listened to, cared for, and appreciated,” he said. 

 

Jesus Escobedo, human resources manager at Bridgestone’s Des Moines agriculture tire plant, said the company’s international presence already placed it ahead of the curve on DEI, but that those efforts were heightened after Floyd’s death.

 

“I think that we’re very unique from that aspect,” he said. “And we also realize that what we want to do is create a culture where people feel comfortable and they can be themselves. So I think what happened after the George Floyd murder was the fact that it just really accelerated our efforts from the DEI perspective.”


What’s being done?

The answer to that question varies depending on who you speak with. Maybe it’s increased efforts to recruit and hire a more diverse workforce. For some, it’s the creation of inclusion councils and expanded diversity training for employees.

 

This list is not inclusive of all work being done, but is intended to be only a snapshot of what the companies we talked with are doing in their own DEI journey.


EMC

  • Invested in blended learning strategies for all team members that address many concepts of DEI to include bias, inclusion, why diversity and inclusion matters, in addition to specific people leader sessions.
  • Launched EMC’s first Inclusion Council with resource groups to be formed this year.
  • Facilitated an Innovation Lab with team members to explore concepts of DEI and ways to enhance the experience at EMC.
  • Enhanced recruiting and hiring practices.
  • Enhanced community and philanthropy collaboration and strategies promoting DEI initiates. 

Deere & Co. 

  • Made a $1 million contribution to the NAACP.
  • Launched a coalition with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) and The National Black Growers Council to assist Black farm families in addressing issues related to heirs property. 
  • Funded an internship program through the TMCF to provide pro bono legal support for Black farmers working to gain title to their land.

Delta Dental

  • Had a third party take a systematic look at human resource practices, including recruiting, hiring, promotion and performance.
  • Expanded work around health equity and focus on communities that have barriers to health care.
  • Created a safe space to have a dialogue and educational opportunities for staff to address sometimes uncomfortable topics, challenge each other and continue to grow.

Hubbell Realty Co.

  • Formed a DEI Committee in 2018 voluntarily led by Hubbell associates that work alongside outside professionals, associates and the executive team to cultivate a more inclusive environment where diversity and equality are valued, respected and celebrated.
  • In 2020, implemented an annual diversity and inclusion training for all associates, and created its own official commitment to diversity.  
  • Offer various educational opportunities to learn, grow and challenge implicit biases.

Bridgestone

  • Increased focus on diversity in recruitment and hiring.
  • Designated a position to look at makeup of the workforce, diversity and created an informational campaign to reach out to groups of color to raise awareness of opportunities at Bridgestone.
  • Increased DEI training for leaders and employees.
  • Increased awareness of and activities of existing groups like the company’s Civil Rights and Women of Steel committees to provide more opportunities for people to learn, seek assistance and bond over common causes.

The risks of stepping up

Those we spoke with also talked about the importance of the business community speaking out on issues that all too often become entangled in political rhetoric.

 

Although it can sometimes be a difficult conversation, it’s a necessary one that all business leaders should be having, said Schabel, whose company provides diversity and inclusion services, consulting, DEI training and equity audits. Schabel is also a member of the Business Record newsroom’s first racial equity advisory board. 

 

“Each organization needs to have this thoughtful conversation about what they’re willing to stand for,” Schabel said.

 

She acknowledged that businesses are often worried about offending customers or clients if they speak out on issues that could be perceived as divisive or partisan.

 

“That fear could stop many people ... and then we’re left only with good intentions,” Schabel said.

 

Part of the work is identifying what issues fit into a company’s core values and visions. And that, Schabel said, can become an issue of workforce attraction and retention.

 

Whether it be legislation introduced at state capitols or in Washington, or issues involving racial equity or social justice, a company’s voice can be important to not only future employees, but current staff, too, she said.

 

“[It can] make them question their sense of belonging in their communities and not to hear anything from their employer, it can send a message that it’s not important enough. And in some instances it’s core to who [an employee is], and that is my No.1 concern,” Schabel said.

 

She said it’s important for companies to ensure a commitment they make leads to action.

 

“The commitment has to be that I’m committed to have the courage to step into this round of racial equity and social justice and do everything in my power to take action in the most appropriate and respectful way, but make things happen,” Schabel said.

 

Unfortunately, too many companies don’t have a framework in place to respond to national or global events, Schabel said.

 

Dafney said she’s not sure the business community is prepared for the work that lies ahead.

