Zach chats with Fortune senior editor Ellen McGirt about her journey to writing on race and leadership and what fuels her to do this work, and she graciously details the dynamic of what it looks like for her to talk about these topics with majority-white executive leaders while breaking down how it works for her as a journalist. Ellen’s reporting has taken her inside the C-Suites of Facebook, Nike, Twitter, Intel, Xerox and Cisco and on the campaign trail with Barack Obama – check out all of her information in the show notes!
Find out how the CDC suggests you wash your hands by clicking here.
Help food banks respond to COVID-19. Learn more at FeedingAmerica.org.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and man, goodness gracious. Wild times we’re living in. I hope that you’re washing your hands, keeping your hands off your face, not congregating in groups of more than 10–just chilling really, right? Take care of yourself, take care of your family. I hope that you’ve been listening to the content that Living Corporate has been putting out regarding just working from home and still maintaining community while working from home. Just taking care of yourself. I’m hoping that you’re able to engage in our content, and irrespective of that I’m just hoping that you’re safe. You know, we always have conversations on this platform that aim to center and amplify underrepresented voices, and I think that we continue to separate ourselves as it pertains to doing that, right? Like, we’re trying to be unapologetic about really amplifying and centering marginalized, underrepresented and underappreciated, underestimated voices at work, and we do this by having authentic, available, candid, transparent–any other words you want to use for real–conversations with all types of people. Authors, writers, professors, activists, executives, recruiters, entrepreneurs, influencers, artists, right? Like, anybody that is passionate about this space, and with that being said, we have somebody on who honestly–and I don’t know why I’ll always say, “I’m really a fan of this person,” but I really am a fan. Like, this person, if y’all–anyway, we’ll get into it. Ellen McGirt. Ellen McGirt is an award-winning journalist, senior editor at Fortune Magazine, and covers race, culture and leadership in a daily column for Fortune called “RaceAhead”. Make sure y’all check out RaceAhead. We’ll talk about that a little bit later, but it’s fire. Her reporting has taken her inside the C-Suites of Facebook, Nike, Twitter, Intel, Xerox and Cisco–now, look, those are just a few, okay? ‘Cause that’s not exhaustive–the campaign trail with Barack Obama–what’s up, come on–and across Africa with Bono to study breakthrough philanthropy. In the past, she’s written for Time, Money and Fast Company, where she wrote or contributed to more than twenty cover stories and created the digital series “The 30 Second MBA.” Back when the web was young, [laughs]–so that’s when Al Gore was, like, you know, like, a little less stodgy. Like, this was earlier. She was the founder of a financial website for women called “Cassandra’s Revenge,” and she established similar sites for AOL and Oxygen Media. Y’all, she established sites for–it’s crazy, ’cause I’m reading this and I’m like–as if I haven’t read this before, but it’s just wild when you think about, like, sites for AOL. Like, that’s back in the day. You know, some of y’all don’t remember. You had to log on, and then, like, the little man would be on the screen, and then, you know, you couldn’t be on the computer, and then your mom would be on the phone ’cause–the busy signal ’cause you had dial-up, and you’d pick up the phone and it’d be like *noise*. Anyway, so the point is, like, she’s OG. OG in the game. Ellen was the lead editor for Your First Leadership Job, a book published by Wiley in 2015, and she attended Brown University. Ellen, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Ellen: I am exhausted after listening to my bio. My gosh, I’ve been busy. But so happy to be here, Zach. Thank you.
Zach: Now, look, first off we gotta shout you out, because you were one of the first articles that we cited on Living Corporate, “Why Race & Culture Matter in the C-Suite,” talking about leading while black. Can we talk a little bit about that piece and your journey on writing in race and leadership?
Ellen: 100% we can, ’cause that really kicked off a whole new career development for me. But before we do I have to shout you right back, Zach. I mean, when I stepped into this space of writing about race, particularly for the corporate world, I was stepping into a space where giants already inhabited the world, and you are one of them, and I appreciate you, and I just want to let you know that at moments when I really don’t know what to do, what to write, what to think about what’s happening in the world, I’ve got your voice in my head, and you steer me in the right directions, so I appreciate you.
Zach: Would you stop? Oh, my gosh.
Ellen: That’s the thing. But that’s also the thing. I know that you know this from doing this work, which is different from, you know, your day job and your home life and it’s just a distinct part of what you do, is that when you decide to talk about race and inclusion, particularly in the workplace and what that means in the world, you inherit a whole bunch of people who you didn’t know who existed who have been thinking about how to make the world better in this challenging way, and that’s the blessing of the work. It really is.
