Painful talks on race sometimes good for business, company finds

As thousands of Americans took to the streets in May to protest racial injustice, Courtney Raines met with Keith Schroeder, the CEO and founder of High Road Craft ice cream, and urged him to do something.

Most of the 80-90 employees at the Cobb County company are African American. The company, which manufactures high-end ice cream products, had weathered the pandemic as well as could be expected. No employee had been infected, and High Road had found a healthy market in grocery stores – healthy enough to compensate for an 85% plunge in demand from restaurants.

But Schroeder, a former chef who launched the company with his wife, Nicki, a decade ago, likes to say that the company is “not immune from the news cycle.”

Raines, High Road’s human resources director, knew that the latest news of George Floyd’s killing – with its video of the African American man dying pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer – would be painful and consuming.

Raines, a 30-year-old Black Auburn University graduate, also knew that it would be unconventional for a person in her role take on such volatile issues.

Working at other companies, she had learned that it was best to suppress her activist nature. She had supported the Black Lives Matter movement by marching in protests and participating in other activities. But, she said, “most of that was in my younger years. I toned it down when I started getting into my HR career out of fear of retaliation from my previous employers.”

When she began working at High Road in March 2019, she found an openness that rekindled her activist spirit.

So, Schroeder was unsurprised by her call to action. At her urging, he agreed to begin a company-wide conversation to allow employees to do what has, for so long, been frowned upon in corporate America: bring their personal lives and opinions into the workplace.

They organized a series of town hall meetings – beginning with African American men – as a place for employees to express their feelings.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

They met in an open space in the company’s offices, with chairs positioned as far apart as possible.

“Last month, we did do a socially distant town hall meeting with the team to provide that openness to have those conversations, not only as African Americans and Black people, but even to invite others to come in and see what it’s like to live in a world with a pandemic and multiple shootings of unarmed Black men as well as unarmed Black women,” Raines said.

Warehouse worker Cristy Nolton, speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via a Zoom conference call, said employees were already on edge trying to navigate the dangers of a pandemic. “And then you add a whole race war in the midst of this whole mess,” she said. “There were definitely heightened emotions for everybody in the building – to include myself – everyone who I talked to there was at a level of fear, a level of angst, a level of uncertainty.”

She found it deeply reassuring to come to work and “be told it’s OK to feel that way and to be in a place where it’s OK to let your guard down and say we have not been treated equal and these are the reasons.”

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Stories of pain, frustration

For Schroeder, who considers himself attuned to causes like Black Lives Matter, the conversations were nevertheless jarring.

“The range of stories were troubling – there were tears, there were shouts and frustration,” he recalled. “But we came together deeply.

“It led me to believe that businesses focus so much on productivity and getting it done that there is some loss of humanness in our work day.”

Priscilla Joseph’s parents are from Panama, but she prefers just being described as Black.

She has a loud voice and has always worried that she was inadvertently projecting aggression. “It’s the strain of having to be polite and the strain of being with the audience you’re with,” said Joseph, who also was on the Zoom call. She became exhausted worrying about the reactions to her personality.

The Floyd killing was very painful for her. She avoided watching the video as long as possible. When she finally did, she found it shattering. “I was depressed, and I was mourning as if I was mourning for someone in my family – it really was somebody in my family,” she said. “And then coming to work with the pressures and expectations of holding it down.”

But, during the town hall, she was able to voice her concerns without fearing of offending anyone. “I said, ‘Hey I’m not doing OK,‘” she said. “I was supported.”

Listening is good for business

Make no mistake: Schroeder knows he is running a business, not a support group.

Since then onset of the pandemic, he has worked hard to understand and anticipate the implications to his manufacturing operation, which relies on a productive workforce.

He believes listening to his employees makes supreme business sense. “It’s smart business to make people feel welcome,” he said. “When people feel welcome and people feel safe, they have a blank canvas to have great days and to grow and learn. They really contribute to your business rather than just making it through the day and collecting their paycheck.”

Schroeder is convinced his approach builds loyalty and engagement. “It’s our position that folks from various walks of life make for a far more interesting, vibrant and creative business than if I just hired a handful of elite business grads from Emory or a bunch of chefs from the Culinary Institute of America.”

Schroeder, who has an MBA from Kennesaw State University, is taking a course led by Scott Galloway, a branding guru who teaches at NYU.

Galloway’s approach has resonated. “One of the ways to drive value into your business is to ensure that you attract the best of the best talent and become a career accelerant for the folks who eventually become alumni of your business,” he said. “In this day and age, you have to be radically accepting – really, reasonably accepting.”

Not sugarcoating it

Deandre Little, known as Dre at work, had become accustomed to masking his feelings. He’s a large African American man, and he believes that he has to operate with “camouflage.” “I try to show that I’m not a thug, or I’m not this way from my looks.”

If he didn’t, he worries, people might be intimidated and unwilling to give him a chance. He was hurting because of what he was seeing on the news. “It was very challenging to me.”

The idea of being frank about his feelings at work astounded him. “Normally, where we come from, you have to sugarcoat and act like everything’s OK,” he said. “I’ve never been to a roundtable meeting where I could speak and tell how I felt. Most times, I would just have to be quiet and just hold that inside.

“But it felt very welcoming to know that my supervisor, the man that I worked for, had my back.”

Concrete actions

Early on, Schroeder made it clear he wanted this initiative to produce concrete actions.

“We could use the influence that High Road has earned in the marketplace as a growing company to make real change in communities,” he said.

He challenged employees to come up with actions the company could support. “Social change takes place with actions not just group therapy,” Schroeder said.

The employees are working on developing a set of initiatives the company could support. Among the ideas is developing a program that would allow people from disadvantaged backgrounds to have exposure to the food ecosystem – farms and fine dining experiences that could lead to careers.

Derek Amponsah, who is originally from Ghana, likes the idea of arranging seminars or conferences that help disadvantaged people develop their careers. “So, next year, where can I go in my career?”

Most of the half a dozen or so ideas are practical and focused on providing opportunities for people to improve their economic status.

“It was important to walk away and not just have a conversation. What are we going to do?” Nolton said.

Raines, the HR director, believes High Road’s approach is creating a roadmap for other companies. “To have these types of dialogues and be in the weeds with your team, it allows you to lead better. With these conversations, High Road can be a beacon for those companies that don’t know where to start, who want to learn, who want to see how to take these once forbidden, taboo conversations and open them up.

“This is 2020, the time to do this is right now.”