We’ve long identified the “deserts” that plague African American communities, which lack not just nutritious food and quality health care, but also the capital they need to thrive and the technology they need to compete. We do not need to accept that these deserts are permanent features of our national landscape. In finance, we speak of “permanent capital,” referring to investments that create long-term, compounding returns. This is the approach that should guide companies in making practical, tangible and scalable commitments to turn these deserts into vibrant gardens.
They can start by shifting capital into communities that were resource-starved for generations. The average American family donates 2 percent of its income to charity: Many companies should be able to devote 2 percent of their earnings to closing racial opportunity gaps. I was particularly encouraged by the announcement that Netflix will deposit 2 percent of its cash holdings in banks that serve black communities, giving them more power to lend and to help small businesses survive and thrive.
We also need to diversify the faces of those who have access to the biggest pools of money. Millions of African American workers’ retirement savings are invested in the very companies that abandoned their communities. Earmarking a small percentage of pension fund investments to African American asset managers would support diversity in the financial services industry and put money in the hands of people best positioned to see potential in minority communities.
Once companies start making these investments, we will need to make sure money reaches not just the arteries of the financial system but also its capillaries. Many African Americans live in communities not served by major banks and rely on small, community-based institutions. While these lenders do great work, the federal Paycheck Protection Program’s application process demonstrated that many don’t have the tools that the big banks have. Previously, the gulf between major national banks and community lenders would have been unbridgeable. Today, technology makes it possible for local institutions to do thingssuch as process loans more efficiently, which means we can get much more capital flowing through these capillaries and into communities.
Large companies can help by tackling the challenges most relevant to their expertise. For example, one-third of black households in the United States still have no broadband Internet or computer, which means adults can’t work from home and children can’t learn from home. Telecommunications companies have a special responsibility to end these connectivity deserts. Health-care firms should follow the lead of nonprofit organizations such as Susan G. Komen and the Prostate Cancer Foundation, which are working to end health inequities such as those that make black women diagnosed with breast cancer 40 percent more likely to die than white women and black men 76 percent more likely to develop prostate cancer than white men. Software companies can make affordable or free tools for small businesses that face razor-thin margins to handle basic business functions such as payroll and customer acquisition.
Some solutions are sector-specific, but others are universal. We all have a stake in hiring a more diverse workforce and diversifying top leadership. Building a diverse talent pipeline starts with making higher education liberating, not a burden. This has been a focus of mine since I pledged to cover the college debt of the 2019 Morehouse College graduating class. Currently, many African American families have no alternative to student loan options with extremely high interest rates and fixed payment obligations that can permanently affect graduates’ career opportunities and life choices. Student debt consumes a staggering 65 percent of the wealth of the households of African Americans early in their careers.
Working with former IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg, United Negro College Fund President Michael Lomax and others, we created the Student Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit lender that will offer flexible repayment options tied to income. As graduates succeed in their careers, their payments will become loans to subsequent generations of students.
We also need to expose young people to opportunities they may not know even exist. My high school internship at Bell Labs was a transformative experience that introduced me to the field of technology and inspired the InternX program, which matches highly qualified minority students with corporate internships. Every company can join a program or start its own.
Companies should also diversify their boards and pension managers, demonstrating that they don’t merely want to spruce up their employee directories but benefit from new perspectives at the very top. A new effort called Modern Leadership, launched by the corporate governance software company Diligent, has brought together companies that have each committed to filling five new board seats with minority candidates who have not yet served on corporate boards. Diligent’s 700,000 clients will help identify those candidates. My firm, Vista Equity Partners, was among the first to join.
It is all too easy to let the urgency of a moment fade away with little to show for it. Let’s meet this moment. We have the tools, the technologies and the access to capital to do it. All we need is the willpower to see this through.
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