The last eighteen months have seen a slew of commitments from corporate America to play its part in addressing the impact of the country’s racial injustices. For many companies, that’s looked like diversifying their own ranks, changing their core products and services, or disclosing workforce demographics. But, corporations’ influence outside the workplace, specifically within the communities they serve, has also been a critical component of these efforts.
In a survey JUST Capital conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll, 90% of Black Americans and 78% of Americans overall polled said they believe it is important for large companies to advance racial equity by supporting their local communities through sourcing products or services from minority-owned businesses and donating to schools and/or scholarship programs. The Corporate Racial Equity Alliance, a coalition of organizations including JUST that supports the evolution of antiracist, equitable corporations, developed the CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity, which also reflects the public’s sentiment, including community investment as one of three key pillars for corporate leaders to consider in their racial equity strategies.
How companies meaningfully contribute to their communities, however, goes beyond just one-off philanthropic donations or partnerships. To explore what productive and sustainable community investment should look like for companies, we sat down with Newark, New Jersey-based business leaders, including Vaughn Crowe, Managing Partner at Newark Venture Partners (NVP), Chisa Egbelu, Cofounder of PeduL, and Abhinav Mathur, SVP of Global Center for Urban Development at Audible. In a conversation moderated by JUST’s Director of Corporate Equity, Ashley Marchand Orme, and introduced by FSG Associate Director, Kendra Berenson, Crowe, Egbelu, and Mathur each emphasized the opportunity that exists in investing locally – both for communities themselves and for business.
Mathur shared that Audible’s investments in Newark, which include paid internships for local high school and college students, returnships for residents looking to reenter the workforce, and a program to incentivize its employees to live locally, had generated a total of $775 million in economic activity for the city as of 2019. To him, Audible’s focus on creating programs, and deploying its employees and resources to these efforts, instead of charitable giving, has been key to strengthening the community and the company. He raised Audible’s work on Newark Working Kitchens as an example, helping engage employees while keeping local, minority-owned restaurants running and feeding the city’s most vulnerable residents throughout the pandemic.
In his role at the helm of a venture fund started by Audible founder Don Katz, Crowe made the point that implicit biases may stop some corporate or other investors from seeing the opportunity that exists in funding founders of color. To him, companies and communities are losing out on massive economic opportunity as small percentages of venture funding go to women and/or founders of color. Crowe noted that NVP recently closed its second fund at $88 million, doubling its first and, showing that more investors are recognizing that backing diverse founders and investing in Newark as a business hub can generate above-market returns.
Egbelu also raised that companies should be forward-looking in their work to invest in communities. At PeduL, a platform for employers to provide scholarships to students of color for internship and entry-level opportunities, he works with Gen Z every day and sees that this group isn’t willing to work somewhere where impact isn’t a key part of corporate strategy. “What is understood now, and what is going to be even more understood as this workforce continues to grow, continues to see Gen Z’s involvement, is that there’s always something to be done to build your bottom line that can make the world a better place,” he said.
To Egbelu, companies that risk waiting for the “perfect” time to invest in their communities risk waiting for a point where it’s too late for them to see real opportunity. “To be at the forefront of what is right, you cannot be a follower. You have to be courageous in what you do,” he said. “You can’t live your entire thesis on ‘I’m going to invest if this brand name fund or this brand name company is involved.’ If you are not courageous, you will be left behind.”
Watch the full conversation below.
For more on how companies can help advance racial equity through community investment, check out the following JUST and Corporate Racial Equity Alliance resources: