This piece was developed with guidance and input from the Living Cities Narrative Change Working Group, a collective impact consortium composed of foundations, financial institutions and key partners working to harness market forces for economic inclusion by shifting corporate narratives about racial equity.
Everyone saw it happening. In the final week of May 2020, COVID-19 continued to tear through the US, disproportionately devastating Black and Brown communities, highlighting hundreds of years of racial disparity and injustice. Protests raged against the murder of George Floyd and countless others. And people began to demand that corporate America join them in bringing an end to our nation’s long history of racial injustice.
Few American companies have interrogated how racism is baked into their business models and practices, and most have remained silent in previous moments of reckoning. But this time, the public made it clear that neutrality would be met with the same animosity as prejudice.
What followed was a scramble in corporate America to respond — the social media posts, the press releases, the donations, the hirings, the firings — as each company sought to suddenly answer questions that they had never once thought to ask themselves. People wanted companies to show not simply that they weren’t racist, but that they were affirmatively anti-racist. And for many companies, they struggled to quickly understand what exactly this meant.
It was a time for fire drills.
But not for Kevin Clayton and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While other companies were attempting to make diversity hires, cut checks, and create new partnerships overnight, the Cavs were getting things done. The Cavs joined with many of their longstanding partners in calling on Cleveland to declare racism a public health crisis. They held a townhall meeting with the Mayor and Chief of Police, who they have close working relationships with, to have a candid discussion about public safety and how to do law enforcement in a racially equitable way. The Cavs recently joined with many of their longstanding partners in calling on Cleveland to declare racism a public health crisis. And, the week of Father’s Day, they used their substantial fan base to organize and host “A Time to Talk” series with the NAACP about Black men and mental health. More than 30,000 viewers participated.
Why was the Cavs organization able to move so quickly and so authentically? According to Kevin Clayton, their Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion & Community Engagement, they were built for this. Starting with owner Dan Gilbert, the Cavs have “do the right thing” as one of their business principles which is deeply embedded in their culture. His advice to others taking point on D&I work: make sure your leadership, like his, not only wants to hire someone to do the job but supports them in getting the job done. He and his team treat this as a priority every day and not just when it leads the nightly news.
Diversity and inclusion work always needs to be tied to the bottom line…
Kevin learned early in his career that diversity and inclusion (D&I) work always needs to be tied to the bottom line. While working at Proctor & Gamble in his mid-twenties, his CEO, John Pepper, recognized the need to hire and support a more diverse team and better understand the diversity of their customer base to increase the company’s market share in the face of innovative international competitors. Kevin never forgot that connecting diversity to business objectives was the best way to get diversity prioritized. Speaking on this Clayton says, “I’ve always been able to build a business case for diversity. And I’m not talking about just a narrative that says ‘diversity of thought is good for our business’. I’m talking about a quantifiable business case that leveraging diversity and inclusion will increase revenue.”
He got a first glimpse of the possibilities after visiting their training center. It was the pinnacle of modern technology and data. At each basket, cameras tracked different arm angles, how fast the ball was thrown, and the percentage of free throws each player made. By the time practice was done, the coaches had a report they could act on. With this obvious dedication to data and analytical power, Kevin was eager to see what information the Cavs had on their 22 million fans worldwide from a diversity perspective. He was met with blank stares. The only data they had is what the League gave them on season ticket holders, a small fraction of the fan base. When Kevin asked why the business didn’t have this critical data, he was told: no one ever asked for it. Well, now he was asking so that the company could better understand the business imperative of operating in ways that advance racial equity.
He knows that the Cavs can’t increase the fan base without having a culture that is inclusive of everyone. They can’t attract the talent they need without being trusted in the community. Clayton is perhaps the only person who has had a P&L directly tied to the diversity department, which he had when working at Russell Athletic. With the Cavaliers, he is currently finalizing a policy where all bonus eligible staff will have D&I results connected to their overall compensation package.
He is also building an authentic relationship with the Cleveland community. Clayton grew up in Cleveland, playing basketball on courts that the Cavaliers had resurfaced, so he was already familiar with the basic community outreach the Cavs did. However, upon joining the team, he realized the Cavalier’s community engagement often featured their financial contributions. This made them a valued partner, but he wanted to make sure they were a trusted one as well that provides what the community needs. Speaking about all that’s gone on in 2020: “It wasn’t, ‘how do we write a check?’ For us, it was, ‘how do we strengthen what we have been doing and bring in our partners to help us shift our focus community-wise to where we are needed right now.’”
Because of the D&I infrastructure that the Cavaliers had built, they were able to move with agility and efficacy. While other teams were struggling to approach the topic of race, the Cavaliers emerged as a leader among their peers. This was crystallized when the NBA reached out to the Cavaliers to seek advice on what their teams should do to engage with and support the Movement for Black Lives.
Clayton’s best advice to peer companies: don’t treat this as a moment that will go away. Treat it as the movement it is — one that has built up over years, and one in which corporations have the privilege and responsibility of playing a role. He encourages companies to do the internal work that’s needed and partner with community to identify and address systemic barriers that perpetuate racial inequities.
Kevin’s phone is ringing off the hook, and he answers as best he can. But he is one person, and right now corporate America needs a growing team of Kevins to connect D&I to the everyday work of each organization and to build authentic relationships with the community. This is the only proven way to drive business forward towards a more inclusive future.