When Lisa Osborne Ross was named chief executive officer of public relations giant Edelman U.S. in early May, it was the culmination of 25 years in public relations, politics and public affairs, rising through the ranks in corporate America.
It’s the first time an African American has held the top position in the 69-year history of the global firm — founded in Chicago in 1952, now with more than 2,300 employees in 13 states — and a first for an African American leading a PR/advertising firm of its size.
“It almost brings me to tears when you say it like that,” Ross said from her Washington, D.C., offices.
“The magnitude of what it has meant — certainly to women that look like us and to men that look like us — but also what it has meant to so many, has moved me. And, if I allow it, it could dismantle me, honestly.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the global village that I feel is behind me,” said Ross, who came to Edelman in 2017 as president and was promoted to chief operating officer in February 2020.
That was just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the American economy, followed by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis cop, which sent many in a locked-down nation to the streets in protest.
Ross led her firm’s COVID task force and its racial justice task force.
“I’m aware of the history of the moment, and it’s an amazing, amazing feeling,” she said of her promotion at Edelman, one of several Chicago area corporations that have undertaken momentous moves to propel racial equity in the year of racial reckoning following Floyd’s death.
“But with that comes the responsibility, right? And the expectation. And, if I allowed it, the worry of: ‘Can I do this?’ “
But she said, “I feel confident, secure, committed. I have a very clear vision.”
It was on Memorial Day a year ago. A nation reeling from a rising COVID-19 death count was plunged into collective trauma from the cellphone-videotaped killing of Floyd by now-former Officer Derek Chauvin, convicted last month in that very public murder, carried out over an excruciating eight minutes and 46 seconds.
The killing while in uniform triggered a collective soul-searching over structural racism inherent in every aspect of American life, including racial disparities in COVID infections and deaths and the racial income and wealth gap.
That also poured out into the corporate sector, sports, entertainment and media.
Protests that began peacefully grew violent as they spread from Alaska to West Virginia, Americans of every race and creed joining voices to declare: Enough.
“For me personally, it was just like air came out of your body,” Alice Rodriguez, managing director and head of JPMC Community Impact at JPMorgan Chase, said of watching the video of the killing. “You couldn’t breathe. It was hard to believe this was even happening in our country.”
Rodriguez is one of the nation’s highest-ranking Latinos in banking and chairwoman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which advocates for America’s 4.7 million Hispanic-owned businesses and the Hispanic workforce. The daughter of an immigrant, she climbed the ranks over the course of 34 years with the nation’s largest bank.
She talks about how her mother, with a seventh grade education, worked to provide opportunities for her four children — one of them now overseeing JPMorgan Chase’s $30 billion commitment to advance racial equity. Called Path Forward, it is a response to the reckoning by a bank with $3.7 trillion in assets.
The seminal tragedy of Floyd and the demands for change prompted corporate America to speak out against racism and injustice.
That put a spotlight on racism in hiring and promotion, segregation in C-suites, lending for homes/businesses, denigrating treatment of and portrayals of Black and Brown narratives.
Many questioned whether the statements from a corporate community facing pressure to weigh in from customers, employees and other stakeholders were just talk.
“The pandemic had revealed all of these inequities, and BIPOC” — Black, Indigenous and people of color — “communities had gotten hit so hard by the pandemic, so people were raw,” Edleman’s Ross said of the reckoning that prompted mea culpas from many corporate entities.
Demands for change sent many of those big corporations running to firms like Edelman. Ross ended up overseeing the PR giant’s counseling of more than 400 clients regarding diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and multicultural outreach efforts.
“There are four things companies have to do,” Ross said. “You have to use your influence — not just say something but do something. You have to educate yourself on systemic racism in your industry, then advocate for change. Then, you have to get your own house in order. When you are posting this and communicating that, remember that people will be, like, ‘Well, let me look at your board and your executive committee and your C-suite.’
“And recognize that there will be consequences if you don’t. This is a movement, not a moment. The demand for equity is not going away. If anything, it’s going to accelerate.”
Ross’ appointment follows the history and headlines made earlier this year by two other African American women ascending to the top post at Fortune 100 companies.
Thasunda Brown Duckett, formerly chief executive officer of Chase Consumer Banking, was named CEO of the New York-based Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America in February.
A month before, Roz Brewer, formerly chief operating officer of Starbucks Corp., was named CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, the 120-year-old, Deerfield-based pharmacy giant.
Only one other African American woman — Ursula Burns, former head of Xerox — has held that top post in the 66-year history of the list representing America’s largest companies. Mary A. Winston was interim CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond for seven months in 2019.
Only a handful of African American men or women hold the top post.