Zach, You know, speaking of the work, why do you think so few folks discuss the intersection of race and leadership in major publications? This is not even really an ad for Fortune, right? Shout-out to Fortune. What’s up? But, you know, I don’t see this a lot. You know, you see pieces from time to time in Harvard Business Review, but I don’t think I’ve seen dedicated spaces for this intersection of race and leadership in white-owned publications. Like, why do you think that is, and what’s your fuel for doing this work?
Ellen: You know, this leads me right back to your first question. You know as well as anybody who is reading business material or even news magazines or news material that race is just not something people are willing to talk about, are comfortable talking about, and I think for Fortune, which writes for the business audience–and not just any business audience, for a corporate audience–this is not something that had ever been taken on seriously in the corporate world before, and in addition to subscribers, in addition to people showing up at our events, major corporations actually are our advertisers and our sponsors. In many ways, we are paid for by the people that we cover. So it is an inherent tension, and we do have to walk that fine line. I know you and I have talked about this in the past. So imagine my surprise, you know? [laughs] I hadn’t worked at Fortune in years. I had left in 2006 and joined a competitor for many, many years, which you mentioned. I had worked on a book. I was sort of looking around for my next act, and I get a ping out of the blue from Cliff Leaf, who is now the editor-in-chief, asking me if I would be willing to write a piece about why there’s no black men in the executive pipeline in Fortune 500 companies. So two things leaped to mind. “Oh, my gosh. Of course yes,” and the second one is “There really must not be anybody as part of just Fortune’s daily lives who felt comfortable writing a piece like this,” which reflected just how tentative it all is for everyone. News rooms are not as diverse as they should be. Corporate America isn’t. Nothing is as diverse as it should be. So in my first conversation with Cliff–and I have to also shout-out Alan Murray, who’s now our CEO–then our president–you know, this is something that people, that they cared about, brought to their attention, as something that would be welcome in the marketplace, and to their credit, two white men stood behind me and said, “We pick you. Let’s see what happens,” and my conversation with Cliff is this can’t just be about data. This just can’t be an inspiring conversation with a beleaguered chief diversity officer somewhere,
who we all know doesn’t get the resources that they need. We need to look at what happens that black men very specifically, from the time they’re born, in under-resourced neighborhoods, in neighborhoods without sufficient food resources and with environmental issues, to the time
they don’t get to the C-Suite. And where are we losing them? We’re losing them in school, where they’re–under-resourced school or biased treatment, disproportionate treatment while they’re in school. We’re losing them into the criminal justice system, and we know how that works out. We’re losing them through a series of biased decisions and screening mechanisms which are systemic. Hell, if their mothers survive their birth with them we’re losing them every step of the way, and that was what that first story was intended to do, was to look at it from that holistic point of view. And Zach, it worked. It almost killed me, but it worked, because, you know, in order to do it I had to take the testimony of men just like you, and some not like you–younger than you, in different stages than you, [?], young men who would never join the corporate world for any reason because they don’t trust it–and put that, their pain and their regrets and their pressures and their inability to cope with some of the unique pressures they experience, on full view, and that kicks us off with an opening to have more of these types of conversations in longform and print and in a daily newsletter, which had–to my knowledge–not been explored in this way in any business publication. We were growing a newsletter of business, but it was particularly–it was usually sector-oriented. Like, here’s tech, or here’s healthcare. You know, those are the kinds of things we tend to gravitate to. “Here’s mergers and acquisitions.” The exceptions were Alan Murray’s CEO Daily, which is about leadership, which is, of course, top of mind news, top of the heap, and Broadsheet, which is for women and [?] corporate women which has inspired me from the very beginning and has turned into literally my sisters in inclusive thinking. Like, really advocating for what would make the workplace better for people who should be there in larger numbers. And it was an accident, it was an experiment, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Zach: Well, you know, it’s incredible, and I’ma tell you, like, I read it–and Living Corporate’s format back then was a little bit different, but I hope that I gave it justice when I read it on the podcast because it was just–it really resonated with me, and I remember, you know–’cause you were profiling the now-passed on–rest in peace–Bernard Tyson, and I just recall at the time, like, even reading the piece and the way you talked about Mr. Tyson and just his journey, it was almost just like reading, like, about a mythical figure, right? So it meant a lot. It meant a lot to me, and I know it’s meant a lot to our listenership. And a little bit behind the scenes actually, that particular episode is one of our most referenced–and that was, like, early. I mean, y’all, this was almost–this was two years ago, right? This was in our first, like, 10 or 15 episodes. This is one of our most downloaded episodes actually, like, to date. So you talked about it–you know, you said the piece, it almost killed you, and you made mention of, like, really, I believe–without putting words in your mouth–you were alluding to the emotional labor of the work. Can you talk a little bit about what it looks like to do the work and, like, how you maintain in really grappling these types of topics day in and day out?
