Corporate America has long held the promise of a better life for Black Americans. For many, however, the realities of racism have shattered that dream. But as 2004 drew to a close, the Executive Leadership Council held fast to its belief that African-Americans can achieve success in a corporate America that practices inclusiveness—diversity in the rank-and-file and in upper management, where decisions are made. That belief reverberated at its 16th annual recognition dinner held jointly with the ELC Foundation in Washington, D.C., this past October. Under the banner “The Power of Inclusive Leadership,” the event celebrated the year’s achievements and the partners that work with the organization to ensure the presence of African-Americans in the uppermost corporate ranks.
The ELC began when 19 African-American executives set out to “change the face of corporate America by creating a support network and public leadership forum that prepares the next generation of African American corporate executives; honors business achievements by African Americans; encourages excellence in business; and influences public policy on behalf of African Americans,” according to an official statement. They would:
• Provide Black executives in Fortune 500 companies with a professional network and forum to discuss issues affecting excellence in business, economic and public policies in African-American communities, corporate America and the community at large;
• Increase the visibility, recognition and advancement of African-American business executives at all levels;
• Create and develop new economic opportunities for minority enterprise;
• Ensure that corporate philanthropic programs are inclusive of and responsive to African-American communities; and
• Provide educational opportunities, mentoring projects and programs that identify and prepare the next generation of African-American managers and executives.
ELC’s 10th Annual Mid-Level Manager’s Symposium, held the day after the annual dinner, underscored the importance of the ELC mission. The room was filled to capacity at 7:30 a.m. as attendees in full business attire assembled to hear senior African-American executives speak of their personal experiences and the lessons they learned in corporate America, as well as offer insights on handling difficult situations in the workplace.
The symposium and the awards dinner saw the largest participation in the history of these events. Many say they found them stimulating and inspiring. James Wooten, a 10-year member of ELC from Illinois Tool Works Inc., lauds the ELC for helping to maintain a stream of talented African-Americans who can step into senior positions already occupied by other African-Americans. “The organization is doing a lot of valuable work in terms of bringing other people into positions that we hopefully hold,” he says.
More important, others say, the ELC shows CEOs that diversity is crucial to their companies’ survival. Jeffrey R. Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric Co. and winner of ELC’s Corporate Award, got the picture a long time ago. “In the spirit of ELC and in the spirit of how we view diversity at GE today, this is no longer about a conversation. Diversity has to be about results,” he said upon accepting his award.
For many ELC members, corporations appear poised to truly embrace diversity and are looking to the ELC to assist them. “I think we’re doing the right thing, I think we’ve demonstrated that we’re an organization that is properly led, [that’s] moving in the right direction and [that] we’re making an impact on corporate America,” said Carl Brooks, president of ELC.