This week, nearly every business leader and investor in America has felt compelled to publicly state their support for a movement. That didn’t happen when Trayvon Martin was shot dead, when Eric Garner was choked to death, or even when Breonna Taylor was shot dead a few months ago. There are two questions on our minds, and on the minds of many other business leaders as we survey the situation: Why now? And now what?
The general issues of inequality, police brutality, an entrenched history of institutional racism, and the unfair incarceration of Black men and women have all been deeply researched and voluminously documented. Academic research has surfaced these issues and become accessible through popular and brilliantly written books such as “The Color of Law,” “The New Jim Crow,” and “Between the World and Me.” But why are business leaders suddenly acting so woke?
To answer this question, we need to appreciate the moment we are in. Clearly, the pandemic’s impact on America has laid bare deep-seated disparities in income and opportunity. But it has also created a strong spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together. That spirit and our desire to see ourselves as connected humanity, united in fighting this disease, has conspired to lay the groundwork for this George Floyd moment. That moment — and the overwhelmingly peaceful, poignant protests that have followed — has catalyzed and awakened business leaders to finally speak up and be upstanders rather than bystanders, expressing their values and solidarity with a movement that, unabashedly, they had long ignored or assumed someone else was working on. The faith in our publicly elected officials to have this issue covered has proved dead wrong.
So now what? That is the harder question for us to answer. What happens next and what will come of this moment? To be sure, this moment will soon pass — just as Sandy Hook’s and Greta Thunberg’s moments have passed — and our collective attention will wander and flit away. President Obama noted in his speech Wednesday, “It’s very important for us to take the momentum that has been created as a society, as a country, and say, let’s use this to finally have an impact.”
Many have suggested that individuals who are finally paying attention to institutional racism should study the history, donate money, and talk more about it with their friends and families. But more precisely, what should business leaders do? And, particular our thriving innovation community, what should venture capitalists and entrepreneurs do?
Appropriate for these times, we can summarize our recommendation into a social media hashtag: #HireOrWire. Hire more Black board members, CEOs, executives, and engineers. And wire more Black entrepreneurs — both for-profit and not-for-profit innovators — more money, whether that means investment capital or supplier dollars. Investing in Black founders, who receive less than 1 percent of all venture capital, is not charity. It’s a strategic business opportunity to invest in promising ideas that have massive potential. When we are all gathering again for group lunches, ask if your office manager is ordering catering from a Black-owned business. When you are searching for interns, ask your recruiting team if they have made the extra effort to source any Black candidates.
We cofounded Hack.Diversity to help Boston’s tech community source and nurture more Black and brown engineers. After four years, we have over 150 fellows who have participated in the program across two dozen employers, securing jobs at our top innovative companies like Hubspot, Rapid7, and Wayfair.
What have we learned? The work is hard and requires intentionality. Companies can’t just show up at Harvard and MIT and fight over the few Black computer science majors available. They need to scour community colleges and urban universities for undiscovered talent and rethink their heuristics for identifying candidates who may not look like them. They need to invest in educating hiring managers on how to build truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive teams. And they need to invest in scaffolding and mentorship programs to support these young, talented professionals to help them grow into tomorrow’s executives, investors, and leaders.
Boston business leaders: Seize this moment. Let’s commit to doing the hard work to change the narrative in Boston and help create a more equitable and prosperous business climate for all.
Jeffrey Bussgang is a senior lecturer in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School and a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners. He is the author of “Entering StartUpLand: An Essential Guide to Finding the Right Job.” Jody Rose is the president of the New England Venture Capital Association.