#15: How to address race issues at work with Evan Sharp
And infusing activism and advocacy into life inside Corporate America with Evan Sharp
I often say there were a handful of relationships I formed at business school that are worth a large chunk of my still remaining debt. My friendship with Evan is one of them.
Not only was Evan a dynamo team member on a large initiative we oversaw together, but he was and has increasingly been a voice of empathy and action within my class on how we might address issues of racism.
Evan is not in HR – well he kind of is now as a an Executive Recruiting and Leadership Advisory consultant at Russell Reynolds Associates. But diversity and inclusion at work was never his direct work focus, which I hope helps demonstrate that his actions are replicable by anyone.
Originally from Iowa, Evan began his career at Goldman Sachs in New York, later moved to Chicago to attend business school (with me!) at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and, prior to his current job, spent several years in management consulting at Accenture. Evan lives in Chicago with his fabulous wife Tarra and adorable dog Kofi.
Hannah: I know you as both a professional in business, but also as an advocate for black communities and social justice when it comes to racism and race equality. Where does your drive for advocacy come from?
Evan: The reason I went into wealth management at Goldman Sachs early on in my career is that when I was studying finance in college, I became interested in investing because black people historically haven’t had the same access to the tools and resources to learn about investing.
I understood quickly that I couldn't impact change the way I wanted to directly within Goldman Sachs because my group was serving already wealthy clients. Wall Street was a great learning environment, but wasn’t the right long-term place for me; its incentives back then (and this was leading up to 2008) were not mission aligned, and the leaders above me weren’t aligned in the same way.
As I went into business school, I explored management consulting to expand my business skillset. Then I thought that my biggest opportunity was finding a way where I could give both financially and give of my time.
But when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, and Zimmerman was acquitted, that was one of the biggest gut punches in terms of recognizing that our country’s racial inequities are still pretty bad. My passion to help black people specifically, and build bridges more generally, whatever opportunity that is, has deepened since then.
You have since moved into executive recruiting, but even within the people and talent realm, your job is not necessarily focused on community impact. How do you infuse impact or find opportunities for it in your professional life?
I really started to do that a lot at Accenture, when I was in management consulting. Let me give you one or two salient examples.
As Michael Brown’s death and Ferguson protests were erupting across the country, I was staffed with a telecom client on a forty person team. I had to go to work everyday, and nobody was talking about this; I happened to be one of two black people on a forty person team. I was so conflicted about what was happening and nobody was talking about it at all.
I asked my manager if I could make a statement at our status meeting, and he said yes. I said something like “every day I come in, I’m one of two black people, you all don’t need to think about that but I do. I think we should be talking about it. I welcome the opportunity to chat.”
Half a dozen people took me up on that.
After the 2016 police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and then the cops getting killed amongst the Dallas protests, things were super charged across the country. I took it upon myself to write a note internally to about seventy people across Accenture ranging from analysts to managing directors talking about how we needed to come together.
Out of that, I connected with the Chicago Managing Director [Chicago was where I live and was based] and was able to coordinate a series called Courageous Conversations, where anyone who wanted to could open up and talk about all this.
Tell me your thoughts on social media and its role in addressing racism and inequalities – and the embracing (or not embracing) of Black Lives Matter via social media.
I’m still a believer in social media as a tool to expose people and to engage people. Yes, people will always come into social media with their preconceived opinions and notions and are often unwilling to explore or listen to different points of view. But still I think it’s a great tool for empathy – you can engage at scale and reach– and I think it has helped expose people to more than they’ve ever been exposed to otherwise.
Outside of work, there isn’t really racial mixing going on in many parts in the country. If you are a white male in rural south US, you probably never interact with people who look different. But on social media you have the ability to immediately engage with people who are different. That’s where the power lies.
But to more directly answer your question, I’m going to get real with you and share a widely held opinion within the black community.
Black people, compared to other historically oppressed groups, still have a greater uphill battle when it comes to closing equality gaps.
For example, a lot of corporations are focused on gender parity; it can be more palatable to address women’s equality than racial equality when 50% of your population is female. If I’m in the majority (read: white male), it’s more likely that I have a female friend or colleague than a black friend or colleague. This is because of how we live in our society; we’re very segregated. Or I may have a white friend or family member that identifies LGBTQ, but again I don’t have a black friend (heterosexual or otherwise). So despite the fact that social media helps us engage and interact, many people still have a lack of exposure to issues that affect black people.
There has been a lot around Black Lives Matter that has been very polarizing because of how people view black Americans. Two of the largest protest gatherings we’ve had in the last couple decades have been the Women’s March and the March For Our Lives. But black people continue to be systematically oppressed, and black kids getting killed at alarming rates, for decades with no singular march. Issues that face black people are multivariate issues and are harder to solve.
People are still uncomfortable with this. And because the needs of black people are multifaceted, it has been hard to mobilize a movement around what we need. All the negative forces black people face are tied to black people being black – so what do you march for? Are you marching for jobs? Education? Less violence?
I never deeply considered that – the multifaceted nature of black oppression. So outside of marching, outside of the more publicized and obvious actions we can all take to do something here, what can people do to combat some of these underlying complexities in racism against the black community?
There really is a laundry list of things to do, but they don’t have to be daunting. People get analysis paralysis, so remember: small steps lead to big change. At a basic level, white people – who are in the majority – need to get out of bubbles and pay attention to what’s happening in their city and community and country.
At different points of life what you do looks different. The thing we can’t do is nothing, and that’s my biggest frustration with people in the majority is there’s too much doing nothing.
Besides getting involved in community efforts, besides donating money and your time, make sure you expose yourself mentally to different narratives. Watch black shows and films, get your kids black or LatinX dolls or toys that lean towards diverse demographic.
Invite black people to your house for dinner. Incorporate people who don’t look like you into the regular shit you do all the time! That will breed culturally change; it’s a long-term play, but we have to plant long-term seeds in order to see real seismic change.
I laughed, and Evan and I continued to discuss dynamics in Chicago a bit, how we emotionally and mentally dealt with the weight of social change (fun fact: Evan and I ran our first 15K together way back in 2010 and he’s big into running now not just for physical but also for emotional health), and more.
We also didn’t get to discuss this deeply, but Evan is currently a leader on the Associate Board of LINK Unlimited Scholars, a non-profit that provides educational enrichment and professional mentoring opportunities to African American high school students in Chicago. I hope his words leave you thinking as much as they’ve been rolling around in my head since our convo.