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Service & Impact
November 1, 2023

Still So Far To Go

Written by: Eric Smith

The last year’s events call us to a renewed commitment to transformative action.

As difficult as 2020 was for so many people, in so many ways, we need to acknowledge at least one uncomfortable positive from the year—that it served as something of both a wake-up call and a challenge in regards to African Americans in leadership.

The COVID-19 crisis and its disproportionate impact on the Black community in terms of both health and economics, together with the racial and social injustice that rocked the nation, unmasked a number of serious underlying issues that need to be addressed.

I think that, in some ways, we had allowed ourselves to believe that we had come further in regards to racial issues than we actually had and maybe allowed a measure of complacency to set in. After all, we had seen so much progress—like the civil rights advances, our first African American president and the ability for people of color to move into communities from which they would previously have been excluded.

Eric S. Smith's Photo

“There is still much more to be done to make sure that we reach true equity and economic justice and equality for all.”

A NEW COMMITMENT

All of this means that we find ourselves at a crossroads, needing to address several pervasive challenges. Having been raised to believe that to whom much is given, much is required, I see this as a time for African Americans in leadership in business and the civic arena to consider anew how we might be part of the solution. It means really rising to the occasion and using this important moment in time to elevate our voices for good and for transformative change.

A number of companies have stepped up and made public statements around their support for racial and social equality, and that is welcome. However, we need to be sure that we go beyond just words, and that we translate that commitment into practices. That will mean looking at and changing some of the ways we do business and some of the ways that we’re serving.

At my bank, I have been tasked with leading an initiative called BMO Empower, which includes a $5 billion commitment over five years to support increased lending and direct investment for Black and Latinx businesses. It will also provide investment for community development types of projects—think affordable housing or neighborhood revitalization. It’s a way to help really drive inclusive economic recovery.

During the pandemic, many of those minority-owned small businesses simply did not have the savings and the resources set aside to survive. That requires a targeted effort to ensure that we don’t wake up a few months from now and find that more of our small businesses, Black and Latino, have been shuttered.

Another key part of the $5 billion initiative will be that we are really going to bolster our effort around supplier diversity. We plan to spend between $300 and $400 million a year on supporting minority- and women-owned businesses that are part of our supply chain.

Being part of creating a more level playing field as leaders isn’t just about our business practices. It also means looking at our hiring practices, from entry-level positions all the way up to the corporate boardroom. Thankfully, we are seeing a much bigger focus around ensuring diversity, whether of race or gender.

Certainly, things are better than when I was starting out. My first position at a bank was in the public finance area, where there were quotas around diversity; when a municipality or a state entertained bids, they would always ask about how diverse the team was. However, minority candidates did not get to interview for openings in the bank’s corporate division because diversity was not a requirement there. The industry was still predominantly white, male, and upper-class.

Eric S. Smith's Photo

“It’s still true that you will have to be twice as good as your white counterparts to get ahead.”

A NEW GENERATION

Despite the advances since my early days, more yet needs to be done. People are recognizing that we still have to break through the glass ceiling in a way that also shatters the stereotypes and prejudices that have held us back. I believe we had become a little complacent about that, not recognizing that there wasn’t enough diversity. Now we have been reminded that this isn’t a time to sit by and be idle.

Having said all that, I am encouraged as I look to the future. I’m encouraged that we are addressing and acknowledging some of these important issues, and I am encouraged by the fact that we have a new generation of young leaders who are elevating their voices in a way that we have not historically seen. They are a very diverse group coming together to say, “We are going to promote change in a way that will be different from what we’ve seen in the past.”

To those new Black leaders, my advice would be to follow your passion. Focus on self-awareness and know your strengths and your areas of development. Look for opportunities to be a change agent.

Sadly, it’s still true that you will have to be twice as good as your white counterparts to get ahead.

I didn’t have anyone in my family who was a banker or who understood the world of finance when I was starting out, so that meant charting a course for myself and starting a career on Wall Street in New York. I learned that you had to excel at whatever you were doing in a way that distinguished you from your counterparts while not coming across as arrogant but as someone of high integrity who worked hard to earn what they deserved.

Although I didn’t have anyone to point the way for me, I did have someone who helped prepare me for what I would face. My mother was a school teacher, the first in our family to attend college. I had something of a tumultuous childhood because my father was an alcoholic and a drug user, and physically abusive to my mother. He was not a good role model, while my mom was a hard worker, and she presented me with other options. She and my grandmother instilled in me the value of hard work and perseverance and focusing on education.

Both my personal experience and my observation encourage me to believe that we have a resilient country, and we are resilient people, and that we will come through all this better and stronger.

Eric S. Smith is Vice Chair of BMO Harris Bank in Chicago, where he previously held senior positions with Fifth Third Bank and JPMorgan Chase. Currently Chairman of the Board for the Chicago Urban League, he is active with a wide range of civic and community organizations.