It’s Time to Act, with Intention

This Op-ed originally appeared in Crain's Chicago Business

One of the many hopeful outcomes of the inspirational protests of the past two weeks has been an increasing awareness of white Americans for the need to look inward, to ask: what can I/we do to make things better in America for our Black and Brown citizens?

As business leaders, we must do more than donate money. I do not, for a moment, want to minimize or in any way belittle the absolute importance of business leaders supporting these efforts: they are an essential part of any “solution”.

Too often, though, financial philanthropy becomes a substitute or an excuse to resist the harder, more important work of change. We can and must do more! Here are some ideas for more fundamental, structural, long-term actions:

  1. Commit to hiring, developing, mentoring and promoting African American employees as a core principle, at all levels. (I recently launched Purpose Workforce Solutions, a staffing firm primarily focused on low-income youth.);
  2. Contract with African American vendors and professional firms to provide goods and services to your business;
  3. Invest your money, personal as well as business, with African American money managers (I have been investing for years with Ariel Investments LLC and Heard Capital);
  4. Invest in and mentor businesses founded and led by African Americans (For the past five years I have committed to primarily investing only in women and Black owned companies.);
  5. Create a diverse board of directors/advisors to accelerate change and hold us accountable;
  6. Volunteer and mentor to advise African American entrepreneurs and small business owners;
  7. “Redistribute” your PPP loan. (Minority owned firms, despite their dramatically greater need for funds, received far less than their fair share from the stimulus program. Countless minority owned firms, lacking access to credit, living off of small margins at the best of times received nothing. The impact was devastating. I have granted an amount of money equal to the PPP loan I received to 12 small minority-owned businesses and non-profits on the south and west side.<p.

I realize that over the years, many businesses have made efforts to increase minority hiring or to contract with minority firms. It is time now to move beyond only aspirational goals; the time demands that we deliver concrete, sustainable results.

There are many reasons why those of us in business have been successful. One of the biggest reasons is that we are outstanding problem solvers; put an obstacle in our way and we will figure out how to get around it, over it or through it. We must apply this same degree of focus, will and intentionality to this issue.

Undoubtedly, your head of HR will tell you she can’t find qualified candidates; or your general counsel will advise you that it’s unwise to change law firms and, anyhow, he doesn’t know any minority owned firms with the same capabilities. And you will wonder: “How can I possibly identify minority-owned businesses in Englewood, North Lawndale or Chatham that could benefit from PPP funds, I’m not familiar with those neighborhoods, nor is anyone in my network?” You will also have realistic and legitimate concerns about short-term costs, disruptions to your corporate culture, impact on your ROI.

These may seem like reasonable and understandable objections (and trust me, there will be many more!); yet, all of them are solvable: focus on it, prioritize it, measure it and reward it. Just as you do other essential priorities in your business.

The short-terms setbacks and even potential financial loses are a small sacrifice toward creating a path to a more perfect world for our children and grandchildren and just as importantly, for all Americans of all races.

Michael Alter is President of Alter, a national corporate real estate development firm and Principal Owner of the Chicago Sky.