Ellen: You know, I am one of many, many people in many professions, for a variety of reasons, who have to look at the human condition. And when you talk about race or gender in particular, then it’s also my condition. It’s how I have been left out or how my father, who served in World War II in the segregated Army came home and couldn’t vote or participate in home ownership programs for other veterans. You know, it’s the weight of that. It’s the understanding of the history and the extent of it and our unwillingness to examine it without distensiveness. That is just–it weighs so heavily. When I have candid conversations with people like Bernard Tyson, like yourself, like anybody, you feel the weight from them, and I feel a tremendous responsibility to get their story right and to put it in the correct context. The other thing I wasn’t expecting though–and again, it’s purely sort of the naivety of the journalistic separation, you know, the sense that you’ve got some sort of distance, was how ugly the world was going to get. At some point I felt like I was still going to rely heavily on, you know, data and surveys and diversity reports and truly inspiring one-on-one conversations with people who are doing the work. I was not expecting Nazis in the streets. I was not prepared for video after video after video after video of people shot by and killed by police, you know, which I had to look at them all, and then in order to not make a mistake–because I’m not an expert, I don’t have a background in it–every link I share, every interview I have I have to overprepare for, and I’ve gotten more used to it now, but I would spend hours reading, selecting links, curating them to share, trying to make sure I understood them, making sure I was framing them correctly, and that has been a wonderful masterclass–I mean, I feel like I have nine master’s degrees now, but shame on me if I make a mistake about how what’s happening in an indigenous community or with gender. I wanted to be able to model the best possible work I was asking other people to do, which also meant that I would have to, you know, own a mistake that I made publicly, which is also what I’m asking people to do. So those are the things–I mean, those are really the things. It was deeply personal in a way I didn’t expect. It was more violent than I expected. I mean, I just never imagined I was going to spend my time fighting with people about whether Robert E. Lee was a good guy or not. I mean, it’s just a shock. [both laugh] And then it’s just the weight of getting it right in areas that are not my expertise, which quite frankly are all of them.
Zach: I think that’s the most interesting thing about this work. When you talk about–’cause ultimately, you know, you and I, we’ve had conversations on and off-mic around, like, you’re talking to a lot of people who are self-described diversity, equity and inclusion experts, but, like, the reality is, like, all of this work in, like, its full earnestness is still very new, and, like, no one, I don’t believe, has a right–outside of people who have lived experience, right? So you’re talking about folks who have really lived this and they’ve built things. They’ve built coalitions, right? So, like, if you’re talking about people with a civil rights background, sure, but I’m talking about, like, the average corporate D&I person. You know, there’s very little I believe true, like, expertise. It’s like, “We’re all out here just trying to learn and grow and amplify and make an impact where we can.” I do think that you–and this is not a pat on the back–I really do think it’s important that people appreciate folks who are in your position. You’re one of the few people I think who, like, will take onus on mistakes that you make, right? Like, there’s some journalistic principles to that too of course, but it also I think comes with the domain of what you’re covering. Like, I think there’s a lot of times when folks just feel like they’re so beyond apologizing. It’s like, “No, you were wrong. It’s okay.”
Ellen: Right, and that is–it’s humiliating and it’s hard to master in a highly-competitive environment. It feels like you’re going to lose something important, some sort of status thing, but I think particularly for white audiences who don’t understand–and I didn’t understand until I started learning more–about the contours of what it means to be white, you know? We spend so much time thinking about what everybody else’s life is like and what they need from us and what we should do, but we, meaning white people, need to think about what whiteness actually is, and that seems to trigger this hideous reaction from folks. It’s like a soul death. I think that the more we become accustomed to making space for these conversations and white people–especially white people who are in leadership positions–talking with other people about the shape of, about the idea of whiteness as a concept, as a construct, and what that means and why you cling to it even if you don’t know that you’re clinging to it the better off we’re going to be. And so modeling that–I’ll give you a good example. A couple years ago we sent out a reader survey, our marketing department sent out a reader survey, to anybody who subscribes to a Fortune newsletter, and the first part of the survey was boilerplate and the rest of it was tailored to your specific newsletters. I only paid attention to the information that we were asking from my readers around who they were and what they needed and how diverse they were and all this other stuff. Where I didn’t notice was that the first part of the newsletter only had male or female as an option for your gender, and within seconds of it going out my inbox was filled, filled with people who weren’t angry but were deeply hurt, and it was such a validation of the relationship that we had created together, but oh, I scrapped everything I was working on, sent apologies to everybody who had written to me, and then spent the next column walking through what happened, apologizing and promising to do better, but in order to actually do that I had to get our folks who designed the survey in Bangalore on the phone and get them to add other options, and then make sure with my audience that I had added the right options. And it was a beautiful experience. I’m still humiliated by it. I didn’t even notice. But as a result, I brought that to our Fortune events team, and now all introductory language in all of the scripts for all Fortune conferences uses gender-neutral terms.
