Black Leadership Roundtable: Cautious optimism after a tumultuous year
With the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd approaching, the Business Times asked 10 Black leaders in the tri-county business community to talk about the past year and the expanded debate about race relations that has been ongoing across the region and the nation. Our panel includes leaders in aviation, hospitality, health care, biotechnology, information technology, financial services, higher education and philanthropy.
The panel conducted was via email between May 1 and May 15. Answers have been edited for length and clarity and organized to make the discussion more conversational.
Pacific Coast Business Times: How would you describe the corporate culture of the Central Coast today?
Travis Mack, founder and CEO, Saalex Solutions and Valeo Networks: I think corporate culture is changing overall on the Central Coast. We see companies really taking an active role in social change, which is a really good thing. Most business leaders are very pragmatic, and in most cases are focused on trying to do the right thing for their businesses and employees. Sometimes that means just being vocal and standing up for what is right and equitable for all.
Warren Ritter II, financial advisor and president of Santa Barbara Young Black Professionals: I have mixed feelings on the current corporate culture. I have many contacts across different industries and while it seems on the surface that many companies/organizations are looking to shift their “corporate cultures” into one that is more inclusive/equitable, it is hard to distinguish the genuine from the perfunctory. How do we know if a company is attempting to cultivate a shift in its inner workings so that it can be a better place overall or just to placate the hot-topic issues right now? I see a lot of organizations creating equity/inclusion ad hoc groups or non-profits diversifying their boards and that is a great thing. I just wonder if the reasoning behind it is as clear-cut as these companies want it to seem.
Regina Biddings-Muro, vice president for university advancement, California Lutheran University: It has been energizing to see busy professionals intentionally carving out time to share perspectives on topics that deserve urgent attention. How can leaders ensure we are hearing everyone’s voices as we make high-impact decisions? We seem to best understand the magnitude of most challenges once we hit the proverbial walls in the center of them. This inconvenient truth helps manage our expectations. I am still trying to figure out whether we have the stamina to accomplish real progress given the amount of time it will take. Chronic challenges require the discipline of a marathon runner.
Henry Thompson, airport director, Santa Barbara Municipal Airport: As an aviation professional I have served in regions from the San Francisco Bay Area to Northwest Louisiana and now the beautiful Central Coast. I’ve had experiences that cross a wide and varying cultural spectrum that only now do I realize how diametrically different they are because of my skill of assimilating as needed to get the job done. The Central Coast was a welcomed return to the West Coast for me. Santa Barbara has been a breath of fresh air professionally with socially conscious and professional people who run the government and its businesses with passion and a drive to make things better for all. But the Central Coast is not diverse, and much work needs to be done to embrace that as a goal, and to create interest and opportunity for African American candidates to consider the region as home. If efforts to attract minority line staff, supervisors and managers are not yielding gains, more needs to be done to ensure that institutional bias is truly removed. But this can’t just continue as a conversation. It warrants a plan of meaningful action.
Myraline Morris Whitaker, owner and CEO, Central Coast Hospitality: In 2005, when I arrived in SLO County, I was considered an outsider, both looking and feeling out of place. My race certainly didn’t help any, but to be fair, it was more my “big city” look and speech. Though I had grown up in Los Angeles and was a seasoned hospitality executive, I moved here from Houston, so I wasn’t even a “Californian” anymore. And I had prejudged how life would be in this, a more rural area. Being a senior hotel executive in the county’s all-important tourism sector gave me opportunity to meet many people quickly, both in public forums and private meetings. I formed alliances and bonds as we all do in business, frankly more easily in this ultimately welcoming business community, than in a big metropolis. In 2009, when I formed my own hotel operations firm, with the support of a hotel ownership firm in Southern California, to run their premier Pismo Beach hotel, I had already developed the community base I needed to successfully operate. Years after the “you are not from around here” comments, I was named Citizen Of The Year for Pismo Beach, by the South County Chamber of Commerce in 2019.
Richard Beswick, vice president of research and chief research officer, Cottage Health: Overall the corporate culture on the Central Coast has been welcoming. During my career I have worked in various corporate environments that are non-caring and chose to ignore race and ethnicity norms. Moreover, their priority was not to retain minority workers but instead control, conquer or tamp down any minority worker that expressed a difference from the overall workforce identity. For example, in my last position it was frowned upon to talk about holidays that had a minority following such as Kwanzaa, Hanukkah or even Martin Luther King’s birthday.
When I moved to the Central Coast five years ago it took me a while to feel comfortable with the openness of my employer. I was so racially battered by my previous employer that it was hard for me to open up and express my true thoughts about work issues to my peers because I didn’t feel that the seriousness of my words would be accepted, especially words expressing the importance of race and inclusivity. It was not until my CEO — Cottage Health CEO Ron Werft — and I had an open conversation about how I fit into the Cottage family and the importance of me speaking my mind. This conversation was refreshing and for the first time in my career I felt included. It led to me becoming more outgoing and involved with multiple organizations. I’ve also learned how much these organizations want to hear diverse perspectives and become accepting of equity and inclusivity. I’ve also learned that businesses are looking for ways to become more diverse but struggle with where to start and how to recruit minorities.
Kim Hunter, founder and CEO, Lagrant Communications and Lagrant Foundation: In contrast to the high-paced culture of the East Coast, the corporate culture of the Central Coast, and the West Coast overall, is slower-paced and more laid back and there are more employees that place a lot of value in finding that work-life balance.
Tamika Jean-Baptiste, executive director for diversity, inclusion and belonging, Amgen: There’s a real excitement over the growing biotech community on the Central Coast. We see entrepreneurs seeking to locate their companies along the coast, as they see new opportunities outside the better-known biotech hubs in the Bay Area and San Diego. These organizations are making efforts to attract talent that is more diverse. At Amgen, our mission is to develop medicines for patients with serious illnesses. Diversity of thought, experience and culture must be the norm to better reflect and serve our patients.
John Grace, financial adviser: People who live in Northern California love to try and play one upmanship with those in Southern California. On one hand we just don’t care and on the other hand, we note most of the state’s GDP — fifth-largest in the world — comes from the south. The Central Coast joins SoCal in not caring one bit about Northern Cal’s issues. We just keep calm and carry on.
Leonie Mattison, chief operating officer, CommUnify: Having been raised in the Caribbean and lived and worked on both the East and West coasts, and have collaborated internationally with colleagues in both Europe and Latin America, I have experienced many different corporate cultures. I would say the corporate culture of the Central Coast today can be defined as conventional, adaptable, and diplomatic. Most workplaces are tailored to meet specific customers’ needs and are generally environmentally conscious. I also find the people of the Central Coast respect and value the environment’s beauty and needs.
PCBT: How have Black Lives Matter and the events of the past year affected you?
Whitaker: In 2020, I watched with awe an 8-year-old girl on CNN in a green shirt, marching with arms pumping, staring directly into the camera, chanting “No Justice. No Peace.” I then remembered that once I was this young girl, holding her mother’s hand, marching down a street in Atlanta protesting a restaurant’s refusal to allow Blacks to enter. I thought, “Please, God. Don’t let this girl still be marching for justice at my age.”
Will the Black Lives Matter movement finally bring lasting change? Maybe. It certainly has brought worldwide attention to the need for social justice and equity extended to all races. But not for the first time. I lived through the Rodney King era in Los Angeles. The cycle of hate and injustice can only be broken in concert, by the three predominant influences on young children. First and foremost, parents, then peer influence, and finally teachers. Hence the importance of another currently controversial subject, diversity studies programs as mandatory curriculum subjects, reaching down into the upper elementary school grades.
Jean-Baptiste: For the first time I had to try to explain to my then 6-year-old son what happened to George Floyd when he saw a news teaser with visuals of that tragic incident. Like many, I have experienced a host of emotions and anxiety that I hadn’t experience before as a mother. It’s sad and troubling to see so many people’s lives abruptly end in unnecessary violence and tragedy, often at the hands of law enforcement. As an HR leader within our organization, I was focused on understanding how this past year has impacted others and how we as a company had to quickly address the health and well-being of our staff, while continuing our efforts to advance equity for all staff members, and create an inclusive culture.
On a more encouraging note, the BLM movement has ignited an energy and social consciousness that many of us haven’t seen since the 1960s, when people formed a united front to address social and racial injustice. Each of us has a unique role to play in this journey.
