Diversity in Action

Part two of a wide-ranging interview with Adonis Hoffman, Alfred Liggins and Michael Powell
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In part two of this wide-ranging interview with Adonis Hoffman, chairman of Business in the Public Interest; Alfred Liggins, president of Radio One; and Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, talk about the actions that speak louder than words, the limits of more formal government action, the opportunities in disruption, and provide insights on their own diversity heroes.

Hoffman talks about the difficulty of leveling the playing field for minorities when they have been excluded from the game and sometimes don’t even know where the playing field is. Liggins says no one should make a hiring decision that is not good for the bottom line, and Powell talks about why government efforts to make big, press conference-worthy changes is like the Washington football team repeatedly trying to throw hail marys to get to the Super Bowl rather than moving deliberately down the field.

Hoffman: You [Powell] talk about the power of the bully pulpit. I tell CEOs, for example: “Listen, when you give a speech on competition or the market in your sector, why can’t you weave in--because you have this strong commitment to diversity-- a couple of phrases about diversity and how important it is to your business and your company. That costs you nothing, but gets you a long way down the road and reflects leadership.

I want to add another element to this. People often talk about a level playing field. I got it. A Level playing field suggests that you have a couple teams on the field. The sad reality is that when it comes to minorities, African Americans and Latinos primarily, they don’t even know where the game is. They can’t even get on the field. So, the game is going on and they don’t even know where the stadium is. So, they have to get inside the stadium, find uniforms that fit, and then when they get into the game it’s already the third quarter. The game has been going on all along.

That, to me, is one of the challenges.

I just spent three days last week with a small group from a major media company, CEO, CFO, CMO. I said: “Hey, listen, you guys are involved in a lot of transactions around the globe. You are buying and selling real estate as part of your core operations. You have contracts you are entering into, you have suppliers here. I know you have a goal of 10% supplier diversity. So, let’s go beyond that. What about deal flow? Have you thought about who manages your money? You’ve got a 401K program that your employees contribute to. How about weaving in a minority asset manager?

You don’t have to displace anyone else or spend any more money. All you have to do is add an extra seat at the table and let some folks come in and participate.

Liggins: We’re talking about a business environment. Nobody should make a deal that’s bad for their business, to rob shareholders of the value they deserve for that asset just for the sake of diversity.

While you are conducting your normal course of business, think about opening up the opportunity to people who might not otherwise get a look at it. We are a black-owned company, but I’m not going to hire an employee that isn’t qualified to do the job or compete in the marketplace just because they happened to be minority. That renders our organization ineffective and not able to compete and diminishes the viability of everybody else.

The same thing goes for business deals. When we bought the Clear Channel radio stations, we actually led the valuation. We had the highest multiple trading at that time. One of the reasons is we went public at the height of the Internet bubble. But we drove the valuations, so we were able to set the high-water mark for those spin-offs at 20-times because that’s where our multiple was. They didn’t give us a deal. They were actually happy. They had more stuff they wanted to sell us that we didn’t take.

The point is people still make rational business decisions while they are trying to open up diversity opportunities. It is not in a business person’s DNA to lose money for the sake of diversity. It is not in my DNA, and I’m black.

But in a land where blacks were, for decades, denied opportunities in media, and given how important media is, even more so now with broadband, is there nothing the government should do? Take imminent domain, which may not be fair for some individuals in the short term, but is viewed as a societal good in the long-term?

Hoffman: Twenty-five years ago I would have been right with you, John. Yeah, government needs to tear down the walls, open up the doors, Kick down the barriers. But I think there are some marketplace and economic and basic political realities out here that weigh against that as an appropriate role for government.

Government has a legitimate role in this instance as an economic regulator and in some, limited instances, the position of encouraging diversity of voices, which is in the Communications Act. That is part of the public interest test. And a diversity of voices could encompass the government, the commission, looking for new entrants, whether that be African American, Hispanic, alternative lifestyle. So, that is an appropriate role for government that has been authorized by Congress. Because that is ultimately in the public interest.

But I really feel kind of sensitive when there is a government entity trying to shoehorn a solution, shoehorn an applicant, shoehorn a company, into a scenario where it may or may not have been able to compete.

