Amid a pandemic and social unrest, we gathered senior multicultural business leaders to focus on the challenges and opportunities of this indelible moment in history.
A lot had changed between Morgan Stanley’s Senior Multicultural Leaders Conference held in New York last year and our fifth annual forum this June, hosted virtually by Vice-Chairman Carla Harris, Head of Multicultural Client Strategy, in partnership with corporate sponsors Target and Deloitte, and nonprofit partners Catalyst, Executive Leadership Council, Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility and Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics. The topics: The coronavirus pandemic, the spate of racial killings that have sparked social unrest, as well as the effects on healthcare, the economy and society.
“The confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the most recent loss of Black lives has devastated us all,” said Harris, in kicking off the event. “The need for meaningful and long-lasting change has created a unique opportunity for today’s corporate, civic and philanthropic leaders to accelerate innovation, to shift paradigms and boldly act on behalf of their shareholders, customers, employees and community constituents.”
Senior leaders from across the country engaged with speakers from top companies and media brands, who offered unique insights about potential paths forward in today’s challenging socioeconomic and geopolitical environment. What follows is a Q&A with Harris, who shares her thoughts on some of the key points and issues raised at the event.
Interviewer: One thing that came up in the first discussion on healthcare is that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to look for out-of-the-box solutions. Who should we be turning to for those right now?
Carla Harris: I think this is a problem that businesses will end up shouldering in the short run. Something that [Merck CEO] Ken Frazier talked about in the conference is that we haven't seen this level of collaboration before. You've always seen a measure of competition—who can get that patent, who can get that drug out there first. But now, this unprecedented collaboration to find a vaccine is happening—which I think is one huge example of businesses coming together to solve a societal problem, to break down the walls, cross the aisles and find the commonality among businesses for the social good.
Q: Abby Phillip, CNN’s White House Correspondent, who spoke at the conference, said of Black Lives Matter: “It’s not a partisan issue, it’s a human rights issue.” Corporate America seems to be waking up to this reality, with at least a few companies moving to right past mistakes and many others committing to do better. Do you see a paradigm shift?
Harris: I think this is an “A-ha" moment for corporate America. Full disclosure: I'm a glass-half-full kind of girl, so I do think that this moment is different from anything I've seen in my 33-year Wall Street career. And I do think that there will be lasting changes. No question about it.
Now, how and when we will get there, I really can't say. As [Ford Foundation President] Darren Walker said, “Corporate leaders need to not just put out a statement about racism right now. It needs to be an effort from top to bottom. We're going to need to move from tokenism to transformation.” That said, I do think that there has been a fundamental change in how corporate America views this issue.
Q: Along those lines, Darren Walker also said, “The fact that we have fewer Black CEOs today than we did five years ago, the fact that we have basically flat-lined in terms of the numbers of Blacks on boards is something that I find quite alarming. We got work to do.” How does that happen?
Harris: I think it really is a matter of intentionality. If this is something that companies want to do, they will get it done. I'm hard pressed to think of companies that survive and thrive that do not accomplish their strategic goals. So I guess what I'm really saying is, they have to believe that it is integral to their success in order for it to get done.
Q: Ira Kalish, the Chief Global Economist of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, noted at the conference: “The current economic climate may mean demand will fall for low-skilled workers and make income inequality worse. Hopefully, the government will be able to spend money on skills training or help them in other ways.” Where do you see the government’s role in this?
Harris: Ira is right that some of the jobs eliminated throughout this period won’t return. The question is, how do you get people working for 21st-century opportunities? They're going to have to be trained. And here's an opportunity where public and private can partner. Perhaps government can provide tax incentives or subsidies for companies to train workers for their future needs. Maybe the creation of a “technology university,” if you will, where companies in certain industries work together to train the people that they collectively need over the next 5-10 years. But there needs to be an incentive for them to do that.
Q: Darren Walker talked about the role that philanthropic and nonprofit institutions have in all of this. What outside-of-the-box thinking do those organizations need to embrace?
Harris: This is a time when people can develop their innovation muscle. When it comes to philanthropies, I’ll give you just one example involving Darren. He called me one Sunday afternoon and said, “Listen, I've got a thought. We have $14 billion here at the Ford Foundation. But that's going to be nothing compared to the enormous need that nonprofits will have on the other side of COVID. People have never seen anything like this. We have to have a way to access more capital to help these organizations on the ground dealing with the people who are hurt by this virus. And I'm thinking about a bond, because it's a way to bring the public in, to do a public-private partnership, to solve this societal issue. And here's what I'm thinking."
So we ideated for a few minutes on the phone and then he said, “Let me make some other phone calls." And then he came back to me, one thing led to another, and he said, “You know, I think I want to do a billion dollars of this. And I'd like to have Morgan Stanley as a partner with me.” And we printed that deal on the 18th of June. That’s out-of-the-box thinking. And it was brilliant.
Q: Speaking of Darren Walker, he wrote an Op-Ed recently in which he stated that if you want to address racial injustice, you're going to have to address economic injustice. Would you agree?
Harris: He makes a great point, which is that racial injustice and economic injustice go hand in hand, resulting in people of color lacking access to the kind of opportunity white people have. In addition, even if they had the opportunity, they didn't get the same pay—or the same promotions. So, yes, they are inextricably tied.
If you want to repair some of that it means taking a look at bias, thinking more broadly about what are the right credentials for certain opportunities, ensuring that people who are doing the same job get paid the same amount. And that means you're going to need some kind of transparency to ensure that is, in fact, the case.
I really don't think there are any problems out there that lack readily available solutions, or where smart people can't get together and create a “right now” solution. Like I said, I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl.