Racism, Business and My Journey

by | December 2, 2020

In the late 1960’s, riots and assassinations of my heroes left me disillusioned. Out of this trying period, I founded Cascade Engineering. I believed that business could have a heart and play a positive role in society. I felt we could create an organization that could treat its people in ways that would be uplifting and motivating, professionally and personally. Simply put, I wanted to build a company where colleagues would know they were valued as human beings, not just employees.

Over time, our business grew. And as we did, we strove to address problems we saw around us. In 1991, we started an anti-racism initiative at our company. We didn’t call it that and it wasn’t in response to social unrest or a company incident. We did it because it felt right.

We started hiring people from welfare in a coordinated way in 1995. We called it “Welfare to Career.” Our goal was simple: To see if we could figure out how to utilize talented individuals who had hit barriers. Decades later, as I look back, it is clear that our efforts helped hundreds of people and was a critical catalyst for our company. Out of that experience, we adopted an explicit goal of becoming an “employer of choice” and this became a guiding principle for Cascade Engineering. It still is today, even as we have grown to an international organization with 1600 employees.

This is how it happened.

Local CEO Bob Woodrick owned several D&W Food stores in West Michigan. His family had adopted a child of color and had experienced racist comments from other whites in their suburban neighborhood. He was incensed and invited a group of other business CEO’s to hear his anger and determination to do something.

I wondered what could be done and agreed to attend an ‘Institute for the Healing of Racism.’ A mixed group of ten white and black leaders met for a half day a week for ten weeks, co-facilitated by a white and a black leader. We were asked at the end what actions we would take as a result of our experience. I decided we could do three things. First, I made a commitment to ensure that everyone in my growing company would know that racist behavior would not be acceptable and would lead to disciplinary procedures. Second, we brought in actors to depict inappropriate behavior that actually had happened at the company. The audience has a chance to learn from, and correct the behavior they witnessed. And third, we sent every leader at the company to the Institute for the Healing of Racism. We still take these actions today, and consider them foundational.

At first, although there was no backlash, I thought that nothing had changed in the company. But slowly, our corporate culture began to feel different. We started a diversity and inclusion council, which spontaneously began hosting pot luck lunches celebrating the diverse ethnic foods of the families in the company. We brought in a traveling exhibition of memorabilia from the Jim Crow museum at Ferris State University and had dialogue sessions about examples of racism from everyday life, such as an Aunt Jemima cookie jar or postcards of lynchings. Those conversations stayed with me over the years—expressions of hurt and anger surfaced from my colleagues after being long repressed by the typical work environment.

Welfare to Career was born from our understanding of the many barriers that confront too many people. American lore is if you really want a job, you will show up, work hard, learn more and be promoted through the ranks. And if you don’t do those things, you are not trying hard enough and deserve failure. What we learned is that many people – a single mother,  or a victim in an abusive relationship, for example – must overcome huge obstacles simply to show up for work. They face daily barriers fundamentally different from many of their peers. We learned that for people of color, poverty is deeply intertwined with racism.

We failed twice in our attempt to put an effective program together before finally realizing we needed to change our fundamental corporate culture from one of judgement to one of support. We learned to think differently about the workplace, and even brought a social worker to our premises, available for any struggling worker. And it worked. Supervisors turned into supportive co-workers. Our employee turnover for those coming from welfare decreased, astonishingly, from over 45% per month to under 3%. Today, dozens of other companies have adopted similar practices.

It was a natural progression for us to declare ourselves an Anti-Racism company in 2012. About the same time, we formalized our practice of hiring people released from prison. We did it by simply not asking if they had been incarcerated as they filled out their application. They call it “ban the box” now.

Our company’s powerful journey didn’t happen because I heroically commanded it. Rather, it was because lots of people in our organization picked up on important ideas and made them happen. From front line workers to leaders, it was their passion that made the difference.

I used to be asked why we did it. No longer. Today, there is a growing understanding that, as a nation, we need to do something different. Our current trajectory is not working. The ‘United’ part of our ‘States’ is in trouble.  Real, systemic change is needed, even if it’s a result of “good trouble,” as the late John Lewis put it.

I have come to believe, over the years, that the root of today’s division lies in racism, in the insidious belief that some people are inherently better than others based on how they look or act. Robert Putnam, in his new book “Upswing,” explains that from the end of the Gilded age in 1910 until the middle of the 1960’s economic, religious and civic activity improved as the nation moved from “I” to “We”. Then it all started going the other way as “We” became more “I” focused. Today we are at the nadir of inward-focused behavior. It is up to us to reverse it.

Going from “I” to “We” requires doing our best to chip away at racism. And this means confronting it across the four dimensions where it exists: personal, interpersonal, organizational and structural. It starts with each of us, and how we think about “other” people. From there, we can work on our interpersonal relationships. Whether we show displeasure at an inappropriate joke, or we demonstrate true interest in people who look different than us, we can make a difference. Then there are things we can do within our organizations to change how we interact and support one another. Being on the journey builds in us the credibility and the courage to take on structural racism. 

Racism is a cancer within our species and our society, one that too often we choose not to tackle.  It will not be resolved any time soon. But from my own journey I know that the first step is recognition. Each of us must bring the reality of racism into our daily consciousness so that we can work at dismantling it every day, through our actions.    

Filed Under: Politics

About the Author

Fred Keller is the Founder and Chair of Cascade Engineering which he started in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1973 with a belief that you can have a successful business and still treat employees with dignity and respect. Fred began molding plastic parts with six employees in a 10,000 square foot building. Today, Cascade Engineering employs 1600 people across 15 facilities in six US locations and additional European operations in Budapest, Hungary. Fred recently completed 17 years as a Senior Visiting Lecturer at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. He served as an Executive-in-Residence at the University of Michigan – Ross School of Business. He was a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce Manufacturing Council with two years as chair under Presidents Bush and Obama. Keller also served on the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Board for 14 years with two years as chair. Fred is a trustee for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. Fred serves on the boards of Paragon Die & Engineering of Grand Rapids, Michigan and Balcones Resources of Austin, Texas. He is co-founder and chair of Talent 2025, a catalyst for the development of an integrated talent system to meet employer needs throughout 13 West Michigan counties. He served as co-chair of K-Connect, a Kent County Collective Impact Systems Change Collaborative. A Grand Rapids, Michigan native, Fred earned his B.S. in materials science and engineering from Cornell University and an M.S. in business management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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