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Management Leadership Of Tomorrow Founder John Rice On Moving The Racial Equity Needle

John Rice on the Walker Webcast

2020 was a year of change for the U.S. Along with the coronavirus pandemic upending everyday life, the murder of George Floyd sparked a wave of protests across the country as people demanded more be done to address systemic racism.

John Rice, founder of the nonprofit organization Management Leadership for Tomorrow, has spent the past two decades working to dismantle systemic racism in American companies. 

In 2002, after a successful career at Disney and the National Basketball Association, Rice left the private sector to form MLT, which he had first thought up as a Harvard MBA student in the early 1990s. MLT is a national nonprofit that offers high-achieving individuals from Black, Latino and Native American communities the mentoring, coaching and resources to make an impact on the business world.

Today, MLT works with 2,500 fellows a year and boasts more than 10,000 alumni, 200 corporate partners that both fund the organization and bring MLT members into their companies, 200 staff members and a budget of $60M a year. 

“We focus on advancing racial equity in this country,” Rice said on this week’s Walker Webcast. “It’s about putting more economic mobility and economic influence in the hands of people of color, helping them go from college to that first job.” 

He added that along with that goal, MLT consults with companies to help them take a much more vigorous approach to racial equity and “help them widen the road for people of color, reduce institutional racism and move the needle on all aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

Rice was the guest on this week’s Walker Webcast, during which Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker spoke to him about the work MLT is doing, how companies have progressed with DEI initiatives in the past 18 months and the work that still needs to be done to make America’s offices more equitable places. 

Rice said that one of the fastest-growing aspects of MLT’s mission is its consulting and advisory arm, working with organizations to develop strategies for hiring and maintaining diverse talent. One way it does this is by sourcing top talent for these organizations through MLT members, and another is through its racial equity certification program, which establishes an absolute standard for racial ethical workplace practices. 

“Our theory of change is if you put more economic mobility in the hands of people of color, if you decrease institutional racism and make our workplaces more equitable, that’s the key to addressing the persistent racial inequities that are not just in our institutions but in our society more broadly,” Rice said. 

Walker brought up an article Rice wrote for The Atlantic titled The Difference Between First-Degree Racism and Third-Degree Racism. In it, Rice breaks down what he considers to be the three degrees of racism: the first, which is overt prejudice; the second, which is turning one’s back on meaningful anti-racism efforts or aiding and abetting racism; and the third, which MLT is most focused on, is when institutions fail to unwind practices that disadvantage people of color in competition with White people for economic and career mobility.

"This is when institutions are not out to hurt anybody, but they create the conditions where somebody's aspirations for the future are shattered,” Rice said. “I believe that eliminating this more nuanced, poorly understood form of racism is the key to expanding economic mobility and power.” 

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on the Walker Webcast

One example he gave is a company believing there is no pipeline of diverse talent, so they don’t take a rigorous approach to recruit diverse talent. He said companies also sometimes act as though there is a tension between increasing diversity and maintaining an excellence-based meritocracy. 

To unpack this type of racism, Rice said, companies first need to be well-informed about it, diagnose it, realize that it is addressable and actually start taking actions that will move the needle, as opposed to employing random acts of diversity. 

He said that a year and a half after George Floyd’s murder, companies have made some progress, but he can sense momentum is waning. While there was a fundamental shift in the dialogue around race in many organizations and many put out strong statements against racism, he said what that actually led to was people of color standing up and saying, “We appreciate those statements, but our lived experience within this organization is fundamentally inconsistent with what you’re saying externally.” 

“This was an aha moment for CEOs who realized that if there’s racism inside an organization and they’re saying they stand against racism without actually doing anything to move the needle, then they’re standing on the wrong side of racism,” Rice said. 

The key to change is for companies to create a sense of urgency around moving that needle and take an approach that applies the same level of rigor that they apply to every other part of their business to their DEI initiatives, he said.

“Our racial equity certification program establishes an absolute standard for what good looks like with respect to racially equitable workplaces, similar to the LEED standard for environmental sustainability,” Rice said. “It’s really about trying to move companies from the space of good intentions but lack of rigor to a more comprehensive approach of holding themselves accountable.”

On Nov. 3, Walker will host Dan Houston, chairman, president and CEO of Principal Financial Group. Register here for the event. 

This article was produced in collaboration between Walker & Dunlop and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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