Knock down the barriers, allow for a level playing field, then let there be some competition. If there is anything government can do, it is in eradicating barriers and enforcing where there are abuses. Then let the market have at it.

Liggins: you have to have marketplace solutions. If you give anybody an opportunity they are not capable of executing on, it won’t ultimately be an opportunity, because they will fail. That particular asset or access point will go to someone else or perhaps get absorbed back into the market ecosystem and forever lost.

Powell: And it will diminish the political support given to the opportunity. People will be less willing to give the opportunity the next time. 

The one thing I would say is that we could certainly identify a number of things we probably all agree government has a small role in. But my own belief is that, while important, it will only be on the edges because of the Supreme Court precedent and a lot of things creating limitations. I think that the danger of making the government the central focus of what you are looking to solve it is that you are not putting your energy and your focus on the things that really move the needle.

The marketplace is so fascinating right now.

It is in complete disruption. There are opportunities lying all over the ground. To the point Alfred made. If you take a long-term view on this, are my children and the generation coming up, are they educated well enough to be a leader in the tech-oriented media digital space? Is there sufficient levels of financial literacy? Are there sufficient levels of internships? I think sometimes we throw the hail mary for some spectacular change in the number of people who own radio stations, we don’t do the hard work of tending to the field to build a more fruitful…To me, this is like my maddening Washington football team. Because Dan Snyder wants a Super Bowl he keeps throwing crazy hail marys. Every single year we’re going to get this quarterback and it’s all going to work out. Right. Where other teams will say, ”Look, it’s going to take us four years, and we’re going to get the players, and they’re going to learn the system, and over time we are going to get better, and as time passes they are in the Super Bowl.”

Diversity can be a lot like that. You can have a big, flashy press conference and a year later nothing has changed. If we are really committed, there are things we can do every single day. Somebody who I let intern here, and introduced to five people and taught how the law works, suddenly is the next Alfred Liggins. That’s actually what I can do most significantly to make a difference. And if we could get more people to focus on that as an obligation, I think we can make a bigger difference than anything government is going to do with a policy or a rule.

Hoffman: I don’t want to leave the conversation without saying this.

Things are not hunky dory. There are institutional barriers. There is institutional racism. There is institutional racism [affecting] qualified professionals, and I am not talking about youngsters coming in. At the entry level there is a wide portal. My son can get a gig just about anywhere he passes the basic muster.

But when you talk about the middle levels where the pipeline is to decisionmakers, that is where things break down. And those barriers still exist in this country. I’m not sure what the solutions are. I don’t have any solutions there. But we have to recognize those things still exist.

This is the kind of environment in which we live. I am 61. My civil rights and black power days are behind me. Now I have to deal with a corporate environment where guys who may or may not have as much Ivy League experience as I do are competing and getting better opportunities. Maybe because they are younger, maybe because they are…whatever. 

But the point is these institutional barriers do exist. They exist in law firms, in corporate America, in media companies, technology companies. We can’t overlook that. It is a reality that those who are leaders in this generation have to find a way to deal with.

I think we also have a responsibility to sensitize and educate younger folks coming up and younger leaders, that these legacy barriers have no use in today’s society. If we are an open, free, environment, those buckets and silos don’t have to exist today because there is enough out there for everybody and, oh, by the way, the demographic is changing, too.

I did not want to leave the conversation without recognizing there are some problems, and the problems may be intractable at that level. But the good news is old folks die off, and old systems die off, and they give rise to new systems, new thinking and new innovations. And therein perhaps lies our salvation.

I didn’t want to leave the conversation without noting that it was 60 years ago today (Dec. 1, 1955) that Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat to anyone. Who are your personal civil rights heroes?

Powell: I want to say two things. I have too many to single out. Although who wouldn’t say Martin Luther King. I was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, which was a pretty astonishing year in Alabama. My mother held me as an infant four churches down when the 16th Street Baptist Church exploded. We were right there on the street. For me, that has profound significance. Having had parents who were in and around it and grew up with it, they are civil rights heroes to me too.

