How business can engage against racism
SHELLYE ARCHAMBEAU: It was horror. It was outrage. It was disbelief, realizing that not only did this happen, but that could have been my son, my son-in-law, my grandson.
Silence is a problem. The embeddedness of racism and bias throughout our culture as a result of hundreds of years is deep. To unearth, uncover, shine the light and fix, it’s going to take time and, frankly, fortitude.
I believe that businesses can use their power to actually call for accountability, to call for transparency and visibility into what’s happening in our local communities. The tone at the top is critical in any organization. And the top is the CEO and the top is the board.
We have to capitalize on this moment and the movement to ensure that we don’t go back to business as usual.
BOB SAFIAN: That’s Shellye Archambeau, former CEO at MetricStream and now board director at Verizon, Nordstrom, and several other companies.
Shellye was one of Silicon Valley’s first female African American CEOs – and she previously appeared as a guest on Masters of Scale in 2019, in an episode called “Take Bigger Risks.”
But the risks she sees across America today have new urgency, following the killing of George Floyd.
I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response.
Shellye is not shy about her fears, her frustration or her anger, but she is also practical and patient, calling the struggle against racism a marathon.
Whether you are black or white, CEO or citizen, Shellye has heartfelt and hard-earned wisdom worth hearing.
SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian and I’m here with Shellye Archambeau, one of Silicon Valley’s first female, African American CEOs. As chief executive at MetricStream, she turned a struggling startup into a global leader. She’s now a board director at Verizon and Nordstrom, Roper Technologies and Okta, and is also author of the forthcoming book Unapologetically Ambitious, which is due in October. Though she’s based in California, Shellye is coming to us from Tampa, Florida, where she’s sheltering with family, as I ask my questions from where I’m sheltering at my home in Brooklyn. Shellye, thanks for joining us.
ARCHAMBEAU: Oh, it’s great to be here.
SAFIAN: This podcast, until recently, focused on the business adaptations imposed and required by the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the wake of George Floyd’s death, there’s obviously another kind of rapid response that has become an imperative. When did you first hear about George Floyd’s killing and how did you respond?
ARCHAMBEAU: Oh, goodness. I heard about it the same day. It was horror. It was outrage. It was disbelief. All of those emotions – anger – and then it was also a, oh goodness, a feeling of powerlessness, realizing that not only did this happen, but that could have been my son, my son-in-law, my grandson. It’s just horrible.
SAFIAN: Did you start to think about actions to take right away or was it more sort of absorbing?
ARCHAMBEAU: In the beginning, it was really absorbing what was happening and then you go through the whole grief cycle, right? You start to feel like you need to do something, but you’re not quite sure what you can do in terms of right then, so you take in all the information you can find out, what happened, who was involved, what are they charging? And then you just get more and more angry as everything is slow to unfold. To actually demonstrate that there will be consequences for what happened. It lengthens the, frankly, the trauma that you go through.
ARCHAMBEAU: Well, we actually all have a responsibility. What we’re facing now with the racial tensions, the bias and all that we’re experiencing, unfortunately, it’s not new. We’ve had moments like this in the past, whether it was the civil rights movement or the Rodney King.
We’ve had instances to show that we have a problem that needs to be addressed, but I’ll be candid: This is the first time that I’ve actually felt hopeful that we may actually start to change the trajectory this time. I believe it’s because for the first time I’m actually seeing businesses truly get engaged. Businesses really didn’t engage during the civil rights movement. Now they are. I believe that businesses can use their power to actually call for accountability, to call for transparency and visibility into what’s happening in our local communities.
I’ve always believed that if you have bad behavior happening, if you shine a light on it, behavior improves. If we can shine a light on many aspects of our criminal justice system, to understand where we’re having discriminatory practices, where we’re having abuse actually take place under whose watch and in whose hands and actually make those things visible, I think people will act very differently if they know they’re going to be held accountable. So many atrocious abuses all the way to death have happened in the past. Many times charges aren’t brought, it happens in the dark and nobody knows, and they don’t believe the people who make the accusations. My biggest suggestion is let’s shine a light. Let’s understand the data and the statistics and make those things visible.
