UD alumni encourage companies to lead on racial equality
Corporate America is decrying racism publicly and internally, but three businesswomen pushed the Delaware business community to back those words by investing in their Black employees.
“You see a lot of companies making grandiose statements that they’re not backing up or seeing this as an opportunity of change … There’s a lot of talk and not a lot of walk,” said Nicole Jeter West, head of marketing and brand engagement for LA 2028, the Los Angeles Organizing Committee for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
She was one of three women who spoke during University of Delaware’s webinar “Addressing Racism: Advancing Justice in Times of Crisis.” The panel spoke on June 19, or Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests against police brutality, but also prompted an urgent conversation about race. Those conversations are making their way to the boardroom, and now companies are left asking what change means for their business.
That change will start with the institution, namely with the pipeline for leadership development, West said. It’s easy to be a performative ally, or one who expresses support of a marginalized group in words, but the real first step is to recognize privilege and take action to help others.
“It’s one thing to say you have a great internship that gets people of color to the door. But if you don’t have the ability to develop them and get them into leadership, you will see that representation stop at one level,” she said. “It’s not representation in the organization, it’s at all layers of the organization.”
West was joined by fellow UD alumna Daphne McRae, the vice president of JPMorgan Chase’s project management office, who has
25 years of corporate experience. In McRae’s view, Black women are at the “very bottom of the totem pole” and oftentimes find their ideas discredited and fighting for a seat at the table.
“White privilege is the benefits, the treatment, and the other favorable actions that are given to non-persons of color because of the color of their skin,” she said. “I have a personal example: I was trained to be a successor for my manager in a previous company, and a Caucasian gentleman was brought in for that very role I was doing. I had to train this gentleman for this job I was already doing.”
McRae said that the colleague realized what happened — and that her credentials dwarfed his — and started to advocate for her in the office. Ultimately, it resulted in another position with a higher salary being created for her.
“We do not need sympathy, we need empathy,” McRae said. “We need you to be able to hear us and to listen and stand with us in solidarity.”
That bias in the corporate arena continues to this day, as pointed out by current UD student Vina Amankwaa Afrifa, who is an incoming JPMorgan Chase summer analyst and a Harvard Summer Venture in Management Program participant.
Afrifa said she has been followed back to her house in Rehoboth Beach from her neighborhood pool. In the past, internship recruiters have been surprised when she came in for a job interview and told her she sounded “proper” on the phone.
“It took me two years to realize that he was expecting a white girl,” Afrifa said. “I’m almost disgusted because I let so many comments slide. I think I do speak for all Black women when I say that we are tired.”
For corporations, West said it is time to reflect on resources and educational opportunities to make the office a truly inclusive environment. Education and continuing to have hard conversations are critical, and West said business leaders should be working on educating themselves and creating internal resources to promote an inclusive office culture.
“Expansion of awareness will help us communicate and understand what role we play. In the corporate world, culture is key. It’s not just educating people, but it’s how you interact daily,” she said.
There are no easy answers, but Afrifa said the way to keep the momentum going is to continue to hold these hard conversations across all facets of American society.
“We’re giving hundreds of people the foundation to continue to raise awareness through protesting, signing petitions, etc.; these are all ways we can be heard,” she said.
As for Black women in the workforce, McRae said it is time to speak up.
“This is the first time for many of us to be given a platform for our voices,” she said. “We have to tell our stories, regardless of how painful they are. The healing is going to actually come to our communities and our nations if we allow our voices to be heard.”
By Katie Tabeling