Tough conversations and intentional efforts to diversify personal and professional relationships are among the steps four business leaders in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area say are needed to improve the state of race relations.
The leaders — African American men and women who head local technology, communications, education and non-profit organizations — offered tangible steps to change racial dynamics during a panel discussion hosted by Tampa Bay Business and Wealth, a St. Petersburg-based publication for top business decision-makers.
They also shared personal, sometimes painful, reflections on what it means to be black in America. Hugh Campbell, co-founder and president of AC4S Technologies, talked about how he was pulled over while driving in south Tampa. Brian Butler, CEO of Vistra Communications, had a similar experience and worries about his son every day. Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College, is a native of St. Petersburg who said she has seen many acts of racism over the years. Bemetra Simmons, chief strategy and operations officer at United Way Suncoast, has lived in the area for eight years, and has seen some changes locally during that time, but she said there’s more work to be done.
“I think we are working to get better. I don’t think that we are where we want to be and I don’t think that we are where we were,” Simmons said. “In the eight years I’ve been here I see improvement. You see programs and organizations working hard at this. I think we have a long way to go, but we’re certainly not where we were when I moved here eight years ago.”
The online panel discussion, which drew about 600 viewers, was prompted in part by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis. That event caused Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, to view the world through a new filter.
“These are uncomfortable conversations to have,” said Homans, who co-moderated the with Bridgette Bello, publisher and CEO of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth. “That’s an important part of what we’re doing today, to move past our comfort zone to a new kind of understanding.”
‘Hey man, that’s enough’
There are specific steps business owners can take to promote constructive dialogue about race.
“Find a way to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Part of being a leader is you have to have courageous conversations about lots of things — terminating people, making a decision to have layoffs. This is no different,” Simmons said.
She urged employers to start affinity groups and said CEOs and other executives should attend those groups and listen to what workers discuss. She also said there are several organizations in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area that will conduct diversity, inclusion and equity assessments of a company and provide a road map for change.
“It’s important for all businesses to reflect what they expect,” said Williams. “You need to have diverse staff. There are still too many organizations that have not either been able to hire a person of color or have not thought about that, but I think that you need folks on staff who are minority and they need to be in middle to high management positions, not just the lower level.”
If everyone at the leadership level at a business looks alike, then there is something wrong, Butler said. The same is true for the circle of people that provides advice and guidance to an individual. “If everybody in your circle is just like you, then there’s probably something wrong,” Butler said.
No one can change all the problems in the world, so start smaller. “We can start with the sphere of influence that each of us has, whether that sphere is at your dining room table or in your break room, on the soccer field while you are on the sidelines watching your kids,” Butler said.
He also called for business leaders to be intentionally observant.
“We can walk by things every day and pretend they don’t exist or we can play I spy. We can put a magnifying lens on it, look a little deeper and ask better questions, in all aspects of all of our lives,” Butler said.
It’s easy to let offhand comments or jokes slide, Campbell said. It’s tougher to say people shouldn’t talk like that or to question assumptions.
Campbell issued a challenge: “With the George Floyd incident, part of the tragedy was what if one of the other officers had just said, ‘Hey man, that’s enough. Get off his neck.’ As you go back to your communities and businesses and organizations, I challenge you: Are you going to be the one person that says hey man, that’s enough.”
Signs of progress
Bello asked the panelists if there are metrics to mark progress in breaking down racial barriers.
Educational advances, including degrees and certificates, would be one benchmark, Williams said. So would fewer African Americans in jail, more people who are healthy, more home-owners and more pathways to opportunity.
“America does have opportunities for people who really want it. But when you have a household with generation after generation after generation of under-employment, under-education, lack of resources and support, and not the emotional help to help you move from one level to the next, it is very difficult to dig yourself out of that,” Williams said.
More focus on equity, as opposed to equality, would address that systemic issue. Equality is giving everyone the same thing, while equity is giving individuals what they need to be successful, Williams said.
“It’s not one size fits all. It might mean that Tonjua needs a little more help in this area and Susan doesn’t. Be willing to be flexible and to train your staff to appreciate and value diversity, inclusion and equity,” Williams said.
Corporate America should not need government mandates or goals about minority hiring, Butler said.
“Each company should take a look at themselves and decide what they can do,” he said. There are too many companies, including those in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where there’s a lack of diverse leadership. “There are just not a lot of companies that have people in senior positions that look like me. What are we saying to the young people when thy don’t see anyone who looks like them?”
The employees at a company should look like the customer base and the community, Simmons said. Clients and communities are not homogenous and companies should not be either.
“If you want to be successful, I think diversity is a great tool to get you there,” Campbell said. “Tampa Bay has an amazing community of people who come from everywhere. Why would you not want to take advantage of that and increase market share and penetrate those places you are not selling to? Why would you not want to do that?”
Closer look: Traffic stop
Hugh Campbell, co-founder and president of AC4S Technologies, is one of the leading CEOs in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. He’s a serial entrepreneur who started and sold three companies, serves on the board of BayCare Health System, and is vice chair of the CEO Council of Tampa Bay.
But one night recently he had an experience that’s far too familiar to many black men.
He was driving with a friend visiting from out of town. They had gone to International Plaza and were on their way to Tampa’s SoHo district when Campbell was pulled over by a police officer.
The officer asked Campbell if he had been drinking, and Campbell said he had one beer. He passed a field sobriety test and there were no problems with his license or registration. As Campbell turned to leave, he chastised himself for getting into the situation.
“As I did, the police officer essentially bum-rushed me, chest-butted me, spit in my face, pointed his finger several inches from my nose, and was yelling at me at the top of his lungs, saying, ‘What did you say? What did you say?’
“I had to figure out how I could deescalate that situation pretty quickly and I said, ‘Officer I was merely castigating myself for getting myself into this situation.’
“He cocked his head and said ‘What?’ I repeated myself, and he said, ‘Oh OK, get out of here.’
“I would say that your natural reaction when someone rushes into your face would be to push away and step back. I knew that I could not react in a normal fashion because clearly I had a lot to lose.
“I tell that story and most people are shocked and ask me, did you report the incident? I have to chuckle at those suggestions because we simply don’t do that,” Campbell said.
Campbell said he decided to tell his story after Brian Butler, CEO of Vistra Communications, wrote a column in the Tampa Bay Times in late May, in which Butler described his own experiences of being stopped for driving while black or being followed while shopping in stores.