Zach: Well, it’s incredible, right? And, like, I think what people in positions of power–and power is relative, right, and we’re gonna talk about this in a little bit, but, like, privilege is relative. You know, I’m a black, straight-presenting straight man, Christian man, who is over six feet. So that comes with certain challenges and certain privileges, but you can demonstrate humility to communicate “Oh, you know, I caught this. I realize I was wrong, and this is what we’re gonna do about it.” Like, that’s huge, and I think also to your point, like, them not being mad but being hurt, like, that’s an important part, piece of nuance to grasp, like, to decenter yourself. Like, we’ve had other conversations on the pod around, like, decentering whiteness from conversations with marginalized communities, and it’s like, if you just decenter yourself for a moment, stop thinking that–you know, stop centering your own hurt or your own pride or ego and consider that people are reaching out to you. And they sound angry, or they’re yelling or they’re using direct or curt language, it’s because they feel ignored or left behind or they don’t feel seen, and, like, that’s important, right? Like, we’re all human beings. We all, by the very nature of our own existence, deserve the right to be seen, and I think, like, that–if we can change our perspective a little bit, especially from a leadership perspective, and understand where that pain is coming from and, like, that hurt, I think that can time shift like, just the overall responses, you know what I mean?
Ellen: You’re absolutely right about that, and it is a leadership skill, and it’s an inclusive leadership skill, and it’s one of a core set of listening and decentering skills that are very hard to learn and very hard to each, because they do take time to master and to be supported in a work environment, especially a work environment that’s under siege, that wants to be innovative or is having some sort of problem, and now we all have the same problem. Now we all have coronavirus. [laughs] So, you know, all of the things that we know to do to be inclusive tend to go by the wayside when we’re in an emergency situation and people tend to fall on their worst habits. They hire mini-mes. They assemble teams of people like them. They want to stay comfortable in times of real volatility. So I think we’re entering into a pretty interesting test, whether some of our commitments to taking risks–and I’ve got air quotes around risks–with people who are not like ourselves will stick with that during times where teens are gonna be coming together rapidly and people are gonna be making very difficult decisions.
Zach: Agreed. You know, and let’s continue talking forward. Let’s talk about you actually in this work, ’cause you talked about this shape–and again, like, we don’t… I love–sidenote, I love this platform because of the kind of conversations we have. You know, shout-out to you. You’re one of the few people on that platform so far that we’ve really, like, tackled the concept of whiteness. Like, the way you talked about the contour and shape of whiteness, like, how it practically shows up. I want to talk about what it looks like for you being who you are, a black woman in this space, talking to majority-white executive leaders around these issues? And, like, what does it look like to maintain a balance–and I don’t even know if balance is the right word, but it’s like you have to, I would imagine, carry enough of a relationship so that you can actually get them to open up and have conversations while at the same time–I could be wrong–it seems as if you go, like, too hard, then you end up damaging your potential network and brand, like, to where you won’t be able to have anymore conversations with this space, but you’re also trying to, like, speak on behalf of, or amplify, marginalized voices or speak truth to power. Like, I’m curious as to, like, that dynamic and, like, how does it work for you as a journalist?