 

“I don’t know if the business world was prepared or is still prepared,” she said. “There’s a lot to get your arms around. Using your voice is something different than leveraging the seat from a business perspective. Having to really think about when we step out there and say we support racial equity and social justice, are we prepared for whatever backlash comes with that? That takes some strategic thinking and preparedness. I still don’t know that businesses are fully ready to influence.”

 

Anytime diversity or race is brought into a company’s mission, it can create “aches and uneasiness,” Fox said.

 

“From our standpoint, we really know we are doing the right thing,” she said. “We’re not canceling one farmer to help another farmer. We’re not excluding one group to help another. Here is an opportunity to help a group, to move the needle for a group that has the largest need. John Deere is in the solutions business, and … this is just another solution for farmers. We’re not excluding, but people may politicize that, we can’t help that, but we are in the solutions business and we are not forgoing any of our customers for this great movement that we’re on right now.”   

 

Escobedo said companies need to take the lead in the DEI conversation and ignore the political rhetoric that all too often accompanies racial and social equity work.

 

“You have to take a look at yourself and say, ‘Am I someone that someone’s gonna want to follow? Am I doing the right thing?’” he said. “If you focus on doing what’s right you can block out the political stuff, you can block out all the other things. We need to do what’s right for folks, we need to do what’s right for our communities. It’s really about people. It’s about doing what’s right for them. We’re in position to be able to do that. We’re in a position to be able to make a difference.”


Next steps

The company leaders all acknowledged the DEI work being undertaken by companies should be never-ending.

 

“It’s reminding people that … it’s a movement, it’s not a moment in time,” Dafney said. “It needs to be kept top of mind. There isn’t a check the box. We are reminding people that we’re on a journey and that we’ll stay on that journey. There is never a ‘done.’”

 

Russell said it’s important for companies to be leaders in the racial equity dialogue, but that should start internally.

 

“I think it’s important for companies to lead, but I think that starts at home and in your own organization, inside your own four walls, before you really have any sort of credibility to be able to have that dialogue out in the world,” he said. 

 

Russell said it’s important that DEI work doesn’t become, “the flavor of the month.”

 

“I think we’re all willing to say we probably haven’t done good enough and we need to continue to work on that,” he said. “We need to continue to move forward and that’s going to happen one step at a time. The business community needs to lead on this and if we focus on action more and rhetoric less, I think the results will prove out over time.”

 

Fox said the work of DEI must continue until pledges like the Partnership’s CEO Commitment to Racial Equity are no longer needed.

 

“When we no longer have to pledge to do the right thing, when it becomes organic,” she said. “When it is the core of just being human, just because of the things we do to help one another, we should not have to, in this world, sign a document to say I’m going to do the right thing by another person and here’s this document that says I’m going to do it.”


What BPC is doing to focus on DEI

Leaders of Business Publications Corp. were among the more than 200 company CEOs and organizational leaders to sign on to the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s CEO Commitment to Racial Equity.

Since then, BPC and its publications — including the Business Record, dsm Magazine and ia Magazine – have undertaken strategies to advance our own DEI journey. We felt that since we were asking other companies what work they were doing, it was only fair to share what BPC has been doing since last year. Like many companies, our work began long before the slaying of George Floyd, but last year’s events caused us to create a greater focus on our own DEI work.

Here’s a look at what we’ve been focusing on, so far:

  • We created a DEI road map to advance culture, communication, recruitment, policies and procedures.
  • Leadership and team members were informed by the Executive Vision Series on Strategies for Racial Equity, presented in partnership with Urban Dreams and Tero International.
  • Staff underwent diversity training with leaders of Urban Dreams. A separate training series was conducted with leaders of One Iowa.
  • We established a Racial Equity Advisory Board, and are seeking input from focus groups and leaders across diverse communities.
  • Leaders are integrating ongoing training and awareness of DEI concepts into BPC’s internal culture.

Suzanna de Baca, BPC’s president and group publisher, said the actions taken by the company are “key if we are to make progress in our own company and provide news and content that is not only inclusive, but has the potential to help inform and inspire our readers and community.”

She said BPC has long been committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, but over the past several years recognized a need to be more intentional and diligent in addressing DEI, both internally as well as externally in its products.

“As a Latina, focusing on DEI in our workplace and our community is deeply personal,” de Baca said. “As a leader, advancing DEI in our company and in Iowa is a passion and a priority.

“We are very cognizant that our commitment to DEI is a journey,” she said. “There is much work to do, but the work is critical to shaping a truly inclusive community.”