SAFIAN: You said that the worst thing a company can do is go back to business as usual. You’re concerned that that might happen?
ARCHAMBEAU: Well, absolutely because that’s what’s happened in the past. Terrible things happen. Everybody says, “Oh my goodness,” they wring hands. They say it’s terrible and it’s awful, and, couple months later, they’re back to their regular lives. They’ve kind of forgotten about it. That is a huge risk. This is a marathon. I was just talking to a group of CEOs earlier today and I said, “If you’re really serious about helping to make change, then strap in because this is a marathon. It’s a long-term effort. There’s not one issue or one problem or one person or one group… There’s not one thing to do.”
The embeddedness of racism and bias throughout our culture as a result of hundreds of years is deep. To unearth, uncover, shine the light and fix, it’s going to take time and frankly, fortitude. The fact that as I said, businesses are finally rolling up their sleeves and saying, “Okay, we want to help, we want to make a difference,” matters.
ARCHAMBEAU: I do think there are actions that can be taken that will start to make a difference, at least create some hope that will make people feel that folks are serious in terms of moving forward. I’m careful about quick wins because as I said, this isn’t surface stuff. It’s not like you can go wave a magic wand and it’s all better. That said, companies do need to communicate. I’ve seen a lot of CEOs put out letters, which is wonderful, both internal as well as external. And what I would tell you is all companies should foster communications. We need to start talking about racism. We don’t talk about it. With people sharing their stories and people listening, really listening this time, I think it can make a difference.
I think there are a few things that people need to do. One is educate yourself. Black people are suffering from the weight of dehumanizing injustice and racism, and that’s been festering for years. Take the time to actually learn and understand about what’s happening, so you can have some empathy and then talk about it. If you aren’t comfortable talking about it, then hire facilitators to help talk about it. I will tell you that your Black employees will appreciate, it but frankly, not just the Black employees, because people who are not Black are also feeling like, “Oh my God, does this mean all this time I’ve been a racist? I don’t think I’m a racist, right? Right?” There’s this whole defense mechanism, all that needs to be talked about.
We need to set a vocabulary. For instance, the term Black Lives Matter has drawn such vitriol from some people. Let me just explain what it means when people say Black Lives Matter, they’re not saying that other lives don’t matter. What they’re saying is right now, Blacks are under siege. We’re not treated right. We’re not treated humanely, so we matter too. The analogy I think of in terms of Black Lives Matter, imagine if your spouse or your loved one has been suffering and been under siege and is feeling emotionally drained and insecure and they are looking to you, “Well, do you love me?” they say. And what you say to them is, “Honey, I love everyone.” That’s not what they want, and that’s not the point.
All we’re saying with Black Lives Matter is, right now, we need that comfort and we need that support. We need to know that black lives matter. I just wanted to explain that piece because people see it and see it as nobody else matters, and that’s not the case.
The other term, I just want to take a minute to explain in terms of my perspective, is this notion of white privilege, because that’s another one. People are like, “I had to work for everything I’ve got. Nobody gave me anything. I’ve had struggles. I’ve had obstacles. I don’t have privilege.” That’s not what we mean. It’s not what we mean at all. White privilege just means that you had the privilege of being born and living a life every day without the weight, without the fear, without the pain and the suffering and all the issues that people who are Black have had. It’s not saying you have been given anything, it just says you haven’t had to carry that extra weight.
SAFIAN: You mentioned earlier that these kinds of atrocities are not something new and yet we’re sort of having a broader or a different reaction maybe to them at this moment. Is there a relationship between the pandemic and the way we’re reacting and the protests, like are people more raw than they’ve been?
SAFIAN: It’s certainly disproportionately impacted Black Americans.
ARCHAMBEAU: I think it’s two sides. One, for Black Americans, we are disproportionately affected and not only an economic crisis because we’ve been disproportionately affected when it relates to who’s losing their jobs right now. Then on top of that, you have boom, boom, boom, all the issues that have happened in terms of with Brianna, with Arbery. All of that’s going on has been like, are you kidding me? How much do you think that we can handle? Then you add to that, that everybody’s been locked at home. That in itself is stressful.
