Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Inside the Company That Recognized the Importance of Corporate Diversity 50 Years Ago

September 23, 2014
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Inside the Company That Recognized the Importance of Corporate Diversity 50 Years Ago
Chairman and CEO of Xerox Ursula Burns onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Dinner in New York City. Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Time Inc.
Other businesses really should copy these moves.

When you think of Xerox, you probably think of copy machines. But what really should come to mind is diversity.

Back in 2009, Ursula Burns assumed the role of CEO — marking the first time that a Fortune 500 company not only hired an African-American female for the position, but also hired two female CEOs in a row. With women holding only 4.8 percent of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies, and black CEOs in these companies numbering only six, Xerox’s diverse leadership is remarkable.

But it didn’t happen overnight.

The seeds for Burns’s rise were planted 50 years ago through an innovative, company-wide effort to enhance diversity that continues to bear fruit to this day.

According to Paul Solman of PBS NewsHour, during the summer of 1964, race riots broke out near Xerox’s headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. Company founder Joe Wilson decided to meet with black community leaders to find out what could make their situation better.

Damika Arnold, Xerox’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Manager, tells Solman that Wilson “found out that the reason why they were rioting is because they didn’t have access to jobs. So he pledged that the black people of the community would be able to get jobs at Xerox.”

Wilson kept his word and then some. Xerox launched a summer minority internship program — which is how now-CEO Burns first joined the company in 1980. By 1991, nine percent of Xerox’s managers were black, compared to just half a percent at other companies.

But Xerox wasn’t content to rest with just this achievement. Leaders in the company saw that women weren’t making the same gains as men were, and when they analyzed the discrepancy, they found it was due to the fact that women with children couldn’t rise through the ranks because of the strict work schedules imposed on plant managers. So Xerox implemented job-sharing programs. As a result, women (even those with young children) began rising up the ranks.

Burns tells Solman, women are “not dumb in manufacturing. We just — we need a lot more flexibility than you’re allowing us to have.”

Additionally, Xerox encouraged the formation of supportive groups among its workforce, such as the Women’s Alliance, the Black Women’s Leadership Council and a gay and lesbian group. These gave employees of all backgrounds a myriad of opportunities for mentorship and guidance.

Burns believes Xerox’s groundbreaking emphasis on diversity has allowed it to weather decades of change in the business technology industry. The best idea, she says, “is to engage as much difference, as much breadth as you can, because that gives you little peeks into where some of the big opportunities will be.”

MORE: More Diversity Doesn’t Have to Mean Decreased Social Mobility

 

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