Emory's John R. Lewis competition looks to spur racial justice

Emory Goizueta Business School MBA '21 Willie Sullivan and Emory Goizueta Business School MBA '22 Jasmine Burton join Yahoo Finance’s A Time For Change to discuss the John R. Lewis Case Competition and the drive for racial justice.

Video Transcript


ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Welcome to "A Time for Change." I'm Alexis Christoforous here with Marquise Francis. The business world is buzzing today about Larry Fink's annual letter which was released last night. In it, the head of BlackRock defends his ongoing focus on environmental, social, and governance issues, saying, quote, "stakeholder capitalism is not about politics. It is not woke, it is capitalism." Well, today, we are going to look at that same push for stakeholder capitalism, one at a large multinational company and at business schools.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: Let's start there with business schools, where there's been a revolution happening on campus all across the country with the new laser-focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Schools like Harvard and Wharton hiring new Chiefs of Diversity and Inclusion, or Emory's Goizueta Business School, offering its first ever concentration on DE&I.

This week, Emory is also hosting a racial justice case competition and the honor of the late Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, who famously challenged people to get in what he called good trouble. Here's a quick look.

JOHN LEWIS: As young people, you must understand that there are forces that want to take us back to another period. But you must say that we're not going back. We made too much progress and we're going forward. There may be some setbacks, some delays, some disappointment, but you must never, ever give up.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: Those words and that spirit are at the heart of the John R Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. The student-led program was started after the murder of George Floyd in the death of civil rights icon John Lewis, who spent 18 years in Congress representing the Georgia district that includes Atlanta, home to Emory.

The competition is now in its second year. This year, students from more than 40 universities from around the country have applied to work with companies on specific issues of racial inequality, like helping vaccine-maker Moderna design a program to boost diversity from entry to executive level, or working with Accenture to find ways to protect communities of color from digital predatory marketing. Winners of the competition receive monetary prizes up to $20,000, half to keep and half to donate to an organization of their choice that advances racial justice.

Let's bring in the founder of the John R Lewis Racial Justice Competition, Willie Sullivan, Goizueta MBA Class of 2021, plus current Goizueta student Jasmine Burton, who's co-director of the competition this year. So thank you both for joining me. Willie, I want to start with you, because you were a student two years ago when you dreamed up this competition, and now you're at Deloitte.

So now that you're in the real world, how do you see this competition? Do you see it as a driver of real change? Or do you see it more as an idealistic academic exercise?

WILLIE FRANKLIN: Thank you so much for having me and thank you for that wonderful question. I would say that being in the, quote, "real world" has opened my eyes to how important an initiative like this actually is. Many of the questions that the students are trying to answer for these major corporations are truly the kind of questions that they're trying to get answers to on the ground.

I see that here at Deloitte where I work, and also, because we're in professional services, thinking about other clients that we have trying to truly understand how to make a real difference in the areas of diversity, and specifically in the areas of equity and inclusion, which is where those conversations have really moved into. Getting people in the door is one thing, but getting people to feel included and feel as if they have an equitable place is where this conversation is going. And I think the competition is really hitting on that in a lot of ways.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: Yeah. I appreciate that point. It's one thing getting people in, but that equity, oftentimes, is seen through the money. So, obviously, this year, Yahoo Finance's an official media partner in the competition. But, Willie, sticking with you with one more follow-up, what are the other brands signed on to this competition? And what does their involvement actually look like?

WILLIE FRANKLIN: Yeah. So whenever we came up with the idea, the original idea was to make it a lot broader about solving systemic problems around race and racism. But we really zeroed in on corporations, because corporations were coming out and saying that they wanted to have a seat at the table and trying to deal with systemic racism, racial inequality, and racial equity.

And so the sponsors, both last year's sponsors as well as these, they are engaging-- people within their companies are engaging with the students to say, this is a problem that we have. For example, last year, a partner had a problem of wanting to understand as a multinational technology company, how can we play a role in racial equity? What does that even look like for us?