I think the other thing that’s happened is because everyone is locked at home, everyone actually saw. Everyone had time and, actually, bandwidth to see what was going on, to hear what was happening, and to actually process it, because there weren’t 50 million things on your plate that were pulling you as you were running all over the place and trying to get things done. So I actually think the combination of that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But I also think for the first time we were able to get the attention of the broader population.
SAFIAN: There’s some people who have seen the protests in the street as being destructive or dangerous in spreading coronavirus, potentially. What do you say to those kinds of gripes about the way people have expressed their anger right now?
ARCHAMBEAU: Yeah. What other way is there to get the attention? Kaepernick took a knee, just took a knee in a football game to try to bring light to Black Lives Matter and all these issues. And he got persecuted for that. So we can’t do it that way. How do we actually have a voice? No one wants to see protests turn violent, no one. And the people that are out there and driving and trying to get attention for the vast majority, they are not violent.
But we need people to understand this is a real issue and there isn’t any other way to get attention. And oh, by the way, protests have been used through the history of our country to change behavior. Protests were used to create the country. Protests were used to get voting rights for women. Protests were used to get rights for workers. Protests were used all the way through history. If you look at any fundamental social change, protests were involved as a catalyst to bring attention and awareness to social issues. The same is true today.
SAFIAN: Are there positive stories that have inspired you from the protests?
ARCHAMBEAU: Yes, the fact that the protests are so diverse. You look at the protestors and it actually looks like America. And I’m particularly excited about the youth that are out there. So you see all cultures, all ages. People are actually standing up for each other, which is good because if you have a society in which a section of society is treated inhumanely and unfairly in a consistent way, it hurts not just them, but it actually ultimately hurts everybody. So we are in this together and I am hopeful because I see the country represented in the protests.
SAFIAN: When you appeared on Masters of Scale previously, you talked about taking advantage of currents. I don’t know whether you remember this.
ARCHAMBEAU: Oh, yes.
SAFIAN: You told Reid, “It’s easier if I’m moving quickly in a current that’s already there versus trying to create my own current.” And I’m curious whether you feel like that applies in this moment.
ARCHAMBEAU: It absolutely does. It was one of the first things I said, actually, to my son-in-law as all this was happening, I said, “We have to capitalize on this moment and the movement to ensure that we don’t go back to business as usual.” So this movement that we’re seeing is indeed our current and we all need to get in and paddle like crazy to really make a difference, because I believe we can if we work together.
SAFIAN: So you’re on several boards and there’s been a lot of discussion about board diversity. Alexis Ohanian at Reddit gave up his board seat to push for broader representation at Reddit. What’s the role of a board in addressing a crisis like this at this time?
ARCHAMBEAU: The tone at the top is critical in any organization. And the top is the CEO and the top is the board. So when the coronavirus hit, COVID-19, all of my boards, we were having weekly conversations as we worked through all of the issues. And as the issues rose from a racial injustice standpoint, the conversation quickly turned that way as well. So the role of the board is to be there, to support a company, to provide governance to the company, and make sure that all the stakeholders and shareholders are taken care of.
So the first question is, is everybody safe? And are we doing the right things to ensure that all of our people can not only be safe but can be productive? And if you look at it, what companies are finally realizing is they may create that kind of environment within their company, they absolutely aspire to, but everybody has to live outside of their company. People have to drive home. They have to be able to run in their neighborhoods and exercise. They need to be able to play in their parks and go birdwatching. And they realized that the extra stress and the issues, if not addressed, ultimately impact companies too.
SAFIAN: At both Verizon and Nordstrom, where you serve as a director, the boards are relatively diverse, certainly compared to many other Fortune 500 boards. Did that specifically affect how those companies have acted in these last few days, few weeks?
ARCHAMBEAU: I’ll be candid, I’m fortunate that all of the boards I serve on are very diverse and therefore, I don’t know how the boards that weren’t diverse, how they acted. What I can tell you is I’m very proud of how my boards acted. Companies that not only were quick to make statements, but they also pulled together people to actually have conversations and discussions. They reached out for assistance, help, and guidance. And they realized that this is a role that they need to play both for their company, but broader. So I’ve been proud overall in terms of the responses and how people have come together on this. But I can’t comment on rooms that I’m not in.
