Company chiefs join outrage at police killings of African-Americans

Protests over the police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed black men and women have spread to US boardrooms, prompting dozens of executives to express solidarity and vow to address inequalities in their companies. 

Business leaders have become less wary in recent years about speaking out on the country’s most divisive social issues, from immigration to gun control. Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has elicited an unusually broad and vocal response. 

Mark Mason, chief financial officer of Citigroup, used the bank’s blog to share Floyd’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — and to express the need for business leaders to confront systemic racism. 

“Even though I’m the CFO of a global bank, the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky are reminders of the dangers black Americans like me face in living our daily lives,” Mr Mason said, also referring to other recent cases. 

Wes Moore, chief executive of stock trading app Robinhood, said he too felt unsafe as a black man. “While I understand and share the calls for peace in this moment, where was George Floyd’s peace, and where is our collective pain supposed to go if there still is no justice?” he asked in a video posted on LinkedIn.

Across social media, the US’s disproportionately white group of company leaders pronounced themselves “allies” in the fight against inequality and declared that “black lives matter”.

Randy Garutti, chief executive of fast-food chain Shake Shack, said on Instagram that he was “fully aware of my station in life as a white leader” and the need to use his platform for change. 

The news website The Information reported that Snap chief executive Evan Spiegel had called for the creation of an American commission to address racial injustice and comprehensive tax reform, saying in a lengthy note to employees that he was “heartbroken and enraged” by racism in America.

“Economic inequality in America has reached levels unseen for nearly a century, people of colour cannot visit a grocery store or go for a jog without fear of being murdered without consequence, and put simply, the American experiment is failing,” Mr Spiegel said.

Some companies devoted their advertising resources to responding to the crisis, with Nike — whose usual slogan is “Just Do It” — distributing a video telling Americans: “For once, Don’t Do It. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.” 

Adidas broke with the two shoemakers’ usual rivalry by retweeting the ad with the words: “Together is how we make change.” 

Google, meanwhile, delayed a June 3 product launch event, saying “now is not the time to celebrate”. 

Several chief executives announced donations to groups fighting injustice, straying into topics — from racism to police brutality — that business usually shies away from. 

In a string of tweets, Slack chief executive Stewart Butterfield called for reforms to police training, lamenting cases of “outrageous initiation or escalation of violence” by some officers while highlighting others who joined peaceful protests. He said he would use Slack’s earnings call this week “to amplify black voices”. 

Rick Smith, chief executive and founder of Axon Enterprise, which sells Taser stun guns to police forces, expressed empathy for those angered by the “indefensible use of force” that led to Floyd’s death. 

“We will listen and continue to learn how we can be a part of fixing what is broken,” he said.

Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive of Uber, said the ride-hailing company stood in solidarity with the black community and with peaceful protesters. Uber would donate $1m to two groups working to make the US criminal justice system more equitable, he said. 

The Business Roundtable, a leading Washington lobby group, captured many executives’ concerns about the impact of the killings on their own staff from racial or ethnic minorities. 

“As the employers of more than 15m individuals of all backgrounds, whose diversity strengthens our institutions, Business Roundtable CEOs are deeply concerned about the racial bias that continues to plague our society,” it said. 

Kevin Johnson, Starbucks’ chief executive, said 2,000 employees had joined an online forum he called over the weekend “to make sense of what is happening in our society”. Two years ago, Mr Johnson put staff through anti-bias training after a manager called the police to remove two young black entrepreneurs from a coffee shop in Philadelphia.

Other business leaders resolved to strengthen their commitment to diversity and inclusion, with many companies facing pressure to explain why their senior ranks remained dominated by white men. 

Disney’s chairman, chief executive and chief diversity officer said the media group would strengthen its commitment to diversity and inclusion, exploring the underlying issues “for as long as it takes to bring about real change”.

Jim Fitterling, chairman and chief executive of Dow, said it aimed to be the world’s most inclusive materials science company. “I will be calling on our leadership team to ensure we are in fact doing all we can to effect change” to a culture created by “hundreds of years of systemic oppression”, he said. 

Few expressed their views in partisan terms, but Aaron Levie, chief executive of cloud storage company Box, blamed Donald Trump. 

“Our president has no ability to help this nation heal or chart a path forward. He’s spent years stoking tensions that helped amplify today’s pain,” Mr Levie wrote in a tweet. 

Paul Polman, former chief executive of consumer goods group Unilever, said business leaders “must take a lead role, not just because the injustice of race has corroded any semblance of a civil society, but because we must create a just and equitable economy”.

Erin Thomas, head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Upwork, told company leaders that tweets expressing solidarity and donations to public causes were “great”, but “please also know that they’re not sufficient for uplifting your black employees”.

Additional reporting by Laura Noonan in New York and Kadhim Shubber in Washington 

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