Carlos Cubia, senior vice president and global chief diversity officer for Walgreens, has long worked on diversity, equity and inclusion. He came to Walgreens in 2017 after driving diversity agendas at Covidien, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Safeco Insurance.
“The racial equity movement accelerated some initiatives that we already had in the works. Now, we’re implementing them,” Cubia said. “We are weaving DE&I throughout every aspect of our business, from the C-suite to our board of directors to our global beauty brands to our recruiting, hiring and retention to our marketing efforts.”
A “Leadership Accountability Model” now ties bonus incentives to Walgreens’ goals of increasing the numbers of women and people of color in leadership positions year after year — women by 3 percentage points, people of color by 2 percentage points.
And a new recruitment tool analyzes language in Walgreens job descriptions with the aim of helping to ensure inclusivity.
A “Marketing for Change” team was established to review product marketing in Walgreens stores, responding to insights from African American consumers.
Out of that review came greater diversity in its supply chain, according to Cubia, and marketing imagery of Walgreens beauty brands. And its drugstores, along with Walmart and CVS, ended the practice of placing multicultural hair care and beauty products in locked cases.
Regarding health disparities, the company’s “Vaccine Equity Initiative” focused distribution in POC communities disproportionately affected by COVID, and a partnership with Uber is offering free transportation to vaccines in Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and El Paso, Texas.
Brewer wasn’t the only African American woman to break barriers at Walgreens. The company also appointed Valerie Jarrett, former White House senior adviser under President Barack Obama, to its board — the first African American woman in that role at the company.
“While we are proud of the work we’ve done, we know we still have a long way to go, which is why this is both a critical and exciting time to be in this space,” Cubia said.
According to a Federal Reserve survey, America’s racial wealth disparities remained unchanged over the past decade. The typical white family had eight times the wealth of a typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family.
A report by the Center for American Progress think tank blames racism for the Black-white wealth gap, pointing at a discriminatory economic system in which the labor, housing and financial markets stymie African American households from acquiring generational wealth.
“If you look at median net worth for white households, it’s $188,000,” JPMorgan Chase’s Rodriguez said. “If you look at it for a Latino household, it’s $36,000. For a Black household, it was $24,000.
“If you start to peel back then the two drivers of wealth creation in this country, homeownership is one of the big ones, then entrepreneurship. Long-term savings is another. There’s a lot of different drivers, but these three come to the top. Path Forward is our approach to the wealth divide in this country.”
Launched in October, the initiative is helping 40,000 Black and Latinx families nationwide to become homeowners in the next five years, with $5,000 grants for down payments.
According to Rodriguez, the company is aiming to help 3,000 families on the South Side and the West Side.
“I always figured by the age of 30 I’d stop paying rent and build my own assets, instead of helping others with theirs,” said Phillip Sinclair, a 45-year-old Chicago artist known as “P. Scott,” who closed on his first home on May 11. “Owning my own home has always been a goal.”
After years of trying, the father of two and owner of Pilsen’s NYCH Gallery was able to purchase a two-flat in Woodlawn through the JPMorgan Chase program.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur since age 22, and income is not always guaranteed,” said Sinclair, who’s also a fashion designer and full-time hairstylist for NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” show, which is filmed in Chicago. “A lot of times, banks get nervous with entrepreneurs. I’ve attempted this a few times. Chase made me believe I could make this happen. They took the time to really walk me through the steps. The downpayment grant was essential in this whole process.
“It still feels surreal. To come from where I came from, to close on my first house is just a dream come true.”
Path Forward grew out of a nationwide listening tour with community leaders by top bank executives. The $30 billion commitment for the program includes home refinancing for 20,000 Black and Latinx families, with $2,500 grants, financing of 100,000 affordable rental units, 15,000 small business loans and $750 million to be spent with Black and Latinx suppliers.
Another element: a mentoring program to help Black and Latinx-owned small businesses grow in 13 communities nationwide. That targets 1,500 businesses in Chicago.
South Shore resident Patrice Darby Neely, a second-generation entrepreneur, has taken advantage of the program for her year-old data-aggregation and economic development startup, GoLogic Solutions. Among a rare breed of Black women in tech, Neely started GoLogic after COVID hit her first one, GoNanny, hard. It shut down after four years of growth.
The one-on-one mentoring she’s gotten since joining the program in September has been critical to the growth of her newest endeavor, Neely said.
“My mentor helped us create a strategic partnership strategy to be able to work with Fortune 500 companies and corporate philanthropic organizations,” she said. “Having a reliable partner who you can trust to inform your business decisions is one of the most important things you can do as an entrepreneur.”
Path Forward also includes 1 million low-cost checking/savings accounts for those new to or previously locked out of banking and a new community center branch model offering skills training and atypical bank programs in communities like South Shore.
