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More than 80 business leaders explored the reasons behind the dearth of African Americans in Chicago business leadership positions and ways to solve the problem during a panel jointly hosted by AJC Chicago and the accounting firm Crowe Horwath.
The panel featured Gwendolyn Butler, President and COO, Capri Capital Partners; Billy Dexter, Partner at the executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles; Aylwin Lewis, President and CEO, Potbelly Sandwich Works, Inc.; and City of Chicago Treasurer Stephanie Neely. Shia Kapos, reporter and columnist at Crain’s Chicago Business, moderated the discussion. The event marked the first in a series to which AJC Chicago and Crowe have committed to continue exploring diversity hiring practices and bringing together business leaders from diverse communities.
The conversation at the Feb. 28 panel centered on obstacles African Americans encounter when seeking high-level positions in business—and the struggle is not limited to Chicago, the panelists agreed. Part of the problem is the education system and the lack of a mentorship pipeline, Lewis said.
“Education is the path to leadership,” he said. “Only 40 percent of African-American males graduate from high school. That has to change.”
Many panelists noted that such change can only happen when the conversation occurs at the CEO level. But the dearth of African-American CEOs in traditional
companies makes starting the conversion more difficult. That’s partially because African-American entrepreneurs and business specialists find that it is often easier, though not effortless, to start a business rather than try to climb an existing corporate ladder, Brooks said.
That statement drew parallels between Jewish business history and the African-American business reality today, AJC Chicago Board Member Beverly Huckman said after the panel. Huckman is Associate Vice President, Equal Opportunity, at Rush University Medical Center.
In fact, the subject of diversity hiring has been an AJC advocacy mainstay. In the 1950s and 60s, AJC conducted hallmark studies that highlighted ethnic barriers in the selection of executives, according to archival AJC documents. An AJC report from 1956, for example, pointed to an apparent pattern of discrimination against Jews in executive positions in 50 U.S. commercial banks. Over the years, AJC has advocated for Jews and other minority groups to be included in corporate recruiting efforts and encouraged banks and other businesses to implement other changes in personnel practices.
Panelists also said other communities’ successes can inspire the road ahead. Neely, who in September participated in an AJC Project Interchange trip to Israel, said she was inspired by the trip and especially the Israeli attitude toward venture capitalism and failure, which she asserted could be translated into building a better environment for African-American business leaders.
“It’s the ‘Start-Up Nation’ attitude. If you fail there, it means you’ve learned,” she said. “Here, failure means no one is going to invest in you anymore.”
AJC Chicago Board Member Gary Pines, who made the connection between AJC and Crowe and also recruited many of the attendees, said the panel brought back memories of “what my grandparents and parents told me about the barriers that Jews were facing in business.”
“After listening to the panelists,” he said, “there is no doubt that we have the opportunity to bring the African American and Jewish business communities together to help each other.”