Janet Stovall
2,075,225 views • 11:04

Everybody has that one friend — you know, the single-minded one, the one who, no matter what the question is, always finds a way to make the answer whatever it is she's single-minded about. I'm that friend.


And the thing that I'm single-minded about is racism. If someone were to ask me, "So, Janet, got any plans for the 4th of July?" I'm subject to answer, "Yeah, I'm going to binge-watch 'Roots.'"


Or if they said, "Janet, I've got a joke for you: Why'd the chicken cross the road?" "Uh, was it a black chicken? Probably gentrification."



But for me, single-mindedness is not just caring about something. It's caring about something enough to do something about it. It's not just thinking, it's doing. It's not just praying, it is moving your feet. And the reason I'm single-minded about racism is because I know single-mindedness can destroy it. I learned that many, many years ago.

Back in 1984, I was a junior at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. Now, Davidson is a little-bitty town, Southern town, split by railroad tracks, with white Davidson on one side, black Davidson on the other side, and, as black students lived on the white side of the tracks, we got used to being stopped in downtown and asked for ID, until the police memorized our faces. But fortunately, that didn't take too long, because out of 1,200 students, only 52 of us were black. There was one black professor and one black assistant dean. Things weren't a lot better on campus.

Well, I wasn't OK with this. And so, I started writing things. And then I started yelling things. And after about three years of that, I got tired. So I decided to write one more thing; I wrote something called "Project '87."

Project '87 was really just a challenge to Davidson: in three years, by 1987, enroll 100 black students, hire 10 black professors, create five Black Studies classes and hire one black dean. It didn't seem particularly revolutionary, but what was different about it was, we also challenged Davidson to say that if you don't do this, we will question your commitment to diversity. It was a real problem. We put some real numbers to it. We gave them some real consequences.

Well, the campus went absolutely nuts. But fortunately, in the middle of this, Davidson got a new president, and that president was single-minded about racism, too. And so, he created a task force to address the issues in Project '87. And several months after that, we produced a 77-page report. That report was the foundation for all the change that came after it. Now, I wasn't there to see that change, because, actually, in 1985, I graduated.

(Applause) You are looking at the three happiest people on the planet that day, because I am leaving.


However, the change did happen, and today, there are 185 black students, there are 16 black or multiracial professors, there are four black deans, and there's an entire degree-granting Africana Studies Department.


Project '87 changed Davidson. But it also changed me, because what it taught me was there's a lot of power in single-mindedness.

Well, today, I'm an executive speechwriter for one of the biggest companies in the world. It's a profession that is 92 percent white and predominantly male, which makes me a little bit of a unicorn. But I'm a single-minded unicorn.


So the thing about speech writing is, it's very personal. So I spend a lot of time in deep conversation with the CEO and senior executives, and a lot of times those conversations turn to diversity and inclusion, which, of course, I'm always happy to talk about. But after quite a few of these conversations, I've come to a conclusion: I believe that business is in a position to do something that no other entity can do. Business can dismantle racism. Now, colleges can't do it. There aren't but 5,000 of them in the United States and only 20 million students enrolled. Church can't do it, either — only 35 percent of us go on a regular basis, and when we do, eleven o'clock Sunday morning is "the most segregated hour" in America. But business? There are a 162 million people in the US workforce alone — people of all races, united in the spirit of wanting a paycheck and having to show up to get it.


Now, I'm aware that diversity is bigger than race, and racism is bigger than America. But racial discrimination is the most prominent form, and Lord knows America is the absolute best at it. So what if, though, what if we worked in diverse and inclusive environments that we had something to do something with? And since we spend one-third of our lives at work, what if we did that with people who didn't look like us? I think the world would be a totally different place outside of work. That can happen if business gets single-minded about racism. But the question is: How is that supposed to happen?

Well, I think there are three things that business can borrow from Project '87: real problems, real numbers, real consequences. Like it or not, diversity is not really a problem for business — yet. I mean, it's a nice thing to have, it's the right thing to do, but for decades, we've been trying to make the case that diversity fuels innovation and customer insight. I mean, at this point, it's kind of a no-brainer, a little bit like hearing a smoke alarm going off and standing with your hand on the hot door, waiting for some data to tell you that your house is on fire. Because the data is already there. Ethnically diverse companies perform 33 percent better than the norm. Forbes's best workplaces for diversity enjoy 24 percent higher revenue growth. And yet, here we are in 2018, and there are only three black CEOs in the Fortune 500. And if your name is Molly or Connor, you've got a 14 percent better chance of getting a callback on your resume than if your name is Shanice or DeShawn. And all of this, despite the fact that by 2045, America is projected to be a minority-majority country.

Here's the thing: the business case for diversity, as it stands today, doesn't really speak to any problem. And the only way business is going to get single-minded about racial diversity is if it has a problem that is urgent and relative to somebody other than people of color. I got one: How about employees and customers? Because no matter what business you're in, you're going to need those, right?

Well, let's talk about some real numbers. If you have employees and customers, wouldn't it make sense if they looked a little bit like the people that work for you? So if that's the case, maybe your employee base should be 13 percent Black and 18 percent Hispanic, because that's what the population looks like. Maybe that's what your customer base looks like.

But let's be clear: diversity and inclusion are not the same things. Diversity is a numbers game. Inclusion is about impact. Companies can mandate diversity, but they have to cultivate inclusion. And if inclusion is what you're after, you've got to calculate some slightly different numbers. How about 30 percent? Because that's the point that research shows at which the voices of minorities actually begin to be heard. If you want a real problem, you're going to need real numbers to fix it, and if you're not willing to set real numbers, then maybe you're not real serious about diversity and inclusion.

That brings me to my third point: real consequences. Think about this: when salespeople forget what they're doing and don't come up with their numbers, what do we do? We give them a little time, maybe we give them some training. But then if they don't hit those numbers eventually, we fire them. However, when you start talking about diversity and inclusion, we use terms like "accountability." And maybe we scold, and maybe we hold back an incentive or two. But you know what the best incentive is? A job. And you know what the best disincentive is? Losing it. So if companies really want accountability, they should assume that that is a given. Consequences are what happen when you don't do what you're accountable for.

Imagine this: imagine a place where people of all colors and all races are on and climbing every rung of the corporate ladder; where those people feel safe — indeed, expected — to bring their unassimilated, authentic selves to work every day, because the difference that they bring is both recognized and respected. And imagine a place where the lessons we learn about diversity at work actually transform the things we do, think and say outside of work.

That is what happens if we all work together to fix what's broken.

That is what happens if we stop praying for change to happen and actually start moving our feet to making it.

That is the power of single-mindedness.

Thank you.