Diversity, equality and justice are at the forefront of many people's minds these days in the wake of several deaths in the Black community.
Businesses like Dow Inc. have jumped headfirst into the conversation, both internally and publicly. As chief inclusion officer and chief human resource officer at Dow, Karen Carter is out front alongside her CEO creating policy, fostering discussion and measuring their actions.
Carter spoke with Plastics News Publisher Brennan Lafferty to discuss her role during this tumultuous time in America and some of her personal views as a Black woman, executive and grandmother.
What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. The full interview is available at www.plasticsnews.com/audio as part of the "What Keeps You Up At Night?" podcast.
Q: You've been with Dow more than 20 years. You've had some pretty impressive roles: vice president of packaging, specialty plastics. You led a global marketing team. How does your previous work inform what you're doing today?
Carter: Well, thanks for that question because people would probably be surprised to know I was actually on the business side for the majority of my career. I've actually been at Dow for more than 25 years. I lived in Shanghai and had the pleasure of leading the Asia-Pacific team serving the construction industry. Before assuming the chief inclusion officer role, I led the packaging, specialty plastics business in North America. As a commercial vice president, my focus was on helping the company prosper and thrive. In order to do that, I always focused on people.
A quick story about when I got the call to become the chief inclusion officer. I was in my dream job. I was living in Houston. I was in the plastics business. I love that part of the company. It's where I grew up. Our CEO at the time, Andrew Liveris, he was pretty much in legacy mode and thinking about the things that we really need to do to improve, and diversity was one of them. When I got the call and he asked me to be the chief inclusion officer, I really hesitated for a moment. I've been working on and with people my entire career as a passion. I really wondered if we were serious.
But I said yes. I haven't looked back. It was one of the best decisions that I made. Now I am the chief inclusion and chief human resources officer. I have a seat at the table where we are making strategic decisions for our company related to both business and to people. I still see my role as a business leader because I'm still charged with helping the company. I just do it now through the lens of our people. And the beauty is I get to wake up and work in my passion every day.
Q: Diversity and inclusion departments are common at major corporations like Dow. Not so much at small or medium-sized plastics firms. Why is diversity important in a workforce?
Carter: At Dow, we look at both inclusion and diversity as a business imperative. The data is clear. The fact is companies with more diverse workforces and inclusive cultures, they retain their employees longer, they grow faster, and they perform better.
Our CEO Jim Fitterling often says that inclusion and diversity is not only the right thing to do, but it's also the smart thing to do.
Just a couple of quick stats from McKinsey that a lot of people know about: More diverse companies show an 80 percent improvement in their business performance. Their sales revenues increased by 3-9 percent and they have 48 percent higher earnings. That's what is referred to as the diversity dividend.
You can have diversity, which is a collection of unique differences. But you can't capitalize on those unique differences — in other words, get that diversity dividend — without a culture and environment that embraces and values those differences. That's what we mean by inclusion.
At Dow, we're approaching this just like any other business imperative. We have a comprehensive global strategy. We have a governance structure that starts with our CEO that cascades down and across the organization. We're committed to unbiased talent recruitment and development through inclusive practices. We're connecting with our communities and external partners. We're integrating this into our brand and reputation efforts, expanding and diversifying our supplier network. And we're also committed to delivering a best-in-class customer experience that's enabled by a best-in-class employee experience because, of course, customers are the very reason we exist.
Q: Jim Fitterling recently released two statements on race equality and justice. What did that mean to you and to the team at Dow?
Carter: The recent events in the U.S., for me, have been personal. Of course, I represent Dow, but I also happen to be a woman of color. I also happen to be a Black woman. And to be frank, if I think about the emotions, for me, I would explain them as exhausting and frustrating, because these issues are just becoming far too many and far too often and far too familiar. So, to have my CEO stand up and step forward and speak out, and also commit to action, admit that he sees me. And he sees every other African American that works in Dow. But it also means that we matter.