SAFIAN: On the rooms that you are in, you mentioned that initially, you’re meeting every week about pandemic, now you’re meeting every week about the racial and social issues. The stock market today is down 5%. So it’s not like the impact of the pandemic has gone away. How do you balance both of those crises and the way they intersect going on at the same time?
ARCHAMBEAU: Well, the good news for the companies that I’m engaged with: the focus of diversity, the focus of enabling an environment where all people could be productive and effective – those weren’t new. So as we’re addressing things now, it’s not like we suddenly have to put in new policies or new actions, et cetera. Those are indeed in place. It’s making sure that we are just stepping it up and making sure that we have vehicles in which we can listen to our employees. And I think that’s probably the piece that is new.
For instance, Nordstrom, right after Floyd’s death called a meeting, partnering with the African American employee resource group, and called a meeting to have a conversation. And the purpose wasn’t to talk about anything other than to say, “How do you feel? This has got to be hard.” They had almost 900 people across the company call into this and just had a conversation. They hadn’t done something like that around race before and it was extremely powerful for the executives and for the employees. So there are new tools and new approaches that are coming in and I think it’s really important, because I think now is the time to listen and to learn, and for people to build an understanding of the two worlds that exist
SAFIAN: Again, in your last message on Masters of Scale, you said, “I’m a big believer in trying to be visible. There aren’t a lot of people who look like me that have actually built and led successful companies.” There’s a lot of pressure in constantly being a role model in that way. Do you feel that pressure, that stress?
ARCHAMBEAU: Absolutely. Absolutely. And let me tell you in the last couple of weeks, it’s been even heavier. And that’s true, not just for me, but for all of my Black peers and leaders out there, because we’re working through the trauma of what’s happening ourselves personally, then we’re working with the organizations that we’re actually technically connected to, the boards we serve on, the companies we lead, the employees that we have. But then we’re also being tapped to help broader groups and other organizations, which we want to be able to do, but it’s a lot.
Part of the reason why I actually wrote the book, Unapologetically Ambitious, was because I wanted to be able to share the stories broader, to share how to work through some of the issues that are actually very specific to African Americans, they’re very specific sometimes to women, as it relates to working in corporate America and in the world of startups of Silicon Valley. So when you say, do you feel the pressure, the answer is absolutely.
But at the same time, I own it because I feel very humbled by the fact that I’ve been able to achieve what I’ve been able to achieve. And I haven’t gotten here just because of me. And I want to make sure that everybody, no matter how disadvantaged background they had or how marginalized they’ve been, et cetera, has the opportunity to achieve their aspirations because so many people with amazing capability don’t even get the chance to demonstrate it.
SAFIAN: It often happens that leaders, role models from marginalized groups in businesses, they may hear, “Oh yes, go down that road, but don’t be too aggressive.” Or, “It’s not the time or place to necessarily say that.” Some variation on “watch what you say.” You’re nodding as I’m saying this. I suspect you’ve experienced this.
ARCHAMBEAU: Absolutely. Why do you think the title of my book is Unapologetically Ambitious, right? “Ambitious”, it can be one of those words that people say you’re too ambitious, especially as a woman, as a minority, that’s not actually considered a good thing. It’s a good thing for others, but just not for us. So, yes, we have to be very careful. Unfortunately, the line that we’re expected to walk, which is aligned to meet what people’s expectations of us are, where we’re not too much this and not too little that, is really hard and it can be exhausting as you try to conform. So, yes, those absolutely exist.
And part of the learning and the listening that I’m talking about, I don’t even think people realize it when they say it or when they intimate that those are the issues, how it’s actually being received. Imagine telling your son or your daughter, “Now go out in the world and be successful, but don’t be too ambitious. Don’t be too assertive. Don’t push hard.” I mean, what kind of messages is that? We’re basically telling them, we don’t think you’re going to amount to much so just be a good person and support everybody else. That’s what it says.
SAFIAN: It’s hard to reach your potential when you have those restraints on you.
ARCHAMBEAU: Absolutely right.