The bank also has committed to investing $50 million with Black- and Latinx-led banks.
Like Walgreens, JPMorgan Chase — which, with 14,000 workers in Chicago, is one of the city’s biggest employers — now plans to hold executives accountable, in their performance evaluations and their pay, for meeting workforce diversity goals.
Northbrook-based Allstate Corp., one of America’s largest home and car insurers, is doing the same.
“We knew we needed to take a bigger stand than what we had done in the past,” said Christy Harris, Allstate senior vice president of talent management, employee experience, culture, employee value proposition and inclusive diversity. “Our CEO sent a letter to all of our employees, basically saying, ‘It’s just us. We have the opportunity to model different behavior within this organization that will bleed out externally.’ And, with that, we decided to declare Juneteenth a company holiday.”
Commemorating Juneteenth — the emancipation on June 19, 1865, of the last enslaved people in the holdout state of Texas — was a step considered by several municipalities and corporations in the weeks after the Floyd killing. Allstate blazed a trail.
The company also launched a three-year DE&I strategic plan covering not only hiring and promotion but also its supply chain and charitable giving. Allstate’s charitable foundation added a racial and economic equity pillar to its mission.
In November, Allstate made history on Wall Street. To fund its $4 billion acquisition of National General Holdings Corp., the company awarded its $1.2 billion corporate bond offering exclusively to banks owned by people of color, women and veterans. Such business typically is snagged by large banks like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup.
It was the largest-ever corporate deal managed solely by diverse firms, breaking barriers in a financial management arena long plagued by inequity. For its $92 billion investment portfolio, Allstate has committed to doubling trading volume with diverse firms this year.
“Normally, you’d go to the big players, but, when you’re really intentional, you can carve out this kind of opportunity,” said Harris, who has led DE&I efforts at the insurance giant for five years.
“This is where businesses can make a big difference, when your values align with your business practice,” she said. “For some of these banks, this is the first time they’ve been able to engage in something this size. Sometimes, you just need a chance. And once given that chance, the window has now opened for you to create even bigger opportunities.”
Allstate is among nearly four dozen large companies — from Accenture, American Express and Aon to Wells Fargo, Whirlpool and Yum! — that, in December, launched OneTen, a new organization with a mission to upskill, hire and promote 1 million African Americans to family-sustaining, upwardly mobile jobs in the next 10 years.
That pledge comes as preliminary U.S. Census Bureau data show an acceleration in the browning of America. Similarly, a Brookings Institution analysis found America’s white population declining for the first time since the first census was taken in 1790, a decline largely due to aging.
All population growth occurred among other race and ethnic groups, with rising racial and ethnic diversity among millennials, Gen Z and younger groups now comprising over half the nation’s population.
Statistics project a majority Black and Brown America by 2045, when whites are expected to comprise 49.7% of the population, Hispanics 24.6%, African Americans 13.1%, Asians 7.9% and people who are multiracial 3.8%.
Harris said she sees diversity, equity and inclusion efforts spurred by the Floyd tragedy as critical to a future workforce.
And like so many parents of Black sons, the racism that too often seeps into America’s policing — laid bare in that horrific video — fuels her worry for her sons, who are 16 and 17.
“I’m from Minneapolis,” said Harris, whose husband is African American. “I grew up there and lived there many years. And, being a white female, maybe didn’t realize what was happening there. I now think about this all the time.”
“Last year, my 17-year-old and I were walking down the street,” Harris said. “He was telling me how girls at his school like boys who are 6 feet tall, light-skinned, curly hair, etc. I said, ‘Oh, kind of like you.’
“And he said, ‘You know, Mom, isn’t it interesting how everyone wants to look like me but nobody wants to be me?’ I said, ‘Why do you say that?’ And it happened that a police officer was driving by right then. He points and says, ‘Because of that right there.’ “
As corporate America continues efforts to make good on Floyd-era pledges, leaders of community organizations in disadvantaged Black and Latinx communities hope the benefits of this pivotal time in American history will be long term.
One of those, the 4-year-old READI Chicago, got a major boost from a $2 million grant from JPMorgan Chase on May 5 to help provide jobs, behavioral therapy and other supports to men at high risk of ending up involved in violence. Of those READI serves, 96% have been arrested and 64% previously incarcerated. READI works to help these neighborhood residents return to the workforce.
“I’m so glad this country is finally coming to a level of recognition and reckoning with race and equity,” said Eddie Bocanegra, READI’s senior director.
“Too often, the population we focus on is overlooked and dismissed because of mistakes of the past,” Bocanegra said. “When we talk equity, we’re talking about employment, the importance of creating career pathways and opportunities for everyone. Everyone deserves a second chance.”