Ellen: That is such a great question. Most people don’t ask me that, and it really is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years. The vast majority of the work that I have done as a journalist–which was a second career for me–that involved powerful people had nothing to do with race, although I always asked questions about, you know, race and equity as a natural part of the way I talked. And that was mostly at FastCompany where I wrote a lot of profiles, and writing profiles of people is a different way of telling a story about a company. It means I don’t have to be a tech expert or I don’t have to be a hardware expert or I don’t have to be a medical devices expert to talk to people who are running these kinds of companies, ’cause the higher you go up on the food chain the more of what you do all day is the people part, is making sure that you’re removing barriers for growth, and that includes touching product and touching money, but mostly what you do is you think about people, and not just your customers but the people that work for you. And those are universal conversations, and those were ones that I learned to get good at. And I also–this is odd, because I spent years and years and years as an art dealer and working in museums and galleries. I spent a lot of time talking to people I didn’t know–typically people who had more money than I did–about something they absolutely did not need to buy, which is, you know, pigment on some parchment or fabric, and then just talk about the world, the world of ideas, and I got very comfortable talking to people with status because of that decades-long experience, and once you start talking to people, then other things can flow from it. So I walked into the race beat having developed a sense of comfort and belonging talking to people who were quote-unquote powerful, and to your point–and I’m going to say this delicately–because I’ve always been sort of a middle-of-the-pack person in the news room, in journalism, I’m not part of any kind of fast track, I don’t look like the next editor-in-chief of anything, you know, based on results of the last couple of decades. I felt a sort of freedom that people who are largely invisible often feel, and I was lucky. I wasn’t head of a household. I didn’t have children for most of my journalism career. I’m a stepmother now, so I don’t bare the sole responsibility for their well-being. I support older relatives, but for the most part I live a pretty safe and self-contained life, so I felt like I could take some big swings and big risks, and I–I just am nobody’s next choice for executive anything, right? Like so many of us are. I’m the person–and I say this with real love and real respect, but I am the person who found a niche and was expected–and I expected it of myself–to stay there. It is a very freeing thing. As much as I would love someone to throw me the kids to a major publication and have all of my leadership delusions of grandeur play out for me, for the most part I got where I am by turning in story after story after story after story asking very powerful people some questions that I was legitimately curious about, about how they think, how they lead, how they make mistakes, how they course correct, you know? And these are difficult conversations to have. It was not fun for me ask Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, what the heck was going on with Tiger Woods, right? These kinds of things. It’s like, “What’s at stake?” And we talk about all of them with a sense of purpose of telling a story and not a sense of “I need to hold you accountable.” On the other hand, I haven’t really interviewed any actual evil-doers. I’ve never chased down Harvey Weinstein. I’ve never chased down a person who is an obvious problem that way, and I think I look forward to being able to do that one day, but I do think in the work that I’m doing now, when I started diversity and inclusion as a serious practice and as a serious emphasis, it was relatively new. Four years into it, we haven’t gotten very far, and now I think I’m going to find myself having more serious conversations with people who have said all the right things and haven’t gotten very far with their results, and those are going to be candid conversations. They’re going to be challenging conversations, and I assume noble intent for all of them, but I do think that corporate America, when it comes to inclusion, is going to have to face some sort of reckoning, and there’s some obvious problems in the tech world. There are some obvious problems people aren’t even trying, but there are some real bright spots, particularly in certain sectors–like consultancies for example–who really are trying. They may not be getting where they want to go, but there’s a real openness there. So I expect the conversations I will be having to be getting more emotional because we now have data, and the data shows that we’re not moving far enough fast enough.
Zach: No, you’re absolutely right. And to your point, I do think, relative to other spaces, there are at least consultancies in that space–like, they’re out there at least talking the talk, and one could pessimistically surmise that that’s because of who their clients are or how they’re trying to market, but still, like, they’re doing more. That space–and, you know, we could go firm to firm, but that space is doing more than, like, you know, certainly than Google is doing today, right? Or Uber or others. So I 100% hear you on that. I do agree. One I think it’s incredible that you acknowledged the fact that, like, having made the progress and had the momentum that you’re looking for, I do agree–and it resonates with me–about the fact that the work itself is going to need to get more, you know, lovingly confrontational. You know, not your work explicitly. I mean just, like, diversity, equity and inclusion work is going–because I do think as we have Gen Z, as they integrate more into the workforce, you know–people talked about millennials have a lower bar, level of tolerance, for some of the talking [?], and, you know, they’ll leave or they’ll transfer jobs or they’ll quit or they’ll pursue their passion, all that kind of stuff. I really think we’re gonna see a much different and higher degree of that with this next generation of workers, right? And I think that, like, they’re just a savvier group of people. They’re more, like, just informed, because they grew up–they didn’t grow up on the Internet when they were, like, in high school. Like, they had tablets when they were toddlers, right? So the idea of this next group wanting a different type and level of accountability, and the fact of the matter is that Gen Z, like, it’s gonna be the most, like, diverse group of people that’s ever entered the workforce, you know what I mean? Like, more black and brown, more gender-fluid, trans, non-binary, more representation across the spectrum. Like, there’s gonna just be way more, like, just a different cohort of worker in this next generation, yeah.
Ellen: That’s right, and hearts and minds are just not gonna get you there. We cannot make sure that everyone feels super comfortable and understands everything and just feels good about things, you know? I think the first step is going to be what are the actual rules and systems that you can put into place that will mitigate bias and make sure that people are behaving well in the workplace? There are a couple of things that often come to mind, but Intel has the warm line. Are you familiar with that?
Zach: No, break it down for us.
