WT Business Beat

By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

GovCon needs to join the conversation about race

Like many people, I was horrified by the video of a Minneapolis police officer calmly kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he died.

His murder is not the first time a police officer has killed an unarmed African American, and it unfortunately is not the last.

The public reaction has been swift and at turns hopeful and disheartening. I’ve watched and reacted as a father and a member of the community. I’ve thought about my background of growing up in a small southern Virginia town where the schools were not fully desegregated until after I had started first grade and how that has shaped my own biases and prejudices.

I’ve thought about my shortcomings and my lack of understanding and knowledge as a white American male. I can try to empathize but can’t really know what it is like to be black in America. For most of my life, I haven’t thought about my race. It hasn’t been an issue for me. I doubt many non-whites can say that.

Personally, I know that I have a journey to take and as a journalist I know I need to write about what is happening and the impact on the government contracting industry. But in some ways, I’ve felt stuck. I’ve worried about the politics of it, of being seen as embracing one side of the political spectrum against the other. Something I've always avoided professionally.

I’ve worried about writing nothing but platitudes. No one argues with statements such as “We value diversity” or “We value inclusiveness.”

Words are easy, but what's hard are actions. I’ve started having conversations with executives and former executives about what companies should be doing.

A few common themes have emerged:

  • Some of my worries are common but shouldn’t be an excuse for not taking action.
  • Not knowing what kind of action to take is OK for now.
  • Being willing to have uncomfortable conversations is critical.
  • Listen more than talk, especially for white guys like me.

From the several people I’ve talked to there is a sense that action needs to be taken by companies, from the board room to the rank-and-file. It’ll be a process.

“Every CEO, every board (I’ve talked with) have recognized that this is different,” one person told me.

There is optimism that positive change can happen.

Many companies have diversity programs and now is the time to double down on those. Steps such as increasing training for unconscious bias, including at the board level, is one example, this person told me.

Boards and senior executives set the tone and the culture of organizations. Several companies provide great examples with very diverse board and senior leaders, particularly with the increasing presence of women. Many other companies not such much.

Increasing diversity and creating a pipeline for minorities to more easily move up the career ladder and take on more leadership roles is kind of a no-brainer. All companies need to create those kinds of programs.

A bigger challenge for government contractors is their role in the community. The question is how to support community efforts and even lead them. One executive told me that may be the most uncomfortable thing for government contractors, which are often very reluctant to venture outside of their comfort zones. The industry is “insulated,” this person told me.

Companies need to take action because it is the right thing to do, but there also is a growing business imperative as well. Our nation will soon be what is called a "majority-minority" country. The non-Hispanic white population is expected to be below 50 percent by 2040. In many states, that shift has already happened.

For companies to recruit and retain workers and to win new business, they can’t rely on a workforce that doesn’t look like the population they serve and the community they live in. Their long-term survival relies on diversity.

Many companies are already working in this direction, but more needs to be done.

There is no single answer. What works for one person or one company, may not work for another. But taking no action does not seem to be a choice anymore. I know that Washington Technology itself has work to do, especially with the choices of executives we interview and invite as speakers at our events. We lean heavily on middle-aged white guys. We will do better.

I don’t have answers, but I want to listen and I want to learn. As that relates to business, I’ll share that here too.

Let the journey begin.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Jun 17, 2020 at 9:42 AM

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