Shift power by bringing new voices into financial and business decision-making

  • Network Leaders

Oct 15, 2020 Sean Campbell

This is the final part of a five-part series on what can be done to create a better economy amongst loss and beyond it, at the 6 month mark of COVID-19. Read part onepart twopart three, and part four.

he structural deficiencies in our economy and financial markets are accompanied by a cultural deficiency. The people often leading business and financial decisions have been so shaped by the primacy of financial return that, in many cases, they don’t know how to prioritize anything else. Intuitively, it feels wrong for them to think about factors other than financial return (like the welfare of their workers or the communities where they operate) when making decisions. Even in an extreme situation, when it seems clear that everyone needs to think about the welfare of the whole world, it’s impossible to kick these ingrained habits — and so we’ve seen our business community fail to take responsible actions.

Part of the reason that this world view has become so hegemonic among business and financial decision-makers is that their groups are largely homogenous. A huge proportion of the United States’ critical business decisions are made in a small section of Midtown Manhattan by people who are overwhelmingly white and male who’ve had similar paths and educational backgrounds. In homogenous groups, it’s hard to avoid groupthink. The groupthink of returns-above-all has led to an economic response to the COVID pandemic that’s been inadequate and chillingly inhumane.

In addition to the general benefits of having more perspectives, there is also a specific reason that our economy needs more BIPOC leaders: because so much of the history of the U.S.’s economic development is a story of the economic oppression of people of color.

The great economic success of the U.S. is both a story of freedom and a story of oppression.

Our national mythology includes countless stories of people creating great inventions and companies because of the U.S.’s entrepreneurial, egalitarian spirit in ways that would be impossible in other countries, from Andrew Carnegie to Steve Jobs — and these stories, by and large, are real. However, it is equally true that in the U.S., the freedom that made these entrepreneurial feats possible has historically included the “freedom” for white business owners and capitalists to oppress and extract value from people of color — whether through slavery, sharecropping, exploited undocumented labor, the exploitation of Chinese migrant workers on the railroads, or countless other techniques of exploitation. The complete elevation of financial returns over human needs (that has led to so much suffering during this pandemic) represents the triumph of this exploitative tendency in American economic history.

Both parts of the American economic story are equally real. However, it is easy for white people to convince themselves that only the first part is real. By contrast, BIPOC leaders, by and large, know the second part of the story all too well through experience and the experiences of their families.

Thus, BIPOC leaders are best positioned to build a new economy that preserves and expands the good parts of America’s economic history — the hospitality to new ideas, the meritocracy of truly free and fair markets, the egalitarianism that recognizes and promotes talent and energy no matter where it comes from — but excises our legacy of economic exploitation once and for all.

Many Common Future Fellows are working to expand business opportunities for BIPOC leaders and have developed new economic structures informed by the experience of BIPOC people in the U.S. Fellows like:

Derrick Braziel (who is also a 2019 Obama Foundation Fellow) started MORTAR to support Black and brown entrepreneurs in Cincinnati, Ohio. Tim Lampkin’s Higher Purpose Corporation is tirelessly developing and supporting Black entrepreneurs in rural Mississippi. Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson is building Black-led solidarity economy institutions in the Jackson, Mississippi region; and is a thought leader imagining new economic structures that are market-oriented and truly free for all. Benito Lubazibwa’s Remix Ideas is implementing multiple projects to build Black business leadership and economic power in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Moving the support and capital needed to uplift and empower entrepreneurs of color to bring the alternative economic institutions and structures imagined by people of color into reality is a critical part of changing our economy to one that is built on the responsiveness to the needs of all people. Profit and financial return should only be part of many important goals, not the top indicator of a healthy economy or a successful business. The more support these entrepreneurs and leaders have, the more they will be able to scale up to shift economic power away from the elite and to a broader group of leaders who are committed to working for the broader needs of society.

This is the final part of a five-part weekly series where I’ve broken down some of the changes that we need to create a more resilient economy and shared who the visionaries are working to bring them into the world. Read part one, part twopart three, and part four.

I’m very interested in your thoughts, comments, and reactions, either on Medium or on my Twitter.

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Sean Campbell is a New York City-based Common Future Social Entrepreneur in Residence. Learn more about him here.

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