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Beyond Juneteenth: Corporate leaders must pave a path to economic justice

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My great-great-grandmother Addie Lynch was born on a plantation in the late 1800s. Her mother was born a slave. One of my most meaningful photographs is a picture of my great-great grandmother taken with my father in DeRidder, Louisiana, more than 60 years ago. I look at this photograph often, and I’m proud that my middle name, Addison, is in her honor.  

The photo serves as a personal reminder that it was not that long ago that members of my family were oppressed through the shackles of slavery. This picture is also a reminder of the importance of Juneteenth, a date of true independence for so many of my ancestors, including many who were slaves in the state of Texas. Juneteenth marks the day—June 19, 1865—when Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to bring the news of the Confederacy’s surrender, the end of the Civil War, and the end of slavery in America.  Nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, my ancestors, and millions of other African Americans, were set on a path toward independence and liberation on Juneteenth.   

My hometown is Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and growing up I was always keenly aware of the importance of Juneteenth, evident in celebrations and barbeques that took place in our community with friends and family. Later, as I got to college and then into my career, I discovered that most outside the African American community had not heard of Juneteenth or did not know much about it.

With all this history in mind, it was an emotional moment for me when I announced on a company all-hands video meeting for Cadre, the real estate investment technology company I co-founded and run, that I was making Juneteenth a permanent company holiday.  I showed my team the photo of my great-great-grandmother and urged them to take the day to learn more about Juneteenth and reflect on where things stand in America’s long march toward true equality. 

Juneteenth takes on a special meaning this year as calls for justice have intensified in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer who has since been charged with murder. I have spent most of my professional career staying relatively quiet about how race has impacted my life, because it is a deeply personal topic. But in the past few weeks, I’ve realized that my role provides me a platform to share my experiences, personalize the pain witnessed by so many, and be a voice for change. I recognize that now more than ever I must speak truth to power and help illuminate painful aspects of my personal, and our country’s collective, history. If more of us do so, perhaps we will be able to come together, grow from past inequities, and build a more perfect society and union.

We’re beginning to see communities come together in powerful ways, and corporate America is taking steps towards building more diverse companies and boards, while building greater transparency and accountability. Yet there is still much work to be done, and the big test we now must face is whether we can convert this outrage into enduring action. Systemic racism has plagued America for 400 years, and it would be naive to think it will be easy or simple to address. It’s also easy to say the right things when the spotlight is on, and much harder—and more important—to do the right things when the urgency of the moment has passed. 

In my view, the most important step we can take is to move from one-time, symbolic donations to sustained, structural investments in underserved communities. For too long, we’ve accepted a lack of diverse talent as an excuse for a lack of diversity in the workforce and on corporate boards. The talent pipeline is definitely a problem, but instead of shrugging, we must make it our job to fix the pipeline.  We need to ensure young people of color are exposed to internships that offer a host of opportunities for advancement, we need to create formal mentorship programs to provide hands-on guidance, and we need comprehensive skills-training programs that help people of all ages get a start in careers that will allow them to succeed in a fast-changing economy.  

Cadre CEO <a href="https://fortune.com/company/ryan/" target="_blank">Ryan</a> Williams
Ryan Williams.
Photo: Courtesy of Michael McWeeney

Some of these things are easier than others.  I can and will create stronger internship and mentorship programs within my company. We can and will develop programs to help people from underserved communities better understand how technology can help them invest in real estate, which has always been one of the biggest determinants of wealth in America.  We can and will invest in education and skills training in the communities where we work and serve. But we need collective action, in the private sector and between the public and private sectors, to scale up ideas like these.  

At a time when the pandemic and the terrible events in Minnesota, Louisville, Georgia, and elsewhere have laid bare the economic inequities that have always existed in our society, I choose to be hopeful that we will keep moving toward leveling the playing field and offering opportunities to all. I can’t help but think that taking a day to reflect on these values — and to renew our determination to work together for a common cause — would make my great-great-grandmother pretty proud.  

Ryan Williams is CEO of Cadre, a technology platform for investing in real estate.

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Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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