The value of a diverse workforce has been well-documented, eliciting unique viewpoints and perspectives for companies, which in turn can generate higher revenue, more innovation, better decision making, and improved performance. In particular, a racially diverse workforce offers further benefits to corporate organizations.

In a panel discussion during the Women in Retail Leadership Days event last month, five Black women retail leaders detailed their career experiences, both positive and negative; how their personal and professional environments have changed to be more inclusive; what their organizations are doing to enact real, positive change when it comes to diversity and inclusion (D&I); and what work still needs to be done in this arena.

The panelists included Sharonda Weatherspoon, senior vice president, stores, and co-chair for diversity and inclusion, Ralph Lauren; Samara Tuchband, vice president, merchandising, and chairman, diversity and inclusion, Crate and Barrel; Bahja Johnson, director of customer belonging, and co-founder, Color Proud Council, Gap Inc.; Shawn R. Outler, chief diversity officer, Macy’s, Inc.; and Sonia Williams, senior vice president, general manager, strategic accounts, Synchrony. The discussion was moderated by Denise Kramp, senior client partner, North America, retail sector leader, Korn Ferry.

Here are some of the highlights from the open and honest conversation.

Personal and Professional Environments Becoming More Inclusive

Bahja Johnson: “2020 has shown us, both in our personal and professional spaces, that while we have done great work, there is still so much work for us to dive into. In both spaces, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that the work starts with us.

“While previously we’ve all been in spaces where we have all tried so hard to make others feel comfortable with our other, now I think the conversation has shifted so that it is our privilege to be able to share how this affects us and how it affects everything we do. We don’t stop being Black women when we step into work. We don’t get to stop doing that. We don’t get to not have our skin speak for ourselves. That is what I personally have been leading with. I think in doing that you invite different conversations where people feel like race might have been a taboo topic around the dinner table, it now is the dinner table conversation. It then brings in more inclusive language, more inclusive points of view, it allows those words that we felt we could not say — race, Black … when you’re talking about diversity and you mean Black, just say Black. You can now do that in a way that feels commonplace. If we don’t get to do that, then we don’t get to actually move the needle forward.

“Professionally, now I’m on our company’s diversity and inclusion or equality and belonging team, really marrying the fact that customer belonging means ensuring that every single person, no matter who they are or what they look like, feels welcome in our clothes, in our stores, online. The two are together; they’re interlinked because inclusion is part of the winning business strategy. It is not a sidebar or coming after we figure the business out. That’s the most important pivot at work — even in trying to marry the two together, that work still started with a personal acknowledgement from every leader and team and place to say that inclusion — and not just diversity — means that it is standard practice for us to change how we do, what we do to make sure that all voices are part of the narrative.”

Actions That Need to Be Taken

Shawn R. Outler: “At Macy’s, we know that our customer base is extremely diverse. Our colleagues reflect that diversity, but there’s still more work to be done at the senior level. So we’re digging deeper and driving further in thinking about that and setting goals against it. We’ve developed and published clear diversity and inclusion goals and KPIs. And we’ve made a public statement, just like many others, to be an anti-racist company.

“This is where the real work begins as we dissect, examine, and reconfigure every aspect of our business. It needs to be embedded into thee overall business strategy. Looking at things through a D&I lens as it relates to our colleagues, our customers, our suppliers, our marketing, and the communities we serve is what this time calls for. It’s really about companies thinking not only about their internal role in how they create systemic change within the organization, but also about what do they do externally. How you impact policy change will be one of the callouts and one of the things that this movement is calling us all to look at and think differently about as we move forward.”

Building Supportive Relationships to Advance D&I Efforts

Sharonda Weatherspoon: “When I think about some of the things that we are doing at our company that I do think are working, we first created a forum for people to just talk, express themselves, and listen. We had a series of roundtables following the murder of George Floyd that really allowed people to listen, to understand, and take in. Everyone had their own way that they were feeling about the situation, and we gave them time to express that. Those roundtables and doing that listening journey was very helpful to get it out. For people that might have sat right next to each other before we found ourselves in this pandemic, they really were shocked in some ways that people they knew and could put a face to could actually have faced such things that were so horrific in their own personal lives — them and their families.

“Some of the other things that we were able to do — and we’ve always had a diversity and inclusion team — is to create a Black advisory council. That Black advisory council is going to shape some of the work that we do in diversity and inclusion. We broke it up into three pillars: company, community, and society. We really felt strongly that in order for people to bring their whole selves to work, they needed more than us to just talk about it within our organization. We also had to identify what is our responsibility to the communities that we operate in, to the communities that look like many of the people that work for us and with us. And also, what are we doing from a society standpoint to make the world a better place? We’ve been very lucky that our leadership has been very supportive of a lot of these actions. I do think that if we’re really talking about creating cultural change, it has to start with the leaders from within.

“If we’re going to end racism, it won’t just be Black folks doing it on there own. We’re going to need the help of everyone. That’s something we’ve spent a lot of time talking about — how can you be an ally, how can you be an advocate.”

Sustaining Confidence in Spite of Setbacks

Samara Tuchband: “For many of us that were coming out with company statements back with George Floyd about what our intentions were, what we were planning to do, we talked about listening and learning. In these times of setbacks, the importance of getting right back out there with your voice. And more importantly for our associates, putting a face to theirs and saying, ‘I see you.’ And here we are again, unfortunately, but remember what we committed to do. Trying to reaffirm that we have to have a resolve to continue to do this work. It’s not a one-and-done. And we don’t want our message to be a one-and-done.

“The implementation of tools, resources, and again continuing to fostering that dialog internally, we created resource and discussion guides, shared media and authors that we wanted our associates to have at their disposal to be able to learn in a way which they wanted to consume information was really important. Those resources and tools are needed again. Being topical, timely, and consistent with where the brand shows up in these moments is the best reaffirming thing you can do to continue to keep that motivation top of mind.”