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Management promotions for Black professionals are declining, report finds

In this Thursday, May 21, 2020, photo, Jessika-Katherine Naranjo Colina, left, and Bernard Kanjoma, who co-own the graphic design and marketing firm Naranjo Designs.
Paul Sancya
Jessika-Katherine Naranjo Colina, left, and Bernard Kanjoma, who co-own the graphic design and marketing firm Naranjo Designs.

Being promoted as a business executive is already hard. Being promoted as a Black business executive is even harder.

That’s according to Dr. Fred McKinney, the former Carlton Highsmith Chair for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University.

“You still have to be better than the white guy in order to even get a shot,” McKinney said.

As a Black businessman with an illustrious career that has taken him from the White House Council of Economic Advisers to the Dartmouth School of Business — and everywhere in between — he said he’s worked in places where he didn’t feel welcome.

“It's like you are going to a foreign land,” McKinney explained. “And that takes some adjustments on both your part, but also on the organization's part. And sometimes the organization is willing and able to make changes, sometimes they're not. Sometimes you have people in positions of leadership in organizations that are supportive of inclusivity, and sometimes they're not.”

Barron Witherspoon, who worked for Procter and Gamble for more than 35 years, has a similar story. Witherspoon said he dreamed of being a district manager in Texas — at the time, there was only one Black person at the company ranked higher.

“It wasn't unreasonable for me to aspire to that and see that as the top level that I might achieve,” Witherspoon said.

Early on, he realized the barriers he faced. But he didn't realize that other Black P&G employees were going through the same thing.

“The minute you brought the whole group together, you saw sort of the universality of some of these things, and common issues and so forth,” Witherspoon said. “And that created a reason for us to be together to really articulate the challenges and start working on them.”

By his retirement, Witherspoon, now author of The Black Exec: And the Seven Myths, was the vice president for Global Industry Affairs and the Corporate Race Initiative.

After the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, companies doubled down on diversity, equity and inclusion to improve the workforce. There are currently eight Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies — that's doubled over the last four years.

Witherspoon said he had seen those diversification measures before.

“Any time there was a major diversity issue brought to the forefront as you might recall, folks like Jesse Jackson and others, who may have gone and penetrated into certain industries and exposed that these industries were lacking in their diversity,” Witherspoon said.

But the efforts didn’t stick. According to a report from the management consultant firm McKinsey last November, Black professionals are back to being promoted to management at the same rate they were in 2019.

McKinney, who now focuses on supplier diversity with Trumbull-based BJM Solutions, blames that on the country’s collective short memory.

“Now people are saying, well, why are we doing this? You know, what's the value here?”

Witherspoon agreed.

“The issue is that the press of the day-to-day issues that are happening in the business take precedence over these kinds of areas of focus,” Witherspoon said. “And when that happens, then these things fall apart.”

A more equitable Connecticut

McKinney said Connecticut could become a more equitable place for Black business people by amending its contracting laws.

Currently, 25% of the state's contracts must go to small businesses, and 25% of the small businesses must be minority-owned.

But McKinney said those minority-owned businesses are often white women.

“I don't think there's anything wrong with having a goal to do business with white women-owned businesses,” McKinney said. “They should have a goal. Blacks and Hispanics should have a goal, Asians and Native Americans should have a goal. And they shouldn't be mixed in together. I think that has contributed to the lack of development of Black-owned firms in the state of Connecticut. That's a relatively simple change that I think would have a huge impact.”

In 2022, a study into the process of awarding state contracts began. Ahead of this legislative session, during a meeting of the state’s Black and Latino Caucus, State Senator Patricia Miller acknowledged the importance of the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities for overseeing the study.

“We can finally make sure that Black and Hispanic businesses receive some of the benefits that other businesses, especially women-owned businesses, receive so that we can make that distinction between women-owned businesses and Black and Hispanic,” Miller said. “So that they're not all coupled together.”

Study results are expected in March.

In the meantime, Witherspoon said companies should embrace DEI measures as a systemic approach as opposed to a short-term solution for a long-term problem.

“We need real, genuine systemic interventions so that the work of diversity happens as a matter of doing business; it doesn't come as something that's layered on top of the business,” Witherspoon said. “And that's why companies fail, because they layer it on top. And it's usually episodic, in response to something that is happening in the external environment, or an uprising that may be happening internally from employees. And that's the crux of it, you gotta get it systemic.”

Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.