America has made little progress in closing the wealth gap. After slavery was abolished in the 1860s, Black Americans held only 0.5% of all wealth in the country. By 2017, that number had grown to only 1%. It’s no secret that the top 20% of wealthiest Americans hold more than 80% of the country’s wealth.
Bold efforts to close the gap are overdue, and many corporations are stepping up and accelerating progress. For example, companies within the financial sector are confronting bias and disparity within their organization and society. Now, leaders like Reggie Willis — an executive with 20 years of experience in finance and insurance — are addressing shortcomings for underserved and under-banked populations.
“COVID-19 has put a magnifying glass on a lot of the disparities that we have in our country,” Willis says. “It has shined that light and allowed us to be more aware of where we have opportunity to grow and develop, not just as companies, but as a society.”
Willis, who now serves as Chief Diversity Officer at Ally Financial — a leading digital financial services company — has both an understanding of the industry landscape and a vision for advancing diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the financial sector. He is leading the charge on Ally Financial’s D&I efforts — both internal and external — which is why we spoke with him about how he fosters inclusion among employees and facilitates actionable application of the company’s D&I principles.
Converting conversations to action
Ally Financial’s leadership is vocal about this commitment to D&I; in 2017, the company joined CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion (CEO Action), a coalition of more than 1,400 CEOs — representing more than 13 million employees — who have pledged to address the ongoing inclusion needs of their people and communities. Willis, who sits on CEO Action’s Take on Race subcommittee, sees the coalition as an important catalyst of future corporate D&I work. “The notion of corporations now having a voice and role in societal issues is going to be one of the keys to moving forward,” he says.
And though it’s important for leadership to affirm their commitment to D&I, the actions they take to foster inclusion within the company are far more impactful. “Conversations are great to build a foundation, but they get real thin real fast if you don’t take action,” adds Willis.
Ally Financial began an open forum conversation series called “Let’s Talk About It” in order to make sure that employees from every level of the company had a safe space to explore, understand and appreciate differences. Since its launch in 2018, the program has engaged thousands of employees, creating a platform for them to share and discuss their personal experiences with each other. Even in the wake of COVID-19, the program continues remotely. In June of this year, the conversations facilitated by Let’s Talk About It engaged 4,000 of Ally’s more than 9,000 employees, which is a level of engagement that Willis credits to the new realities of working from home.
Willis recalls a particularly meaningful conversation between two of the company’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). “A recent conversation led by our generational ERG and our Black/African-American ERG discussed generational poverty, and in particular, how it adversely impacts the Black community,” Willis says. “Being able to invite both ERGs to explore the topic together on a call with 300 employees was profoundly powerful.”
Focusing on equity
Willis emphasized that Ally Financial’s D&I work doesn’t stop with conversation. The company is taking action by engaging the communities in which it does business, with a focus on building community relationships that further the company’s philanthropic focus on economic mobility.
One of the key ways to build economic mobility and generational wealth is through entrepreneurship. COVID-19 and civil unrest this year have disproportionately affected Black and brown small business owners. To assist these businesses, Ally recently launched the Ally Charitable Foundation pledging $30 million in grants over 3 years, $400,000 of which are dedicated to helping Black and brown small businesses get back on their feet in the Twin Cities and Little Rock, Ark., two regions in which Ally has operations.
Ally also is working to strengthen school-to-work pipelines. For the second year in a row, Ally joined forces with entertainer and entrepreneur Big Sean’s Sean Anderson Foundation and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to create the Moguls in the Making competition with the goal of identifying and supporting a rising generation of Black business leaders – and growing a diverse pipeline of talent for Ally. In 2019, 16 of the 50 Moguls participants joined Ally as interns and six have joined as full-time employees.
“We understand that being inclusive — by bringing diversity and difference into our organization — is only going to make us better,” Willis says. “We are very focused on how we create a pipeline of talented students that will hopefully stay and grow into future leaders of our business.”
Making an impact
With economic empowerment at top of mind, Ally Financial works to advance equity by providing access to digital enablement tools. “From a product perspective, it’s great to share knowledge about economic mobility and financial literacy, but now is a time for us to figure out how we provide people the vehicles to achieve it,” Willis says.
Willis believes that one of the company’s responsibilities as a corporate citizen of the financial sector is to bring equity to the marketplace and help close the wealth gap. That goal requires re-evaluating Ally Financial products and how those products reach to Black and Brown customers, as well identifying new ways to reach under-banked populations.
“For me, the notion of intent versus impact is important,” he says. “Your intentions can be great, but if they don’t touch the people that you want them to in a tangible way then your intent doesn’t matter. We view action through the lens of impact, how our actions affect the people we intend to provide resources to, give access to and provide services to.”
PwC’s new series, Why I Act, produced in association with the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion™, highlights the many ways companies and their leaders are affecting change for a more diverse, inclusive and better future. With more than 1,400 CEOs that have taken the pledge, CEO Action is the largest CEO-led business coalition focused on advancing diversity and inclusion in the U.S. To learn more, visit CEOAction.com.
This article was paid for by PwC and co-created by RYOT Studio. HuffPost editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.