But let me say one last thing that comes to mind when you talk about Rosa Parks. We have a duty to raise warriors. The generation that preceded me, they were warriors, you know. And they were going to fight through. My parents taught me that you can sit around and spend a lot of time talking about fairness, or you can become a warrior. And when I clerked for judge Harry Edwards, one of the first black appellate judges in the U.S., when I first came out of law school. He sat me down in his office, one-on-one, and he said: “Let me tell you something, whether you like it or not you are going to have to be better. I had to be better. You’re going to have to be better. It isn’t fair, now get over it and go be better. Go make sure you beat people so significantly that there is no explanation for you not rising other than race. But don’t sit around wallowing. Learn how to fight through.

Society has changed an enormous amount since 1963, but it hasn’t changed enough. Am I teaching young people to be the kind of tough, resilient, tenacious warriors they still need to be in a society that still has the lingering vestiges of a slave history and a racist history?

And I am not doing them any favors by promising them that society is going to create real safe places. To me, that is a pipe dream right now. You’ve gotta raise fighters.

Liggins: I was on a panel a week ago and I was asked a question about what I thought about this rise of young minority activists like Black Lives Matter. My response was: I love it. I grew up in the media business. My mother instilled that pride and mission and warriorness in me that she had.

But I get asked all the time in the era of the first black President, is black media relevant? Aren’t we all now in the same boat? I don’t think you ever eradicate bias: Economic bias, racial bias. The world is a battle over resources. So, when I see this group of young people being outraged by this police brutality, Ivy League educated kids that are saying “Woah!”, it makes me feel good that there still is a line over which you can push somebody too far where they stand up and say: “This isn’t right. There should be social justice in this era. “

I am seeing these college students react to some of the same issues people in the 60s were reacting to.

When you talk about heroes, I never marched. But I have stood shoulder to shoulder with the NAACP and Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network in order to get initiatives to the African American community. And I have seen firsthand what these organizations have done to help people and businesses. We have been aided by those organizations going to bat for us to help us maintain the viability of our business.

So, I guess my heroes are all of the people who have that commitment to not just social justice, but economic and business justice. There are a lot of people still on the playing field.

Hoffman: So, I have two sets of heroes. One is my mom and dad.

My dad was a hard-working guy, a plasterer born in New Orleans in Louisiana, a segregated state, who moved his family to California for a better life. He never went past high school and worked with his hands all his life. He worked his way up and provided for us and gave us a very comfortable lower middle class, working class environment. My mother was a seamstress in a sewing factory. She left school in the tenth grade. Together they provided a quiet example for my siblings and me growing up. It was hard work. Stay out of trouble. Don’t come home with any bad grades because if you don’t get into college on your own, it ain’t gonna happen.

The other is a man very important to me, Merv Dymally. He was born in Trinidad, came to the United States in the 1950s, worked his way through Lincoln University, earned his PhD at night, became a teacher of special education students, and became the first black lieutenant governor of California.

He was a liberal Democrat who believed in coalition politics. He took kids from the neighborhood and if you had any mettle about you, he would put you in a room and tell you go get some coffee, or make some copies, and by the process of osmosis we all got introduced to the political system.

But he did something that was even more significant. Quietly, he was probably responsible for the election of most of the African American and Latino legislators in the State of California during a certain period. I’m here today because he brought me to Washington and said, “Hey, you’ve got an opportunity, go for it.“

He was a person who took the initiative to influence not just me but a number of other people in both the political and business worlds. 

You don’t have to have a trumpet to be a leader. You can take one or two people by the hand and change society. So, I think that when I look around, sometimes I don’t think I’m pulling my weight. I take care of my family and a couple of young guys that I like to mentor. But I know I could be doing more and I would actually like to do more.

I think that’s the challenge for the folks of my generation who now have made it a little ways over the hump, and the wolf isn’t at the door, to bring some folks along.

But I do have a problem with some of those who get in those positions. In the hood, you’ve got access deniers and access providers. You’ve got the guys who get in the room and say: “I’m the only black guy here. This is good.” You’ve got other guys who get in and say: “I’m the only black guy here. Open the door and let some brothers up in this joint. “

I want to be a guy who is an access provider, so the room is better and richer as a result.

In part two of this wide-ranging interview with Adonis Hoffman, chairman of Business in the Public Interest; Alfred Liggins, president of Radio One; and Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, talk about the actions that speak louder than words, the limits of more formal government action, the opportunities in disruption, and provide insights on their own diversity heroes.

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