C-Suite Initiative: NCRM & AutoZone Drive Change

21st Century Retail Workforce Winter Summit Panel

Days after the press announcement of the National Civil Rights Museum’s (NCRM’s) new Corporate Equity Center (CEC), RILA hosted the creators of this groundbreaking program at the 21st Century Retail Workforce Winter Summit (view the recording here). RILA’s Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility, Erin Hiatt, led this impactful panel composed of:

  • Veda Ajamu, Managing Director of DEI Programs and Community Engagement at the NCRM,
  • Charlie Pleas, Senior Vice President of Finance at AutoZone,
  • Tanya Hart, Chief Human Resources Officer at First Horizon National Corporation and
  • Anthony Hood, Executive Vice President and Chief of Diversity and Inclusion at First Horizon National Corporation.
Responding to civil unrest and the need for action, AutoZone and the National Civil Rights Museum partnered to establish a center to facilitate programs to learn, discuss, and reflect on how inequities filter into decisions that are barriers to Black advancement in corporations and other workplace settings.

To ensure the center would be valuable for the broader retail industry, AutoZone and the NCRM also partnered with RILA to gather needs and feedback from RILA’s Diversity & Inclusion Leaders Council (DILC) throughout its development, and invited RILA President Brian Dodge, to serve on the center’s Steering Committee.

Focusing on the CEC’s first program, the C-Suite Initiative, the panel explored the impact of this program so far, particularly through an idea referred to by Veda Ajamu as the “power of place.”
In one context, the “power of place” is the setting of the trainings within the NCRM. Veda Ajamu stated that, “this [program] is different than DEI programs because it uses the historical assets of the museum to share the background story and context, so we can understand where all these issues that show up in corporate America come from.
In another context, the “power of place” is the unique opportunity for all the members of a company’s C-Suite to come together and truly engage with one another on DE&I issues while immersed in the environment of civil rights history. Charlie Pleas of AutoZone highlighted this from his own experience in the program, stating, “[the program] created vulnerability within our team and an environment to be open and have those difficult conversations.”
And finally, the “power of place” applies to the program’s focus on C-Suite members and the power that their “place” holds to drive change throughout their corporation. In the words of Anthony Hood, who recently completed the program with his leadership team at First Horizon, focusing on the C-Suite “…clarifies ownership. Every part of the team must take ownership of the problem. Then, shared investment and shared accountability steers each person within their respective business unit to drive change.” Veda Ajamu furthered this point by adding, “we [CEC] focus on how this is a systemic problem. We help identify where there are issues prohibiting diversity in the C-suite and try to make this lasting change by showing the leaders that they have the power to make change. It starts from the top.”
Corporations who seek to launch their DE&I efforts forward through this program will engage in a day and a half of curriculum designed to heighten awareness of racial inequities. The experience starts with the specially curated museum interpretative experience that sets the path for the enlightening modules, deep discussions, interactives, and take-aways for designing measurable solutions for Black executives to advance to C-suite and senior executive leadership roles.

In the press announcement of the Corporate Equity Center, Bill Rhodes, Chairman of CEC and President and CEO of AutoZone, referred to AutoZone’s statement released in response to the killing of George Floyd. Rhodes said, "A statement is just that: It's a statement. But a statement without reinforcing facts, or reinforcing activities, is of little to no value. So our team gathered and said 'what can we do?" AutoZone effectively “put their money where their mouth is”, contributing $5 million in seed funding and resources to launch the Corporate Equity Center.

During this press release and the RILA panel, corporations were called upon to go beyond words and take action. Interested companies can reach out to Veda Ajamu at vajamu@civilrightsmuseum.org to learn more about the Corporate Equity Center or contributing funds to the CEC’s efforts.
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