Retail’s role in advancing economic opportunity, equity and inclusion

NRF 2022: OneTen co-founder Ken Chenault on the power to lead and enact change for good
Peter Johnston
NRF Contributor

At NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show, Ken Chenault, chairman and managing director of venture capital firm General Catalyst, gave a presentation entitled “The Evolving Role of Business in Society.” The session was introduced by Colleen Taylor, president for merchant services U.S. for American Express.

In introducing Chenault, Taylor noted that he formerly served as CEO and chairman of American Express. “Ken Chenault understands very well how to lead in a crisis,” she said. “He was head of AmEx on September 11, when the twin towers fell not far from our offices, and also led the company through the market collapse of 2008.”

Since then, he has turned his attention to other major problems. In 2020, along with Ken Frazier, former chairman and CEO of Merck, and Ginni Rometty, former chairman and CEO of IBM, Chenault co-founded OneTen, a coalition of leading executives committed to upskilling and advancing 1 million Black Americans over the next 10 years into careers offering opportunities for advancement.

NRF 2022 On Demand

Take a look at the NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show event recap.

Joining him, and participating in the conversation, was Maurice Jones, CEO of OneTen. “I’d like to start with a question,” Jones said. “What led you to start OneTen?”

“A day after the murder of George Floyd,” said Chenault, “Ken Frazier, the former CEO of Merck, and I were asking each other, ‘What can we do that would have an impact?’ When we looked at the issue of economic opportunities for Black Americans — especially Black Americans without a four-year college degree — we decided we needed to dramatically transform the opportunity situation.”

The first thing the founders did was to require a significant commitment from participating companies. “Training and upskilling are at the core of it,” Jones said. “What we’re really doing is building an ecosystem. We’re starting with companies — retailers, for example — and making sure they’re putting jobs on the table. Jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, and that don’t require a four-year college degree.”

That led to a brisk discussion of prevailing practices in hiring, job descriptions and educational requirements: practices that both men agreed need to change. In the United States, Jones pointed out, a family-sustaining salary is now about $66,000 per year. And 86 percent of such jobs, at least on paper, require a four-year degree. For that matter, he added, 71 percent of jobs that pay $40,000 and up require a four-year degree.

“So we said to each other,” Jones said, “let’s remove a systemic barrier to earning your way into the middle class. Seventy-nine percent of black talent does not have a four-year degree. For that matter, two-thirds of all talent don’t have it.”

Acknowledging this point, Chenault noted that the focus of OneTen is on Black talent. Employers need to focus on the entire universe, but there clearly needs to be a focus on different diverse groups. Re-credentialing jobs, however, will benefit everyone.

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The conversation then turned to corporate diversity campaigns. “Progress on diversity and inclusion, in many companies, has not been what it should be,” Chenault said. “It’s complicated to implement, and it requires persistence and creativity. It also requires a clear understanding that DI is core to the mission and culture of the company. If you’re a retailer, your company needs to be more reflective of its customer base.

“Don’t use DI as a sideline,” he added. “Integrate it into all procedures of the business.” When he says, “all procedures,” he clearly means it. “At American Express,” he said, “we tied metrics and outcomes into compensation. Too often you see a mixed commitment to DI in leadership. As a senior leader you can’t tolerate that, any more than you would tolerate a mixed commitment to your business objectives.”

“We’re seeing that in leaders in our coalition,” Jones said. “The CEOs are getting across to their people that this is important.” For example, he noted, the objective of OneTen is to advance 1 million Black Americans over 10 years. “In our first year, among 110 companies, we’ve had 26,000 new hires and 4,000 promotions.”

It is, they agreed, a good start toward an important objective.

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