If the business world feels different, it should.
If the conversations in board rooms and conference rooms are uncomfortable and honest, if they involve the stories and the perspectives of all employees, they should.
That, Carla Walker-Miller said, is the sign that change is happening.
"The last five months of our lives have really been disorienting," she said during a keynote presentation that was part of the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars in August. "As an American, as a Black woman, as a mother, as a human, as a Detroiter — I, like so many Americans, I am feeling emotionally raw, disquieted and unsettled right now."
That's because America shifted this summer. The death of George Floyd was a flashpoint for the country and for many of its citizens, millions of whom took to the streets to protest. They shouted and chanted together, marched, carried homemade signs and held their fists in the air — all to deliver a single, unified message: Black lives matter.
This time, corporate America heard.
Dozens of companies and organizations released statements acknowledging that their businesses and society had fallen short when it comes to race. Many vowed to do better and start conversations to find out how.
"This, right now, is what disruption feels like to those who are being disrupted. Because today — in every home, in every business, in every playground — we are experiencing transformational change. Our collective reality has changed in the space of a few short months and we have never seen anything like it," Walker-Miller said.
"We are being called upon — we are being challenged — to look at our own organizations, our own boards, our own C Suites [and] departments, our own actions and our choices and say, 'Yes this is normal, this is how it has been, but is this right? Is this fair? Is this equitable? Is this just?' And the biggest change — the tectonic shift — is the recognition … that this racial justice conversation is a business conversation."
Walker-Miller is the founder and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services LLC, a Detroit-based company that performs home energy assessments to identify energy saving opportunities. The business, founded in 2000, represents a landmark on an unexpected professional journey.
"I am not an entrepreneur by choice," Walker-Miller said. "My goal was always to have a corporate career. And as I entered my corporate career as a degreed engineer in the body of a Black woman decades ago, I didn't have the context to realize that there were additional unwritten responsibilities that were required in order for me to be successful. And those responsibilities should have been written because they still exit today.
"Because no matter how hard I worked, I didn't have the context to understand that part of my success depended upon the strategic imperative that I behave as if I was OK. That I behave as if I was treated fairly every day, and that I learn to push through as if daily injustices of being an engineer in a technical environment did not exist.
"From unconscious and unintended bias to plain old sexism and racism, part of my job was to pretend that those things were not real," she said. "So upon hire, unknowingly, I became subject to an unspoken deal with corporate America. That deal was that I would pretend that I have the same opportunity — the same compensation, the same opportunity for retention, reward and advancement — as every white, male engineer."
That, she added, was not the case. She remembers the day that a well-meaning HR representative slid under her office door a copy of the compensation tables that showed she made significantly less than her equally qualified white, male colleagues.
She went to her supervisors and a correction was made to her salary, but it stung knowing that she had to fight for the compensation that she deserved and, for so long, had been entitled to.
Today, at the helm of her own company, she draws on those experiences. She works to be sure that her employees are treated fairly, compensated fairly and are given every opportunity possible to thrive.
There are always ways to improve on these goals, she said. That is why in 2018 Walker-Miller Energy made some strategic and bold business decisions. Among them, the company:
• Instituted a $15 an hour minimum wage.
• Began recruiting only team members who embrace the company's culture of kindness.
• Incorporated second-chance policies that give those with criminal records fair opportunities for employment.
Offering opportunities to those who have been incarcerated and convicted of felony crimes forced Walker-Miller out of her comfort zone. But that was exactly the place she needed to be. It was where her company needed to go if it was going to make a difference in the community, stand up for the principles she believed were worth fighting for and serving as a leader for others.
"The complications of the criminal justice system and the over-policing of Black and brown people is just so clear," Walker-Miller said of the decision. "Our philosophy is, if I interview you, and on that first interview I am not interested in you based on the interview, whether you have been incarcerated or not is none of my business. Because I am not interested in you. So why do you have to disclose first off? Why do you have to feed into a bias I may already have by saying, 'Oh, by the way, I have been incarcerated.'
"[At Walker-Miller Energy] you have an opportunity to tell your story: 'Yes, I have a conviction, this is what happened.' And then I have an opportunity to choose you. And that is all that we are asking, that people who have served their sentences have opportunity."