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HBS African American Student Union Pens Letter Calling on Corporate Leaders to Work Towards Racial Justice

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UPDATED: July 16, 2020, at 2:48 p.m.

Harvard Business School’s African American Student Union called on corporate leaders and executives to work towards racial justice within their organizations and in American society in an open letter published Friday.

The authors of the letter acknowledged the influx of corporate statements in support of racial justice and the Juneteenth holiday and decried what they dubbed “performative corporate activism.”

“During this month, companies are also raising their Pride flags but failing to acknowledge the growing number of Black trans men and women who are being killed across the country,” the authors wrote.

The authors also noted the lack of representation of Black Americans in the upper echelons of American corporations.

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“The American economic system of capitalism was built upon racial stratification and this insidious system has led us to today, wherein Black professionals hold just 3.2 percent of all executive or senior leadership roles, less than 1 percent of all Fortune 500 CEO positions, and receive 1 percent of all venture capital investment,” they wrote.

The Business School itself has long faced allegations of systemic racism within the school culture. Dean Nitin Nohria announced plans for an anti-racist initiative in a letter to HBS affiliates sent Monday.

The African American Student Union linked their quest for corporate justice to anti-racist efforts at the Business School in an emailed statement.

“We have been encouraged by the response from the business community so far and look forward to engaging with more corporate leaders. However, we do not take lightly the century of Anti-Black racism that has taken place on our campus at HBS and we believe these recommendations should also be applied within the HBS context,” they wrote. “We urge the HBS administration to incorporate our advice, and start by communicating a bold vision for the advancement of Black lives at HBS and beyond.”

Jan W. Rivkin, senior associate dean and chair of the school’s MBA program, praised the AASU’s efforts in an emailed statement.

“I admire our students’ efforts to call on corporate leaders to work toward racial justice in their organizations and in society. Moreover, I’ve read the letter carefully, understanding that the students’ guiding principles for equity can be applied to HBS itself, not just to private corporations," he wrote. "One reason we’re grateful to have AASU leaders as partners in taking action to move HBS forward on matters of race is that they bring us perspectives like these."

In the letter to executives, the authors asked business leaders to undertake a four-pronged approach to addressing issues of racial injustice in order “to ensure that this is the last generation of Americans who are forced to take to the streets to demand basic human rights for Black people.”

First, the authors urged executives to “escalate” concerns about racial justice to the CEO and board level by publicly disclosing racial equity data and implementing diversity initiatives.

The authors also call on business leaders to “calculate” the success of their diversity initiatives. They wrote that corporations should link leadership teams' success on racial equality initiatives to their incentive pay, “grow the pipeline of Black talent” for executive positions, and collect diversity and inclusion data to determine achievements.

In addition, the letter states that executives should “educate” themselves on the experiences of their Black employees and “lead by example,” demonstrating the “learning mindset they should exhibit as they navigate conversations about race.”

The authors wrote that corporations should also “advocate” for racial justice beyond their internal statistics. The letter advised corporations to appoint a task force to analyze and ultimately address “the role your company has played in perpetuating racist systems,” donate to anti-racist organizations, address disparities in wages and benefits, and align their lobbying efforts with racial justice.

The letter urges executives to attend “corporate racial equity office hours” with members of the AASU.

“America’s demographic future points inexorably towards a more diverse, multi-racial community. We urge you to wake up, step up, and lead your organizations and institutions towards that future. Let us together be a part of the solution,” the authors wrote.

—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at ellen.burstein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

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