Ellen: I really–and Barbara [?] is their chief global diversity officer. She’s really smart. She’s really on it. They have a very unusual way of measuring in diversity in that they’re on track, it’s where the percentage of representation in the marketplace–which I appreciate–and they’re managing to it beautifully, but if there is a [?] person at any level, but typically individual contributor, is having a problem with their manager, they have something called the warm line. It’s warmer than the hot line, and they can find somebody who is trained to understand to help them understand what’s happening. So it’s like putting in a ticket, like, a tech ticket, and determining what needs to happen next, and what often needs to happen next is that their manager needs an intervention. Some support, some training, some information, and that is looked at as a developmental experience, not a punishment, and some of their–I don’t have their data in front of me, but their data around the warm line usage has been outstanding. People have been using it. People have been flagging issues. They’ve been using it to not only help individual managers but to beef up training, making sure that this is something for everybody and that managers who get a call from the warm line people aren’t feeling shamed by it so that they disappear forever. And I was really–that is an example of a systemic approach to people’s behavior and making sure they understand what’s expected of them if they’re having trouble just formulating a response, that they have that new information, they have that language at their fingertips, but making it very clear across the line about people are feeling at work is important to the organization. You link that to performance metrics, to your performance reviews, if you link that to your compensation, are you promoting people? Not just bringing people onto your team. Are you moving them along? Those are the kinds of things that really make a systemic difference, and the hearts and minds will follow. I hope that the hearts and minds will come along as we become more comfortable working with people who are different from ourselves, because that’s the gift of proximity, you know? That’s the whole purpose of proximity, as Brian Stevenson so beautifully talks about. But these are the kinds of bright spots that I collect. Like, little pearls of hope that I collect that make me feel hopeful that people are very serious about solving some of these issues.
Zach: No, 100%, and I think to your point, like, what I’m excited about, what I have not seen, right–and I’ll also say, Ellen, like, Living Corporate has allowed me space to interview a wide array of people, right, as you know, but what I haven’t explicitly experienced and what I haven’t really heard anyone articulate is, like, we’re in this phase now where it’s, like, all about, like, awareness and unconscious bias, right? So, like, we’re doing unconscious bias training, we’re kind of still talking about vocabulary. You know, that’s kind of, like, really been the space we’ve been in for some years now, and what I’m really interested in seeing in this next phase of leadership development and work and just in this space overall is let’sg et away from, like–and not get away from it wholly, but what I mean is let’s continue the conversation forward. Yes, we’ve talked about the historicity of racism. We’ve talked about structural inequity, but sometimes it turns, like, theoretical or, like, abstract, like it’s out there, right? Like, I’m really excited about what does it look like for you to–so yes, we have structural inequity and we have–like, a variety of ways, right? People are economically disadvantaged. There’s food deserts. There’s all types of things. Let’s also talk about the structural inequities in this workplace, right? Like, let’s talk about our behaviors in this space and how it reinforces patriarchy, white supremacy, how we have outmoded ideas of hierarchy and power and structure and how [those] things not only curtail innovation, but they also exacerbate mental wellness problems and challenges, right? Like, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for us to evolve and put some of the white fragility down and have some honest dialogue around that, you know what I mean?
Ellen: I do. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to find ways to either lead these kinds of conversations or participate in these kinds of conversations that will send a ripple through a culture. And you are absolutely right. For it to work, for it to work well or really at all, it has to ripple through the culture of what is perceived to be power now, and that’s hard, and that’s terrifying, you know? Power does not give itself up easily. As a culture, in the United States at least the majority culture–I know you guys talk about the majority culture, which is different in other places–we have a very specific idea of who we think is powerful, and we’re still going through the exercises of “Google a Leader” and, you know, pictures of white people show up, or ask a child “What does a doctor look like?” and they draw a white guy in a white smock. It’s just–the image is so ingrained. I think this is where the entertainment media has a real role to play, just by normalizing certain kinds of people who aren’t typically in charge. The idea of non-traditional casting is already an insulting point of view, but it explains the problem. The president has typically looked a certain way in the history of media. Women have always been presented as a certain way, as sort of the sidekick or the supporter or the sexual object and powerful for ways because they were magic or wiley or just nonsense things that influence all kinds of ideas about how we as an entertainment culture think of people who are powerful. Black people with certain kinds of hair would automatically make things like the Crown Act less of a big deal.
Zach: The fact that we even have to have a Crown Act is wild.