Thompson: This has been one of my most challenging years. We all have experienced how the pandemic of this past year has turned our lives upside down and caused us to have to rethink everything we did on a daily basis in order to survive a virus that didn’t care who you were or what you look like. Contrast that with a virus called racism that despite some believing it doesn’t exist in our nation, it is actually deep rooted in our DNA. Imagine the racism virus affecting a certain class of seemingly privileged people. Many infected with this virus don’t realize it yet others who do know of its existence in their DNA believe in ensuring it flourishes. Those affected by the virus adjust and do what they can to exist, survive, and prosper despite it mutating throughout society — creating inequality and death in its path. For those who believe they are not infected by this virus but fail to see their day-to-day actions are all about supporting the survival of the virus, are the bigger problem in society because they have an opportunity to alter the course of the virus and stamp it out. So that I’m clear on my position, “Black Lives Matter” and it shouldn’t take a movement to get the average person to realize where we’ve been and why we are here facing the horrific sins occurring daily.
Make no mistake, I’ve felt it all and add the experience to my box of trauma I’m left to deal with; stronger, yes; tired, yes.
Ritter: The events of this past year have shaped life like never before. It has been a time of introspection but also a time of exploration and innovation. Personally, I have seen an increase in collaborative and meaningful partnerships spring up from the tragedies. While some efforts can be seen as perfunctory, I have seen lasting allyship arise from a common want for change and active leadership. I have also witnessed an awakening of something I call a “realization of self” within my spheres of influence which give me hope that new waves of positivity, strength, and resiliency are building within our future leaders.
Mack: This has been a tough year for the entire world, as we all try to get back to normalcy. The Black Lives Matter movement has been a lightning rod to perpetuate change and change is always difficult, but necessary. I encourage all people to make their voices heard in a peaceful and thoughtful way.
Hunter: I’ve split the events last year into what I call Pandemic #1, which is COVID-19, and Pandemic #2, which is the racial inequities and injustices that have become more apparent. I’ve seen a significant increase in clients and projects we’ve taken on. Just this past year, we have partnered with Hyundai and Campbell’s for special projects to help these brands better tap into the African American market. Much of our work these days also includes helping different organizations with campaigns that relate to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our ongoing clients include Sierra Health Foundation, the California Department of Public Health, AECOM, California Tobacco Control Program, Covered California, and the Riverside University Health System. At KLH & Associates, an executive search firm of which I am managing partner, we’ve successfully placed diverse employees in c-suite and senior level positions. At the LaGrant Foundation we have secured out biggest partnerships with HP and Google to build their pool of young, diverse talent. We awarded a total of $175,000 to 60 undergraduate and graduate from students across the country.
Grace: Providing free financial planning services to front-line workers was my firm’s way of acknowledging those who put their lives on the line every day during COVID-19. The average cost of a financial plan is $2,000 and we are working with over 20 families at this time. In 90 minutes the individual or couple discovers how much money it takes to make work optional on their time frame, how much life insurance is needed in the event of premature loss of either bread winner, and we put a plan in place so that we can all attend college graduations where neither the parent nor the child finishes higher education in great debt.
Mattison: As a transformational leader, speaker, and teacher, I have grappled with the dark, undeniably, earthshaking traumatic events (pandemic, losses, policing, politics, protests, etc.) of 2020, a year that has shattered the illusion of control. That has both challenged and changed the way I love, live, serve, and play. In the blink of an eye, the very people, systems, and structures we once relied on fell and cracked. I have become more aware of the resilience of the human spirit to rise from the ashes of what is to growing and extending grace and compassion for ourselves, our communities, and the world.
Beswick: I live in a bubble called the Central Coast. The Central Coast is unique in that the majority of the people living here want to live in a culturally diverse environment. Moreover, people living in Santa Barbara County are shielded somewhat from the racial tension that has been seen for years in major cities across the U.S. I believe that this is due to the African American population making up 2% of Santa Barbara County. I hate to say it, but since we are less seen we are less threating to the status quo of day-to-day life.
The killing of Black males and females by police officers has taken a toll on me. Now more than ever before I’m cognizant of my surroundings and who I interact with or what I say while in public. I feel uncomfortable interacting or even passing police officers. This is a rational fear every Black man or woman feels throughout their entire life based on past violent interactions by themselves or an acquaintance with law enforcement. We all have a story!
Biddings-Muro: At Cal Lutheran, justice is embedded in our mission and our identity. Mr. Floyd joined hundreds of Black people who lost their lives in 2020 because of their race. This is an embarrassment for any advanced civilization. International quarantine during a global pandemic made it nearly impossible to miss the extent of this horror. I am reflecting more seriously about my responsibility to make a positive difference to combat the massive erosion of trust. Amid this lasting tragedy, I am building new partnerships that offer hope such as the Community Scholars for Black Lives Fellowship Program at Cal Lutheran.
PCBT: What is your advice for the next generation of leaders?
