‘Smart’ Companies Know They Can’t Succeed Without DEI, NAACP’s Karen Boykin-Towns Says

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With over 30 years working in service across multiple industries, including education, health, social justice and even through her historically Black sorority Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, NAACP’s Karen Boykin-Towns told TheWrap she never could have imagined she’d one day reach the C-suite of the civil rights organization.

“It’s an opportunity to serve. We all have the ability to give back, to serve, to be part of something greater than ourselves,” Boykin-Towns, who is vice chair of the NAACP national board of directors as well as the chairman of the Image Awards committee, said.

The Harlem native’s drive to help the world become a better place was instilled in her at a young age by her mother, who migrated from Alabama and took on domestic work before ultimately entering the medical field, a sector Boykin-Towns also took on with her 22 years at pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporation Pfizer. While there, she helped diversify the company, an effort she believed she could pull off with the help of her cultural experiences and exceptional work as corporate manager despite having no prior credits in human resources.

“All I knew about diversity and inclusion was being Black and being a female … [but] I had built a reputation within the company of someone who could get things done, was a team player and was a leader,” she said of why then-CEO Jeffrey Kindler entrusted her with the initiative. “I figured if I didn’t blow myself up in the process, I would get to go back into corporate affairs at a higher role than I initially had — and that’s exactly what happened.”

Today, she’s advancing the NAACP Image Awards, which spotlights and celebrates the performances of Black people in film, television, theater, music and literature, by shaping the 55-year-old award show into a true culture experience.

“This is a show that continues to be about us, for us and by us. It’s like an old home where there’s nothing but love and celebration and excitement,” she said. “Where everyone is cheering for each other, whether you win or not. Because at the end of the day, everyone’s a winner. And we’re really there to uplift and celebrate ourselves.”

Through her extensive work in servicing communities and helping move forward diversity, equity and inclusion, Boykin-Towns is a firm believer that no corporation can maintain its success without bringing in people from unique backgrounds.

You’ve really committed much of your life to some form of service. What prompted that instinct in you?
It was my Mom. I remember being in the first grade and all of a sudden being taken out of that school and being bused. My first elementary school was in Harlem. I was bused from Harlem to a white community. I guess that was integration. I was probably one of the only Black kids in my class, particularly in the second or third grade. Maybe a few more came later. But I did not understand why my friends from the neighborhood didn’t have to get up so early to catch the bus to go into a place where no one was like me.

It was my mom being an education advocate, wanting to ensure I had a quality education and wanting to ensure I was in a place where they took our safety seriously. Seeing her as an advocate in that way. She was a member of one of our local unions 1199 [The National Health Care Workers’ Union]. She was a delegate. She was always working with her colleagues to help when they had issues on the job, being an advocate for them and for the Union and ensuring that they fought to get the wages and benefits that they needed to have quality level of pay equity.

Her thing was to ensure that her two girls – I have a younger sister – had an education. We were the first to graduate from college.

When and why did you become part of the NAACP?
When I graduated college, I went to work for my local state senator, who later became our governor, David Paterson, so I was involved with the community working for our local elected official. Of course I knew of the NAACP, I knew the legendary Hazel Duke, who was the president of the New York State NAACP. I was in the community doing work, but I wasn’t part of the NAACP.

I joined the NAACP when I started working at Pfizer … when I joined the health committee and then it was just doing the work. One thing led to another, I got elected to our foundation board. I became the president of our local Brooklyn chapter. I was a branch president for seven years while also being on the national board. It’s just been a career that was not so much intentional, but one where I wanted to ensure that I was doing my part.

March 16 marks the 55th NAACP Image Awards. How will the ceremony be different from the years prior?
It has really grown. We have 90 categories – another way in which it has expanded – which you can only do, in a good year, eight, maybe nine [categories] on the live telecast. So we have these other virtual award shows, which was on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. We have a dinner this evening, our fashion show. The breadth of the awards has increased, certainly, and I think the level of participation and engagement has, as well.

What do you make of the fact that many Black-led shows are getting canceled and we are witnessing a major DEI executive exodus?
After the murder of George Floyd, we saw all types of companies across industries make these pronouncements and whatnot. The proliferation of diversity and inclusion officers went off the chart. That was 2020, 2021. Getting into 2023, a lot of those folks have been exited from their companies. I read in February that there was another 8% had been eliminated. There have been some companies that have totally erased those departments. Those who are true to it will remain, and those who maybe didn’t want to do it in the first place find this environment, one where they can have the excuse to go in a different direction. By 2045, we will be a majority minority country, and the numbers don’t lie.

The smart ones are the ones that are figuring out – despite the backlash that may come – how to still move forward, where you have representation, where you have inclusivity, where you have equity. Because if you don’t have that, your company cannot be successful. Period, point blank.

Those who are short-sighted will pay. Their stock will be hit, their ability to get talent, because these [new] generations are really like, ‘Yeah, no, that’s not how we get down.’ If you want to have the best talent, there is going to be a need to have a place where people can feel seen, where they can feel heard, where they can feel valued. And if that’s not your company, then that’s not who you will have in your workplace.

What advice do you have for people who are on their come-up in this realm, whether its entrepreneurship, civil rights activism, next-gen leaders or even your daughters on their own career journeys?
For me, it’s about being open to opportunities. Along the way, there are going to be people who come into your path. You want to find those who you can connect with, bring them into your personal board of directors. Those people who you can call upon. There’s roles that I’ve had where I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to make it work, but what I knew was that I was smart, I was a quick learner and I had a network. And between those three, I knew I would be able to figure it out. So really making sure that as opportunities came, I was open to them.

The other thing is: don’t ever let yourself stay comfortable. If you are in a role where you know, you can phone it each day, where you’re not really being stretched, your talents are probably being wasted. You’re probably not living up to your potential. You want to look at opportunities when they come, don’t just be very rigid in your thinking and just stick to what you know. You want to expand.

You also want to take risks. You want to surround yourself with people who can enhance your knowledge. I would always tell my girls, if you’re the smartest one in your friend group, you need a new friend group.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

The post ‘Smart’ Companies Know They Can’t Succeed Without DEI, NAACP’s Karen Boykin-Towns Says appeared first on TheWrap.