Greenlining’s Economic Summit tackled state of corporate social responsibility

150 150 Victor Abalos

-Special report from events being held across the state to revitalize the California economy, including the California Economic Summit’s Regional Forum series.

Surrounded by the opulent trappings of San Francisco’s historic Fairmont Hotel, executives from some of California’s most powerful corporations sought to convince the hundreds of participants of this year’s Greenlining Economic Summit that they have become socially responsible corporate partners – that they care and are involved in the communities they serve and that their workforce reflects those communities.

The annual Summit, Greenlining Institute’s marquee event, has become a vital forum for the state’s social justice and racial advocates. The Greenlining Institute’s coalition is comprised of a “Who’s Who” of the state’s most influential racial equity, environmental justice and consumer advocacy organizations in California.

Greenlining, celebrating its 20th anniversary, was known in its early days for its confrontational tactics when dealing with corporations on environmental, social justice and workforce issues.

Greenlining Institute’s Executive Director Orson Aguilar was quick to point out to the crowd regarding corporations practicing true social responsibility, “you can count them on your fingers in California. Too many don’t get it.”

While CEO Debra Reed from Sempra Energy acknowledged her company and Greenlining locked horns frequently over the issue of corporate social responsibility, she said her company believed even back then “Greenlining should be patting us on the back” for their efforts. But she said both the company and Greenlining have learned to make their relationship more productive and less combative. And she provided some company figures claiming a 50 percent diverse workforce as well as a much more diverse list of contractors.

But Wells Fargo Bank executive Jon Campbell didn’t ask for any pats on the back for his company’s diversity efforts. “We need to push ourselves,” said Campbell, the Executive VP of Governmental and Community Relations. “While we have great numbers regarding women and diversity in our workforce, at the senior level it doesn’t look that way.”

Participants we talked to tried to give these companies the benefit of the doubt regarding their efforts to work more productively with the state’s new diverse majority. Acelia Gallardo, a Berkeley-based businesswoman, thinks the companies that came to the Greenlining Summit Friday are trying to do, “as much as they’re capable. They can do more but it’s something I see they’re working on.” But Gallardo, founder of Casa de Chocolates, said the fact these companies even showed up is testament to how much things have gotten better.

Omar Wandera, an Oakland educator turned entrepreneur, said the simple fact that corporate social responsibility is still a hot topic means there’s lots of work left to do.

“They’re taking baby steps, putting their toe in the water,” said the founder of Kid Snapback, a children’s clothing line. “Until there’s no conversation about [corporate social responsibility], you haven’t gotten it done. You can go to the websites of some of these companies and see photos of multi-racial employees but when you click on the board of directors page, you won’t see that diversity.”

Claudia Aguilar, a Hayward high school counselor, said she’s convinced these companies are “being forced to think about it and that it’s finally on their agenda.” She said like Gallardo, she’s convinced companies are making an effort but that’s not enough.

State regulators agree not enough has been done and that regulation plays a critical role. “We’ve seen the numbers move dramatically because we shined a light on them,” said Mark Ferron, a CA Public Utilities Commissioner. Ferron, a former banking industry executive, said while regulators can’t force companies to hire more diverse employees and executives, they can highlight those efforts.

“One of the things we can do is bring transparency to the issue,” he said. “Transparency works, especially when there’s competition.” Ferron told the crowd that letting customers know which companies are more reflective of their communities can be an important tool when it comes to increasing diversity.

Federal regulator Stuart Ishimaru agrees. “There’s two motivations [for corporate diversity], social good or the fear of getting caught not doing it.” In the end, Ishimaru, Director of the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said, those companies that lead their industry forward are going to get recognized for it and that just makes good business sense.


Victor Abalos

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