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How Can a Company Remove Racism From Its Practices?

A man wearing a mask holds a stop sign with the names of Black Americans who have been killed by police. He is in the center of a crowd at a protest. Behind him is the Black Lives Matter flag.

Companies spend a lot of time and money on implementing DEI. But what works and what doesn’t? James White, the former CEO of Jamba Juice, and daughter Krista White, a DEI expert, have written a book called Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World.

BRINK spoke to them both and began by asking whether they consider capitalism itself to be inherently racist.

JAMES WHITE: I think the way we would answer that question is that we believe capitalism is based on a set of structures, principles and processes that are inherently racist, and our approach to the book was to take a systemic view of how to solve for that from an anti-racist lens. 

It’s worth reading the opening paragraph of our book as it sums up how we think about this work: Krista really pushed me hard to make sure that we didn’t straddle the fence and that we were really clear on calling the challenges what they really are in an appropriate language and then being declarative on what we stand for as we think about this work:

“This book is not apolitical. This book is explicitly anti-racist, pro-black, pro-LGBTQIA+ and feminist. This book acknowledges that capitalism is built on a foundation of systemic racism and that to have a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment, we must acknowledge the historic and present injustices faced by marginalized people.”

KRISTA WHITE: I think my experience is one that’s shaped by my identity as a black woman, as someone who has been in a lot of different spaces that challenge capitalism as a structure, and it has been really interesting to reimagine different ways that we can work within the system to dismantle structures that are ultimately harmful. 

The Need to Look At All the Systems and Rituals

BRINK: You talk a lot in the book about the need for diversity in a workforce, but would you say that just having a more diverse set of employees is enough to change the structures that you just mentioned? 

JAMES WHITE: The answer to that is absolutely not. Our approach for the book is about really looking at the systems, whether it is a nonprofit, an institution, a university or a corporation — how people are recruited and onboarded into the company, how they’re compensated, what that looks like from an inequity perspective, how people’s performances evaluated, how people get promoted, how key job assignments are made.

We also look at what are the rituals inside of the company that create equality or inequality for everyone to be able to bring their full selves to the workplace. We think about what are the symbols inside the organization and how those impact, how you experience the organization. 

The best companies are … going to have their DEI work baked into the strategy of the company. It’s going to show up in how the values of the company are articulated. If it matters, you measure it.

I think the first thing is to take an accounting or an assessment or an audit of all the processes in the organization. I would say the most critical lever to driving sustainable change around diversity, equity and inclusion is in the middle management. 

If you think about middle management being the set of leaders in the corporation that most of us have our experience with from a leadership perspective, that’s the level in the organization where you really have to get it right. 

Who Gets the Opportunities to Really Shine?

KRISTA WHITE: I agree that middle management is a very important lever within the HR systems. I think that hiring is the first step, but I think critically important is the promotions piece and who gets those assignments that are going to give them opportunities to really shine. So promotions and reviews are really where we get that pipeline to leadership positions. Who’s in the leadership really helps determine what kind of culture the organization is going to have.

BRINK: Do you have a sense of what you think successful DEI looks like?

KRISTA WHITE: I’d say that a successful DEI or anti-racist culture within an organization is when the makeup of the organization at all levels starts to look like both the communities they serve and the community at large.

A tangible way to see how DEI is working or how the culture is working is to measure employee experiences based on their identities. You might have an overall positive experience, but are people with different identities based on race or gender or anything else having a different experience of your company than other people?

JAMES WHITE: I agree 100% with Krista’s commentary. The only thing I’d add is this work is not a one-size-fits-all. It depends on where the companies sit in their own respective journeys, but the best companies are going to have representation in the boardroom, in the C-suite that represents all the different dimensions that Krista talked about. They’re going to have their DEI work baked into the strategy of the company. And it’s not going to be optional; it’s going to be a requirement.

James D. White

Co-author of "Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World"

James D. White is the former chair, president, and CEO of Jamba Juice. He is the author, with his daughter Krista, of Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022).

Krista White

Co-author of "Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World"

Krista White is a writer and consultant in the DEI space, focusing on work at the intersection of race and queerness. She is the founder and CEO of Kiki For The Future and the co-founder of Culture Design Lab, two DEI-focused startups.

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