Ellen: It is wild. All of this stuff is wild, and little by little as people start to notice it and think about it in context, once you get over the initial shock of “God, how did I not know this before? I’m embarrassed,” or “I’m embarrassed that I noticed in myself that I was uncomfortable with the dentist with braids,” you know? Suddenly just to make the cultural aspects of that less wrenching for individual people, but it does have to be intentional. I think I have looked at too many videos of young people with tiki torches or read too many ridiculous sort of comments on TikTok videos or just in general on social media to believe that young people automatically have the answer. I assure you they do not.
Zach: Yes, it’s a lazy analysis, truly.
Ellen: It is terrible, and even if they did it wouldn’t make a difference if they don’t come out to vote, you know? The young people’s revolution is not coming. It has petered out. And I think as young people in particular walk into their lives and feel increasing pressures of, you know, wanting to have a life partner, wanting to have a livable home, wanting to have a livable wage, all of the pressures and the weird preconceived notions about what we think is power and what we think is good behavior in society is gonna come bubbling back and turn into their worldview. It just feels inevitable at this point.
Zach: I think that really helps us transition into the work that you’re doing now and the topic of your conversations on raceAhead and even just the focus of, like–the things I see that you tweet about and you talk about, right? You’ve been covering politics this year. Why is that?
Ellen: You know, I–in the last couple of years, particularly as the Trump presidency was starting, I made a decision that I was going to mention things that he said that were not true or address the policies and how they affected my audience in a very direct way, and that was something that I think many, many, many people in many industries had to work very hard to think about the fine line that they wanted to walk on there. They don’t want to alienate someone who feels strongly identified with Republican values and principles and also not make the president angry if you have to interface with him for any reason like most people in business do, but I have a very specific audience. I have an audience of people who are considered–my audience cares about people who are black and brown and Hispanic and immigrant and AAPI and LGBTQI+, you know, all of those things. People who are underrepresented in communities, in schools, in power, in leadership, in business and in financing, you know? Like, all of the things that we know. If we care about this audience we have to examine, in direct ways, the speech and the policies that affect this audience. That is the talent pipeline. That is my audience, and if you want to have a diverse pipeline you have to care about the fact that black women are unlikely to survive motherhood. You have to care about the fact that certain neighborhoods are safe in very, very specific and manageable ways and we don’t manage them. So I cover all of that, and this particular administration far more than previous ones is working really hard to not only undo any of the elements of the previous administration, the Obama administration, that led to greater inclusion in the government and across society, but were directly aggressively making people less safe, from the immigration ban, from transgender issues both in the military and throughout society. It was just, like, one thing after another, so I just decided that I had to talk about it, I had to flag it. Making people afraid to take the census is an incredibly dangerous thing, you know? The under-counting of vulnerable communities, of people who are worried that their citizenship is going to be questioned, is dangerous. It’s going to have an impact on community health for years to come. The kids in cages at the border. Like, all of this. It was just an overwhelming amount of things that hit the political and public policy sphere, so I decided I was gonna cover it all, not necessarily advocating for one candidate over another, but just–these are the issues, and you should flag them, and you should understand the genesis of them and come up with an idea for yourself. And I will say though, for 2020, just for a brief moment of time, having such a diverse slate of candidate was a beautiful and affirming thing, and it was an interesting way to get to know a variety of different people and their communities and where they came from but also try to understand where they fit into a traditional political machine. I don’t think I have any answers around that, but it has been interesting to watch it and it has been interesting to see where voters are moving to feel safe and hopeful. I’m speaking really carefully right now. [both laugh] I don’t want to reveal too much of my own personal preferences, but I do think as sad as it has been for people to lose their candidate of choice, it was tremendously exciting to see such diversity on stage. Andrew Yang was a surprise, right?
Zach: Yes, and I think it’s like–it really helps me as someone–you know, we all live in respective bubbles, like, no matter how “woke” or aware we think we are, like, we all have areas we just don’t understand. I think that was a wake-up call for me. Like, “Dang, y’all really–okay, we voting for Andrew Yang? Okay.” I think–I’m really curious, as we come to a close here… when Bloomberg was in the race, maybe you were holding it back but you didn’t seem to hide your anger and frustration, not only on your personal social media accounts but also on raceAhead, and I’m curious to know what role do you believe that anger can play in speaking truth to power and then driving systemic change?