As a matter of fact, the blog that you referenced, it was titled, "You Matter. Let's Take Action." It was a call to the allies, but it was also a call to act and one of the lines that spoke to me the most was what he said, "There's a lot of work to do here to overcome hundreds of years of systemic oppression. But I am committed to helping Team Dow to find a way." I love that line because it's an admission of how history has, in part, influenced the current state. But it also provides hope that we can find a way to a better future.
So, the first thing we did at Dow was host a virtual conversation with our entire executive leadership team and also with our Black employees in the United States and their allies inside of our Global African Affinity Network. More than 1,100 of our colleagues dialed in to participate in that courageous dialogue on race and racism. I've got to tell you that conversation was honest, it was authentic, at times it was emotional, but it also unleashed a surge of conversation around a topic, quite frankly, that's usually not talked about in corporate America. Our goal was to listen and understand where people are so that we can define actions that will drive real and meaningful change inside and outside of our company.
Q: We're recording this discussion on June 18. Tomorrow is Juneteenth, which is not a national holiday. It's not a national day of remembrance. Some companies are beginning to recognize the holiday. Can you speak to the importance of this for diversity and inclusion if the U.S. were to make this a national holiday?
Carter: To acknowledge Juneteenth is to acknowledge the end of slavery. And to acknowledge the end of slavery is to acknowledge that slavery ever existed at all. In many ways, it feels like the U.S. wants to forget that painful part of our history. It is a part of all of our history. So, by acknowledging this issue, that's its part of our history, I absolutely believe that we take the first step in healing. So, I'm proud and glad that this very important day is starting to elevate as something as important as potentially a national holiday.
Q: I'm sure some well-meaning people are bound to put their foot in their mouth in a work setting, whether they're talking to a customer or they're talking to a buddy a couple cubicles over. Do you have any advice for how to handle these conversations in the work environment?
Carter: It's not just up to the Black community to fight racial injustice. Whether we're talking in the workplace or in society, we absolutely need everyone, including those who may never personally experience racism. So, when we address the issues of discrimination, bias and hate, we actually address it for everyone.
Allies to the Black community play a critical role. They must move beyond their discomfort and fear by first listening and learning, but ultimately taking action. Allies have to start to use their voices and start a dialogue with their coworkers, especially those who don't look like they do, and speak up when they are aware of acts of injustice or inequity. Have a dialogue with your friends. Have a dialogue with your family. Start small.
When you hear that joke that might be a bit off color, do you say something? I know it can be uncomfortable, but we have to do it. We can no longer be observers. We can't be silent. And it's not just enough to say, 'I'm not a racist.' You have to be an anti-racist, which means you have to take action.
There are some great resources out there to help with these discussions. One of my favorites is a tool on Catalyst.org called "Conversation Roadblocks And How to Surmount Them." Just start to have the conversation because all of us have to do our part to accelerate change.
Q: What does keep you up at night?
Carter: I have a new granddaughter. Because of COVID-19, I wasn't able to hold her for the first month or so. But I was able to hold her recently. As I was holding her, I was thinking about all the promise that her future holds. But I was also reminded of the things that my mother told me when I was a little girl. Things like, "You have to work twice as hard because you're Black and you're a woman." Things like, "You have to be great just to be considered good because you're Black and you're a woman."
My mom wasn't being paranoid; she just understood the world that I would have to live in and compete at. She also understood that opportunity wouldn't necessarily be equal for me. I wonder if I'm going to have to tell my granddaughter the same things that my mom told me, and that is what keeps me up at night.
I wonder if I'm doing enough to ensure that the world will be different for her. I'm wondering if I'm doing enough to make sure that the world will be better for her. The news cycle is going to move on at some point. But we can't let this moment pass. This moment where it feels we have a real chance for change this time because it's just too important. We have to do everything that we can right now to make a difference. Yes, for my granddaughter, but also for everyone.