ARCHAMBEAU: Well, I’m nodding only because when you say part of the problem, silence is a problem. People need to speak up. People need to engage. In the past, we haven’t really. We’ve kind of delegated: “Let me hire somebody responsible for diversity inclusion, and then they’ll hopefully take care of this.” But it actually is something that starts at the top in terms of how we think about things. It’s not just who we hire, it’s who do we do business with, what do our suppliers look like, what markets are we targeting, where are our offices? It’s all of these things, what organizations do we give to. All of that shows what you actually care about and what you don’t.
Again, that’s part of the challenge right now because you say some of these things, then everybody starts to get defensive – “But I’m a good person,” and the answer’s yes. Yes. We’re all good people, at least most of us. That’s why it’s so important right now to actually spend the time listening to stories, doing some research, read some books, watch a couple movies. There’s podcasts to understand the experience because, in all candor, we haven’t been sharing the experience every day, so it’s understandable why you don’t see what’s transpiring, but now that you know it’s there and now that we’re talking about it, please, take some time and get yourself educated. Then once you get educated, now have conversations. It’s okay to make mistakes.
SAFIAN: Absolutely. I think that is something that on every side people are afraid that they’re going to say the wrong things, use the wrong words.
ARCHAMBEAU: Exactly. I think the best way to do it is just like anything else. It’s like going into an interview. You would never walk into an interview of a company and not have done any research on the company. You wouldn’t walk in and say, “Tell me, what industry are you in? What’s your business about?” You would not do that. What you would do is spend some time to investigate the company, the business, the competitors, the marketplace, the dynamics, the strategy, and then you’d go in and have an intelligent conversation.
If you ask stupid questions, it’s not because of the work you didn’t do. It’s just because you’re learning something new. Treat this the same way, and oh, by the way, if you’re compassionate about how you do that, which is somebody comes and says, “Shellye, I just read How to Be an Antiracist,” or, “I just watched ‘13th,’” or, “I just listened to the 1619 podcast, and I’d love to talk to you about it,” that’s fine. It’s okay to say, “And I don’t even know how to express how I’m feeling because it feels so mixed and I’m so confused, so I may step on myself.” That’s okay.
If you come in it in a compassionate way, it’s fine. If you come at it in a defensive way, which is you haven’t done any of that, well, that’s a little different. You can have the conversation. It’s okay to make mistakes. As long as you come at it with compassion and with good intention, it’s recognized and understood. Trust me. We’re not perfect. By the way, just because I’m Black does not mean that the experiences I’ve had in my life are the same as every other Black person. It’s not. We aren’t one people, just like for people who are not Black. Everybody’s had different experiences in different backgrounds. This is why we have to have conversations.
ARCHAMBEAU: Yes, the EJI it’s called, the Equal Justice Initiative, they’re very focused on the whole criminal justice system and trying to make sure that justice is ultimately served, so helping to support people who have been wrongly imprisoned, wrongly arrested, all those things. There was so much of it. I mean, one-third of African American males will go to jail. One-third. That’s ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. Imagine how people would be in the streets right now if one third of white males were sitting in jail.
Fill in the blank with a different ethnicity and realize that that is ridiculous. That says that something fundamentally wrong is happening. Yes, that’s the one I support, but frankly, there’s a number of very good organizations that are out there trying to, indeed, make a difference, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I mean, I could go through and rattle a bunch of them.
Yes, it’s important to give, and companies are doing that, but let me just give you one more thing to do: Don’t just send a check. Try to create a relationship. Actually have a conversation with the organization. Understand what they’re actually trying to do, and figure out if there’s a way beyond just the money to actually support it. Businesses and the voice of business is really powerful. We need to engage at this time, and engage is a heart and a mind as well as the dollars.
SAFIAN: I have to acknowledge that I’m embarrassed by some of the things that I’ve learned in recent weeks that I wasn’t aware of, that the city of Oakland, 44% of the budget goes to the police. Are there things that you’ve learned in the last few weeks that have surprised you?
ARCHAMBEAU: Oh, goodness. That’s a really good question, the things that I’ve learned. Yes. One is I actually learned what “defund the police” actually means. When I first saw “defund the police,” I thought, “What? You’re going to eliminate the police?” Although I think there needs to be changes, I feel there also needs to be some police. When I looked into it, it turns out that’s not what it is at all.
