Black History Month: Breaking Barriers in the Business World

From Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, to Aylwin Lewis, CEO of Potbelly`s, Chicago has a rich history of black business leaders.

But some say, African-Americans are still struggling to break barriers in the business world. WGN’s Gaynor Hall takes a look at the landscape.

“Chicago has always been a leader. When Harlem in the 1920`s was being touted as a cultural center of Negro or colored America, Chicago was being recognized as a business leader,” said Dr. Christopher Reed, Professor Emeritus of History at Roosevelt University.

As the city`s black population grew after the Great Migration, so did the number of black-owned businesses even as racism kept options limited.

“You had people who had the nerve to want to start banks. There were at least 3 insurance companies.”

Reed says even though things changed after the Great Depression, Chicago later became home to a number of prominent African-American business leaders, including John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing, Ed Gardner of Soft Sheen Products, and Oprah Winfrey of Harpo Studios.

In recent years though, the promise has faded due to economics, politics, and also progress.

“The 21st century has not been a century that`s been a good century for black businesses. In addition, many of the talented black men and women who would`ve started businesses have gravitated towards the larger corporate entities,” said Reed.

The doors in corporate America have opened slowly.

Paul Martin is Corporate Vice-President and Chief Information Officer for Deerfield-based healthcare company, Baxter International.

The C-suite is a long way from Lexington, Kentucky, where he was raised by a hard-working single mom. Over 30 years, he`s made stops at several top companies, but early in his career the promotions were slow to come.

“I do think I had to overcome the perception of why I was there,” said Martin. “I worked hard to prove that I belong.”

“Today, we still see there is unconscious bias. I don`t think people go out of their way to ensure that people of color are not moving forward. Rather, I think the unconscious bias indicates that there is sponsorship of those who are like the executives who are currently sitting in those roles,” said Gloria Castillo, President and CEO of Chicago United.

The organization rose from the ashes of the riots after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

“You had roughly 13 CEO’s in the city who looked at the west side burning and said we need to take personal responsibility for improving race relations in Chicago. The mission remains the same, to advance economic parity for people of color.”

In 2012, Chicago United`s survey of the top 50 companies in the area found only 10-percent of executive positions were held by minorities. Of that, 4 percent were African-Americans and nearly half of those companies had no racial diversity within their executive ranks.

“It surprises me because in fact, we have a great pool of talent,” said Castillo.

Connecting decision makers with diverse talent is Billy Dexter`s expertise.

“They need to make sure they`re tapping into diverse networks,” said Dexter, who is a partner at executive search firm, Heidrick and Struggles.

From his office in the Willis Tower, Billy remembers growing up in Detroit and dreaming of college. His career has taken him from university administration to corporate recruiting. His last job was chief diversity officer for  MTV Networks.

“There are very few of us at the executive level, and those that get there have to be qualified. They have to have a vision and they`ve got to set goals,” said Dexter. “But don`t think because another person of color has never been in that role that you can`t attain that.”

Billy Dexter and Paul Martin have both been honored as Business Leaders of Color. Every other year, Chicago United selects 45 people for the distinction, promoting their accomplishments and positioning them for seats on corporate boards of directors – another area where diversity is lacking.

“I think the pipeline of African American leaders is increasing. I see companies understanding that inclusion and diversity matters,” said Martin.

“There are people of color in Chicago that are doing some amazing things,” said Dexter. “Is there a long way to go? Absolutely. But I`m very optimistic that things will change.”

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