Five Takeaways From Monitor Live+ Racial Equity in Equipment Finance: Black Leaders Speak

On Tuesday Aug. 4, Monitor hosted a livestream focused on racial equity in the equipment finance industry. The event was intended to be a platform for conversation about the lack of Black representation, inclusion and advancement in the industry, with panelists providing knowledge and awareness regarding diversity and inclusion issues, as well as ways the industry can improve its environment to ensure greater success for all. 

“Monitor Live+ Racial Equity in Equipment Finance: Black Leaders Speak” was moderated by Emani Davis. Davis is the founder of The Omowale Project, a project designed to support organizations in addressing issues of race equity and diversity while reducing trauma and building resilience. Accompanying Davis were five African American industry leaders, including Eric McGriff, senior vice president and senior divisional credit officer at TIAA Bank; Sherry Lowe Johnson, U.S. director and senior counsel at Volvo Financial Services; Charles Hill Jr., HR business partnerat DLL; Gordon Scott, business development executive at Experian – Automotive Lender Group; and Thorb Towles, senior vice president and director of equipment management at BMO Harris Equipment Finance. 

Key Takeaways: 

  1. There needs to be more representation of African Americans in leadership positions. 

Johnson and Towles began the conversation by pointing out the lack of African American representation in the industry. However, this is nothing new for these industry veterans. Throughout Johnson’s 20-year career, she has become accustomed to being the first and/or only African American attorney in her firm. Towles also expressed his concern for the amount of Black people that are awarded promotions into leadership roles. 

“3% of all Fortune 500 companies have the leadership you are referring too,” Davis said, citing the research she had done in preparation for the event. 

McGriff explained the reason for the drop in numbers between entry level positions and leadership positions for Black professionals is a lack of inclusion and unconscious bias. 

Scott proposed a solution to the lack of representation, suggesting that companies bring more African Americans into the industry while setting them on a track to advance toward management and leadership roles. 

  1. The hiring process is where a change in representation happens. 

Hill Jr., having more than a decade of experience, constantly challenges hiring managers on whether they really need experience. He talked about how it is not a matter of “reinventing the wheel,” but rather looking outside the current pool of applicants and choosing someone that does not necessarily have experience in the industry. 

Johnson echoed this idea by saying that everyone in the equipment finance industry has been trained to do what they do — it is learned by everybody. 

“It would be helpful if we had African Americans that were a part of the hiring process,” Johnson said. “I could highlight things my white counterparts might have not seen, heard or considered, which goes along with unconscious bias.” 

Towles backed up his fellow panelists’ comments with a personal anecdote of someone in the industry taking a chance on him, an opportunity he says is not typically afforded to his Black peers. 

  1. There is a fine line when it comes to mentorship and sponsorship programs.  

Davis distinguished sponsorship from mentorship as being more action oriented or someone putting themselves on the line for another. 

McGriff has benefited from mentorship programs, but never in a formal program. McGriff is a big proponent of “formal career development planning.” An example of how this practice plays out is when a manager and employee sit down to discuss questions such as, “What are your career ambitions? What are the steps we have to take to get you to achieve that plan?” 

Johnson was in full support of programs that help open doors. She believes the relationship between a manager and employee has changed into a more collaborative one. In her own career, she has taken the opportunity to reach out to other African American attorneys in order to expose them to what she does in the industry and provide them with the connections they need to advance in their careers.  

On the other hand, Towles brought up the point that mentor programs can fail. He challenged the audience to consider why that happens and find more creative ways to provide support for people. Towles suggested that advancement for Black people in the industry is nearly impossible if they do not have an advocate in a senior leadership role. 

“We need to challenge those to stop doing what is easy and do what is right,” Towles said. 

  1. It takes far too much effort to advance in the industry. 

You have to be extraordinary to have a career that afforded you success being an African American in this industry,” Scott said. 

Scott said his force of will and persistence allowed him to find people that would help him in his career. However, he said it should not take as much effort as it took him to be afforded the opportunity to pursue his career. 

Hill Jr.’s experience in this industry was quite different from Scott’s, as he had a manager that served as both a mentor and coach for him. He was surrounded by leaders that took an interest in him and taught him through actions, books and names of organizations to get involved in. 

Towles wrapped up the topic by saying that African Americans in the industry should take ownership and approach company leaders. 

  1. Workplace culture can be exhausting. 

“I’m tired of being the only African American leader in the room,” Johnson said. “It takes so much energy to walk into a room and be the only one.” 

Johnson acknowledged this is an experience unique to her because she is a Black woman in an all-white environment. White people do not know what it is like to walk into a room where everyone looks and acts differently from them, Lowe Johnson said. Nor do they fear making a mistake at work and facing repercussions far greater than their other colleagues based on the color of their skin.   

Hill Jr. suggested that white members of the audience take the time to listen and build relationships with people that do not look like them.  

“It is common for white people to think we are asking for something to be given up. Focus on not what you have to give up but what is gained when you create spaces where people can bring their whole selves,” Davis said.

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