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Former Apple executive: Black inequality is a business problem, and here's how to start fixing it

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Former Apple executive Omar Johnson told CNBC on Monday that racial inequality must be viewed as a problem businesses can address. 

“I believe in businesses in America solving business problems, and I really want to make the Black inequality problem a business problem,” Johnson said on “Squawk Alley.”

Johnson, who is Black, said he has been fielding calls from corporate leaders in the weeks since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, which set off waves of anti-racism and police brutality protests in U.S. cities and around the world. A number of companies also put out statements following Floyd’s death, announcing charitable contributions and other initiatives designed to reduce racial inequality. 

Johnson, former vice president of marketing at Apple, said companies can create change within their organization by starting with transparency around diversity. Take an honest measurement of the current situation, he said, and publish the results. 

“How many Black employees do you have, on your board, on your executive team, all key decision-making verticals?” he said. “But also, think about the key functions outside of marketing and [human resources].  I know how a lot of people can feel when I say this, but we’re not just marketing and HR people. What about finance, operations, engineering?” 

Businesses need to also look at “soft data” around diversity in an organization to get beyond statistics around representation, Johnson said. 

“What are Black employees saying? How are they feeling? What’s the condition of your culturally Black employees?” said Johnson, who contended that it’s important to create “safe spaces, where you can actually get real feedback on the state of what’s happening with your Black employees.” 

CMO of Beats by Dr. Dre Omar Johnson attends ‘Meet The Designer’ at Apple Store Soho on December 13, 2014 in New York City.

Noam Galai | Getty Images

Johnson, who was chief marketing officer at Beats Electronics before the headphones company was acquired by Apple, also said businesses cannot wait to take “deliberate action” on efforts of diversity and combating injustice. 

“And deliberate action means there is action you can take inside the company, outside the company, both through how you invest your dollars but also in how you actually start to focus on elevating those people in your companies right now,” said Johnson, founder of marketing firm Opus United.  

Johnson noted that previous efforts around increasing diversity among Big Tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google parent Alphabet have largely struggled. A CNBC analysis of the annual disclosures from those companies, plus Microsoft and Twitter, found low single-digit increases in their percentage of Black employees, six years after their first diversity reports. 

But Johnson expressed optimism that real progress can be made at technology companies in particular, citing the quality of the organizations. “I believe as these companies step back, if they actually applied those operational and engineering muscles toward fixing this issue — again, making it a business issue — I do believe it changes,” he said. 

Up until this point, a workforce that reflects the country’s diversity has been “a nice to have, not a have to have,” he said. But in addition to potential legislative efforts, employees and consumers are now putting pressure on the companies to take diversity seriously. 

“With those voices coming inside those brands, I do think you start to see some change,” Johnson said. 

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