Ritter: My advice would be to do things with integrity and to reach out to those who have paved the way for you to be in the positions you find yourself. There will be need to redesign, redefine, cut, or add, but use the resources that have already been made available to you as a starting point. We have a ton of knowledge in our mentors, and we should be relying more upon that.
Mack: Be vocal and be active. It’s not enough to just talk about change, you must be the action behind change. Get involved, in government and in your community. Change only happens when there is appropriate representation at all levels.
Grace: To future Black leaders I say, start planning your financial success with your very first paycheck. To our children I say, embrace critical thinking, and if you want to make the world your oyster, learn Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and English. Then you will look very attractive to companies around the world.
Hunter: In order to truly be a leader, you have to always stay engaged — don’t remain in the sidelines. Make it a point to stay informed and engaged and take every chance to educate yourself on different topics and issues. Make sure you continue to actively seek out those opportunities to grow professionally and make important connections throughout your career.
Whitaker: Become involved in your community. I sat on several community boards, most notably as the president of the SLO County Conference and Visitors Bureau. Here in SLO County, there are many strong worthy diversity-oriented organizations, working to make a difference, R.A.C.E. Matters, SLO County NAACP Chapter, GALA Pride, and the Diversity Coalition San Luis Obispo County. Also, as a business owner or leader, join your city’s chamber of commerce, become a member of its board, advocating for small businesses’ importance to the community. And finally, remember, there are strengths and weaknesses in every community, every industry, every vocation. Constantly build upon the strengths and erode the weaknesses.
Mattison: First, decide what impact you want to make on the world. Second, identify your strengths and accelerate the skills required to make it happen. Third, honor progress, value people and work collaboratively together to innovate inclusive solutions. And fourth, be your authentic self and don’t be swayed by who others want you to be.
Biddings-Muro: Find your voice and use it. As Black leaders, we find ourselves walking uncomfortable tightropes in negotiated spaces. We represent a range of perspectives, and it is risky to speak out against injustice. We must do it anyway. For some of us, it may be easier to use our voices privately because the public would be unsupportive. I am fortunate to work for a university that doesn’t ask me to choose between my values and the work I do. The two are in sync.
Jean-Baptiste: I would tell next-generation leaders to always remain curious, to strive, bring your authentic self to the workplace and that influence starts with you having your voice heard. I would also advise seeking out mentors who are vested in their success and leverage networks to build a community of support. At Amgen, we have an Employee Resource Group focused on early career and we’ve implemented mentorship programs and sponsors to provide the necessary support to help equip these leaders of the future. Last year, the Amgen Foundation announced it is investing $7.5 million to support racial justice and equal opportunity with funds to be distributed to national organizations, U.S. communities where Amgen operates and support science education partnerships.
Hunter: I hope the next generation of Black leaders will be better prepared than I and focus on highlighting our talent and resilience as a people. Learn from those who have come before and the progress and hard work that has been made to lay the path for their opportunity. The horrors, inequities, and injustices against African Americans is not just a part of our past but our present and as we strive to move forward, we must not forget.
Beswick: My advice for the next generation of leaders is to be inclusive of all employees when making decisions.
PCBT: Any final thoughts?
Thompson: We are at a pivotal time now and I would ask that people focus on educating themselves on the issues surrounding Black Lives Matter and to make an honest effort to understand why the inequities and injustices exist today. Corporate consciousness and action can only help improve the ills of society even if it doesn’t directly affect your community. Furthermore it’s essential within a fragile political system where there is divisiveness and lack of social consciousness.
Some believe that we have come a long way in improving injustice with the abolishment of slavery and the civil rights movement. Indeed overcoming those horrific things has been an accomplishment, but neither ended the problems. Everything those movements intended to address still exist today, including slavery in its own form.
Hunter: Finding and investing into the next generation of industry leaders is something I am very passionate about. As the country becomes more diverse, so must the workforce of these companies, from entry level to c-suite executives. Companies must start thinking outside of the box if they truly want to build their pipeline of diverse talent. What worked in the past is in the past — now it’s time to adapt to the changing times so that our workforce can start to better represent the people it serves.
Biddings-Muro: How can we build more partnerships? It would be unrealistic to imagine that any one person, organization, or leader has the answers to intractable centuries-old problems such as racism or any socioeconomic political malady. While the tragedy and painful losses of the pandemic are enormous, there are a few silver linings. For example, we have collective proof that we can adapt after seismic changes. Progress is possible when we have the courage to release a broken past so we can co-create a better future.