Kathryn Ross was one of just two Black women in Accenture’s Miami office when she first joined the global consulting firm nearly 27 years ago. Now a managing partner, Ross was tapped in December to create the inclusion and diversity agenda for Accenture’s venture capital investment arm.
Five months later, the police killing of George Floyd convulsed the country. The coronavirus pandemic was taking a disproportionate toll on Black-owned small businesses, which have been twice as likely to close during the pandemic as businesses overall, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The economic crisis widened the unemployment gap between Black and white Americans.
It was a galvanizing time for Ross, the mother of two boys aged 11 and 13. Rather than simply setting diversity goals, she resolved to create an initiative to bring venture capital to Black-owned businesses, which only receive about 1% of such investment in the U.S. The Black Founders Development Program will connect Black founders with Accenture’s business partners and clients. Accenture will also directly invest in Black tech start-ups through a new fund.
The initiatives are among several taken by major companies to bridge racial inequities in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. Netflix announced it would invest $100 million in Black-owned banks. More than 40 private and publicly traded companies joined a pledge to add at least one Black member to their board of directors by 2021. Mastercard pledged to invest $500 million in Black communities over the next five years.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ross discussed the inspiration behind the Black Founders Development Program. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve said one of the reasons why Black-owned companies receive so little venture capital is that deals are often based on who you know. Can you elaborate?
A: I use an analogy that I got from one of my mentors, an ex alumni of Accenture. One of the things he told us is that corporate America runs by kindergarten rules. You’re out on the playground and you have two teams, and the teacher picks the leader. Who gets chosen first? The first person chosen is generally your friend … That’s the heart of networking. If you are a Black entrepreneur, and you are not in that ecosystem — whether it’s the companies you’ve worked in, the schools you went to — that level of connection and trust is not there. It’s not to say that their ideas are any better or worse than anyone else’s. They can have the best business case ever but if it’s a choice between someone I’ve known, versus someone who has a fantastic business case but I haven’t worked them, the choice goes to the person I know.
Q: What did the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd mean to you?
A: I was floored. I was just in this very numb state. I’m a woman of color, and as soon as I step out my door the fact that I’m a managing partner with Accenture and I’ve had success and achievement, that I have two wonderful kids and a family, means nothing in the world. What they see is the color of my skin. I’m judged based on that. Because of that, the feeling of powerlessness is what galvanized me to say, ‘You know what? I have an opportunity and the power to start making a difference based on what I do to drive education and to drive income and opportunity to the Black community.’
Q: How do you see the Black Lives Matter movement resonating in the corporate world beyond African American employees?
A: My leadership is firmly behind our desire and ability to make a change in the community. The things that I asked for as part of the Black Founders Development Program, I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to ask for about a year ago. I think this was truly a time where a lot eyes were opened. Where the veil was taken off and people understood that this an an issue that doesn’t just impact the George Floyds of the world. It impacts every Black person.
Q: Where do you see this moment heading. Is there danger of it fading?
A: If you remember a couple of years ago, we had a similar incident and similar coming to Jesus perspective, and it faded. This time it hasn’t faded, and unfortunately, it’s because there have been more incidents, and people are realizing that this happens more often than they realized. What I don’t want to happen is that people get desensitized. In the African American community, we’ve been dealing with this for hundreds of years. We are not desensitized. Every time it happens and it’s in the media, it’s like a dagger to the heart. So you’ve got to figure out how to put that aside and do your job on daily basis. When it’s not your personally feeling it, there’s an option to not pay attention. It’s my optimistic hope that we are not in that place.