“Defund the police” is saying, right now, we are putting too much in the hands of the police. We call them up for everything, and therefore, if we looked at how we spent our dollars, we could spend our dollars better by taking some of the dollars we put towards our police and putting it towards maybe mental health, putting it towards social workers, putting it towards health care, around drug addiction.
There’s a lot of other ways in which we could address some of the societal problems that today we’re addressing with one blunt force, which is the police force, to your point, about the size of Oakland’s budget. Again, that’s crazy. That’s crazy. Do you know in schools they call police to arrest kids? Do you know the youngest child arrested is like seven or eight years old? Arrested. Arrested. That is ludicrous. Of course, these children are Black. We have to get a handle on ourselves.
97% of all arrests or whatever end up in plea bargain. And plea bargain, you typically end up with a record. And now that you have a record, you can’t get a job because employers aren’t going to hire somebody with a record. And even if you didn’t do it, you still say you did because of the threat of going to jail and the pressure and the hope. And oh, by the way, if you can’t make bail, you can’t sit in jail because you have to work to pay your bills. So people plea bargain, and that’s how you end up with all these people that are now “unemployable,” right? So they have to find ways of working in the shadow economy.
I will tell you, one documentary to watch, if you just want to understand more about how all this happened, is “13th,” because bottom-line is it also became politically expedient to continue to fund, beef up, and increase police in terms of getting people elected. There’s a cycle here on a number of issues, but this is where it’s important to get educated, to understand: How did we get here?
ARCHAMBEAU: If we do not capitalize on this moment to start to make real change, then I just don’t know what happens in the future because what it means then is we have consciously, as a country, decided that we have a set of our population that should be treated less than everyone else. Before it was happening subconsciously. People didn’t necessarily realize it. Well, now you realize it. If we realize it and we just go back to business as usual, it says that, as a country, we have decided that there is a class of people who aren’t really full people in this country, that are not full humans and don’t deserve the same rights, treatment, safety, security, liberty, and justice that our Constitution actually says that we should all get, that we consciously decide that this group of people, Black people, should not have that. Lord help us if we end up in that situation.
The question that I get from a lot of people, and this is all races, the whole bit is a wringing of hands and, “Oh, my God, what can I do? What should we do?” What I will tell you is back to the long game, there isn’t just one thing, but if everybody could start with just build your knowledge and understanding, number one, and then two, just do one thing. When I say one thing, meaning look at your local community, reach out and understand from your police department, your sheriff, “What are our statistics? What are the numbers? Do we indeed impact African-Americans more than not?” Look in your companies. “Are we doing business with other Black businesses? Do we have people of color within our organization and leadership? Do we have them on our board?”
Look in your organizations, your nonprofits, your schools. Look for where there are disparities, and then start to understand and ask questions. Just ask questions. “Why is this? What do we need to do to change this?” But just pick one area that matters to you, and just focus on that one thing.
My daughter actually kicked off a nonprofit literally two weeks ago called Until We Do It, and what they’re doing is basically getting masks to the vulnerable communities. There are 15 million people under the poverty level, and they’re trying to get masks. I’m so proud of them. They’ve been able to get masks to all the protesters in Houston. They sent them to Atlanta. In like no notice, with no infrastructure, four black women got together, and they are making an amazing impact. I’m just so proud of them, with nothing. I mean, it’s not like they had seed money. They had nothing. They just started literally calling people. And they got masks donated, and they got things shipped, and they’ve got warehouse space. And I mean, it’s just phenomenal, but it just shows when I say, just do something, if everybody just did something. So this is their way of trying to help, 50 million masks, that’s their target.
We have over 300 million people in this country. If everybody just did one thing, it would be amazing.
SAFIAN: Well, Shellye, your words and your passion about it. So much has happened in the last few weeks, but as everything you’ve said underscore, we’re just beginning. And I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts, and your perspective, and your experience with us. And I hope you’ll come back again. But thank you very much for your time.
ARCHAMBEAU: You’re very welcome. Thank you.