Ellen: That is such a great question. I was livid, and I am still surprised at how angry I got with that thing he said. He lied about what redlining is to protect his client. I mean, his entire wealth is based on his relationship with the financial services community. I mean, just billions and billions of dollars is running around and then he lies about what redlining is, and I just–I lost my mind, and I honestly don’t know what it was that triggered such a strong reaction. It could be a variety of things including, you know, blood sugar and not enough sleep or whatever, but I was well and truly angry, and I tried so hard not to sound angry in that column, and I’m a little bit afraid to even go back and reread it because I was shaking mad for days. I just–I couldn’t, and I really struggled to figure out what it was that had triggered me so badly. And the problem is that in order to write that column I went and looked up some of the tracks on redlining and read what people wrote about how they were managing these communities and really just thought about, let it marinate, in the kinds of things that people were saying, specifically about immigrants and black people and jews. Just the hatred and the way they described how they lived and the way they went out of their way to make sure that these communities were isolated and continue to be isolated for generations, and then to just breezily say… look at how mad I am now. Look, you just made me so mad right now. [both laugh] And just to breezily say, “Oh, yes, because the banks changed their regulations poor people got mortgages they couldn’t manage and they ruined the economy for everybody,” and not one person associated with the ’28 financial crash was held, like, accountable. Really, really accountable. They paid fines, there was a rearrangement of things, and I know that there were plenty–I’ve interviewed plenty of bank executives who felt the weight of that–all of them women by the way–who felt the weight of it, who felt that it was an important wake-up call to make real changes. I’m glad nothing similar has happened again, but I just–I’m speechless I’m so angry just even remembering that, and so what I guess I would say to answer your bigger question is that the righteous rage of people who have a point to make, and it’s about systemic unfairness and it’s women who get put down for their anger and they’re called all kinds of names, it’s black people who are isolated as sort of the angry black man, the angry black woman, you know? The things that we do to put down people who have a real point to make is such a sign that we’re on the right track, you know? That powerful people respond with lies. And Bloomberg is a smart man. He willfully misrepresented the definition of redlining, and there’s nothing anybody could tell me that would make me believe any differently, and he did it for a reason, and he did it to protect powerful people such as himself, and he did it because we are not, as a society, prepared to do our own work, to read books, to think about how things actually work and to doubt powerful people, because we need them and we depend on them for our survival. You know, that’s how they get away with it. And so it takes the angry voice, the clear voice of “That is not true,” we need them, and we need them whether we’re typing, we need them whether we’re showing up and voting. You don’t have to be screaming it but, you know, hang onto it. Hang onto it. You know, there’s just–the world really depends on someone who is too agitated by a terrible injustice that continues to play out in front of them to sit by the wayside. And, you know, call me an angry black woman, call me–you know, call anybody anything, as soon as you start hearing that label you know that you’re onto something, and that leads to the ultimate expression of allyship is believe other people. You know, that’s it. You don’t get to call yourself an ally. I get to call you an ally, and I will call you an ally when you believe, when I see you believing and taking an action that puts you at risk, and that’s what we need to see. Don’t ask people to prove it. Don’t ask people to present you more evidence. I’m not coming at you with a PowerPoint deck. None of those things. When people tell you there’s a problem you need to listen to them, and that’s it. That’s the one-two dance of anger that’s… that is… I am furious thinking about that damn redlining thing. I am, like, legitimately furious. I was furious for days, and I still–I cannot tell you–in your spare time you should get a therapist license, because that would be hilarious to actually process this with you. I cannot quite put my finger on what made me so angry, but I could not believe it. It was everything. You know, this guy breezes in, starts throwing money around, he wants to be president. Ugh. He could have registered–how many fines of formally incarcerated people in Florida could he have paid to restore their voting rights?
Zach: He could’ve fixed the entire Flint water crisis with millions left over.
Ellen: Millions left over for a party. It’s just–I don’t… I couldn’t believe it, and then to lie like that. It’s–ugh.
Zach: I apologize for taking you there. I didn’t–
Ellen: It’s good audio, man. It is good audio.
Zach: But it’s important because I do think we’re missing that too. I think we’re missing the reality of the rage that comes with lived experience when we talk about equity, right? I think it’s Eurocentric in origin. It’s, like, this overdependence on–it’s like we almost make data divine, right? Like, look, data are just points of information compiled by human beings that have conscious and unconscious biases. This quantitative data is but one point. There are other things that need to be considered, and that has to I believe include lived experience. You know what, I really think, Ellen, we need to just–we need to end it right here. Y’all, shout-out to Ellen McGirt, senior editor of race and leadership for Fortune Magazine. We’re gonna have all of her information in the show notes. Make sure y’all subscribe to all of her different newsletters including raceAhead. It’s a wonderful read. I check it out every single day. We definitely consider Ellen a friend of the pod, of Living Corporate as a whole organization. Y’all, we here. You know, every Tuesday we’re dropping these real conversations. Make sure you check us out. You know what it is. Just Google us, man. I ain’t about to list all our stuff. Just Google us. Living Corporate. Until next time, y’all, peace.