Shané Harris: How businesses can do more than simply checking a box

Prudential’s Harris offers 3 ways companies can ensure equity is part of their long-term business strategy

It has been just over two years since the killing of George Floyd ignited public discourse around racial inequality and fueled many companies to make public commitments on racial equity. However, many of those who have taken a stand also recognize that tackling these inequities cannot be done without addressing many of the systemic and structural inequalities that have kept Black and brown people at a financial disadvantage for centuries. 

Business leaders cannot just simply stand on the sidelines. Customers and employees increasingly demand that companies take a stand on political and social issues. Investors expect to see action plans that expand inclusion, equity & diversity efforts. 

So, how do we ensure the focus on racial equity doesn’t dim out? That businesses truly and authentically embrace equity as part of their long-term business strategy, and not just in a way that checks the box? 

Below are some recommended resources to tap into when it comes to delivering on meaningful business action toward racial equity:

Your people: As companies continue to evolve, efforts to address bigger external issues are futile if we don’t get it right within our own walls. One of the biggest stakeholders (and resources) for an organization when it comes to advancing racial equity as part of its business strategy is your talent.

Business resource groups play a unique role that other functions or leaders cannot. Because they are directly on the ground, BRG leaders have direct lines of communication on employee sentiment.

BRGs can be catalysts in enabling innovative thinking on equity to incorporate in business strategy. 

For example, after the 2020 murder of Floyd, Prudential’s BRG for Black employees, the Black Leadership Forum, held the company’s first employee session within days following the murder. BLF was able to quickly mobilize employees virtually, creating a trusting space for Black employees to connect with one another in a way that was informed by what the community needed in that moment. 

BLF modeled an approach that allowed all Prudential employees to participate and learn in a safe environment, setting the tone for challenging, yet authentic and new workplace conversations that can help create a shared understanding around issues of race and equity. 

Partnerships: Building and fostering partnerships across sectors, such as government and nonprofit, are critical to integrating equity into long-term strategies. Community organizations that work closely on relevant issues to your business can be strategic consultants to help you develop more innovative solutions. 

Authentic partnerships (particularly at the local level) are integral if companies aspire to address these societal issues — especially when companies are looking to build trust and awareness within communities. At Prudential, we place a high value on authentic partners that help create pathways to quality employment and economic opportunity.

For example, when financial services organizations aren’t meeting a community’s needs, it creates obstacles for households and entrepreneurs to build financial security. Seeing this chronic problem in Newark, we worked with local organizations like the Newark Asset Building Coalition and the United Way of Greater Newark, as well as other cross-sector partners, to provide financial capability support.

Prudential also supports programs like the Newark Free Tax Prep Program and the digital Volunteer Income Tax Assistance to provide free tax preparation for low- to moderate-income families and helped them take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit, an underutilized tax tool. These programs have helped residents receive millions of dollars in refunds and save substantially in tax preparation fees, while also providing financial education and a variety of support for small businesses. 

Measurement: This often is the most challenging part to address. This work must take the long view, as true impact isn’t typically measured within a calendar year; it takes years — even decades — to measure your impact. Even when companies are doing the work, it can be tough to identify the right metrics that demonstrate the greatest impact, or universal metrics that are widely adopted and understood.

While financial commitments are more easily measured, they are just the start. Understanding what to track, how to track and how to consistently track are all of equal value to ensure impact is being delivered. At Prudential, our strategies to address racial equity are multifaceted, ranging from how we support diverse talent to our business practices and investments. Understanding through measurement where we are making progress and where more work needs to be done helps us refine our strategic approaches. 

Greater transparency helps us build trust and support among our stakeholders, while keeping us accountable to consistently deliver on our part to the collective effort to advance racial equity. 

Shané Harris is vice president of social responsibility and partnerships at Prudential Financial and president of the Prudential Foundation.