We've dedicated this amount of money we said we were going to give to this cause. We don't know how to spend it. So that's really where-- that's how the relationship with the companies is working. And it's really exciting to see that work come to life.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: Yeah. And we just saw a moment ago some of those companies that are sponsors-- UPS, Accenture, IBM on the screen. Jasmine, turning to you, as co-director this year, you signed up some also big companies. So what are the problems there looking to try to solve?

JASMINE BURTON: Hi, thanks so much for having me. Really grateful for this time and space to amplify the power of using business as a force for good, particularly in the fight for racial justice. So as Willie mentioned, we have MBA programs and organizations across the country that have been working to address challenges in industries like consulting, the food and beverage space, health care, technology, transportation, and logistics.

So through case prompts that each of the managing teams within each of the co-organizing schools, as noted on the screen, we have Yale, Rice, Emory, as well as Cornell and Howard as well, who've all worked together with these corporations to create meaningful problem statements that these finalists have been working over the past few weeks to research and really create meaningful solutions and recommendations for these companies. So we're really excited to see them present their recommendations based off of this intentional research later this week.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: And, Jasmine, do you mind sharing just a bit more insight on what these recommendations look like? Right now, they seem a bit far-fetched-- maybe not this year's, you know, I know there's some finals, but maybe some examples of last year. What are these cases? What do they actually look like?

JASMINE BURTON: Sure. So I think there's a number of different ways that these recommendations can come to light, whether that is kind of looking within the organization-- looking at how corporations are creating equitable and inclusive opportunities within their workforce, within their hiring, in their pipelines for development, but then also externally, the impact that the corporations are making sort of beyond that.

Last year, in the inaugural year, there was an opportunity for some MBA students to actually move into an internship opportunity to actually pursue some of the work that they had recommended for their corporate sponsors. And so, basically, it can come in different forms.

And it's actually really great to see that there are MBA students, there are undergrad students, there's also students from across different disciplines that applied and are interested in participating in the competition at large so that it is a really interdisciplinary solution. So it can look like a lot of different things.

Last year, we got to see the opportunity of an internship, a job opportunity emerging from the competition. And hopefully we're going to see some similar long-term, sustainable actions to bring these solutions to light this year as well.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: A job sounds like a great winning recipe. Willie, coming back to you, now that you are working, as I mentioned earlier, and you're actually on the ground floor of these companies, I'm curious, what are some of the challenges you're seeing on a day to day basis? We talked a little bit about that equity portion, but we also note countries around the world are dealing with these quote unquote "challenges," right?

And I think from a very simplistic standpoint it's like, hiring more people of color. But obviously, these challenges are a bit more nuanced. So what are you seeing on the ground floor as how to correct some of these challenges, but the challenges themselves?

WILLIE FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think one of the main challenges continues to be how to make the business case for diversity, or equity, or inclusion, to be really specific. For example, we're dealing with the great resignation at this time. We're dealing with labor shortages all across the economy. And one of the ways to address that-- address things like, for example, an airline pilot shortage or, like in this case competition, something that the students will be looking at is a shortage of truck drivers in the logistics industry.

Those things looked at through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion can have massive-- can have massive implications if people only were to look at those what are seen as more core business issues through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. You know, if we have a shortage of airline pilots and we know that the majority of airline pilots are the same race and the same gender, perhaps one way we can do that is to expand who we are looking at for pilots, and training, and all of those different aspects, which is what I think is happening on the ground floor to solve some of the world's largest core business problems.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: A lot of great work happening on the ground and a lot of great work ahead. Like I mentioned, Yahoo Finance is the official media partner of the competition. And you can watch that competition live on Friday on Yahoo Finance's YouTube channel. It starts streaming at 1:00 PM Eastern. And Willie Sullivan and Jasmine Burton of Emory's John R Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition, thank you both for joining us this afternoon.

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