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Esther J. Cepeda Headshot

More Diversity in Workplace? Black Man in White House No Silver Bullet, But a Start

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Scores and scores of newspapers, magazines and TV clips are featuring interviews of minority families beaming that Barack Obama's history-changing race to the White House will change their children's lives and careers.

Yes! And, sadly, no.

There is absolutely no question about it. In the days since the elections I've had messages pouring in from literally all over the world, as well as from right here in Chicago, with the same message, like this one from Valarie King-Bailey a successful Chicago entrepreneur who's made history in her own right:

"I am receiving emails from all over the world breathing a sigh of relief. What this says to me is that 'we have overcome' as a nation. This does not solve all of our problems but I do think we need to all pause and reflect."

Obama's election to the highest office in the land is remarkable and joyous, but there is no shortage of really smart people reminding us we need to get our heads out of the clouds and see what kinds of lessons we can take from the history books to the board room.

In an email last week, Gloria Castillo, president of Chicago United--an organization that advocates for diversity in business--expressed to me her jubilation with Obama's win before lamenting, "His victory didn't suddenly erase the fact that high school graduation rates are frighteningly low in too many American communities. It didn't reverse the under representation of minorities at the highest levels of corporate leadership...and it didn't solve the disparity that has minority-owned businesses receiving less than 3 percent of all sales and receipts even though they own about 20 percent of all firms."

True enough. Although it did seem like it, the world didn't change completely overnight, but as Gloria waxed on about the state of diversity in Chicago business, she drew out some changes any corporation, small business, or non-profit can embrace.

"The Obama lesson for corporate directors and C.E.O.'s is that they must accept accountability for proactively seeking out executives of difference to unleash even greater innovation in their enterprises," Castillo said. "Once they institute true diversity and inclusion in their businesses, other leaders throughout the organizations must follow that lead and actively create an environment that fully engages the best qualified stakeholders--employees and suppliers included--regardless of ethnicity."

For me, that's the key: regardless of ethnicity. There are a whole lot of people out there that have already overlooked that Barack Obama specifically avoided running as "the first black president," he was all about being the best person for the job.

Castillo hit on this: "Obama himself regularly spoke of personal accountability. Translating that message in the corporate workplace, it means that executives of color can and should take control of their own advancement. For instance, those who aspire to greater leadership roles can chart their own paths by taking on stretch and rotational assignments, by understanding and maneuvering within their corporate culture."

Easier said than done, but--I hope--easier today than it was on November 3. What should be easy for the suits currently in executive roles--the sorts of roles that have the ability to shape their workplace's culture and business strategy--to learn is that the people of the United States have power. Regardless of demographics.

"[Obama's] appeal to voters from different ethnicities, generations and geographies was enriched by the diverse campaign team he assembled for their mix of experience and viewpoints," Castillo said. "His victory demonstrates that when we bring diverse thinking to the table, we all gain tremendous benefits and a competitive advantage. That's a striking reminder for corporate America."