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Overcoming Systemic Racism Through System Engineering

In parts of the United States, using the term “systemic racism” to refer to persistent discrimination against Black people has become a political flash point. To some ears, it sounds like an attack on the country and the local community. Several states have enacted laws that ban, or would appear to ban, discussing the concept in public schools and colleges, and even private workplaces. But racial-equity consultant Tynesia Boyea-Robinson uses the term with an engineer’s precision. When she first heard the phrase, she recalled her training in quality control in the transportation unit of GE Research, in Erie, Pa. And, sure enough, a lightbulb went on in her head: The system could be reengineered. “Oh my God, we can fix this!” she thought. “I don’t think everybody else sees it that way.”

Boyea-Robinson helps companies, government agencies, and other organizations meet goals for diversity and equity through her consulting firm, CapEQ. In October, her second book on this work, The Social Impact Advantage, was published. And she is the steward of Path to 15/55, an ambitious effort to deliver desperately needed capital to Black businesses across the United States. Since 2018, Boyea-Robinson has been assembling a coalition—including financial institutions, grassroots community groups, political and policy leaders, and corporate and philanthropic donors—to reprogram the systems of lending to and investing in these businesses.

Boyea-Robinson helps companies, government agencies, and other organizations meet goals for diversity and equity through her consulting firm, CapEQ. In October, her second book on this work, The Social Impact Advantage, was published. And she is the steward of Path to 15/55, an ambitious effort to deliver desperately needed capital to Black businesses across the United States. Since 2018, Boyea-Robinson has been assembling a coalition—including financial institutions, grassroots community groups, political and policy leaders, and corporate and philanthropic donors—to reprogram the systems of lending to and investing in these businesses.

Boyea-Robinson grew up in Cocoa Beach, Fla., where her father fixed satellites for the U.S. Air Force and her stepmother gave manicures in the family’s living room. In other circumstances, the straight As Boyea-Robinson earned at school and the lessons in mechanics her dad taught her might have ensured a trajectory toward a top STEM university. But her parents hadn’t gone to college and didn’t push her in that direction. Moreover, as the oldest, she was expected to help care for her four younger siblings. She expected to enroll at a community college until one of her stepmother’s clients pushed her to set her sights higher.

She attended Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, in Durham, N.C., where she earned a dual bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. The curriculum was daunting, and she had to confront a persistent sense of being an outsider. But it was more than just the academics.

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“There’s so many things about the culture of college that my parents couldn’t teach me,” she says. Adding to her initial anxiety was her status as one of the relatively few women at the engineering school—women made up just a quarter of the student body at Pratt—and there were even fewer Black students enrolled there (around 5 percent).

But when Boyea-Robinson graduated in 1999, she landed a plum ­information-management job at General Electric through the company’s prestigious leadership program. Though her anxiety about fitting in lingered, her career flourished. In 2003, she headed to Harvard Business School for an MBA that could give her upward trajectory an extra boost. Then her course changed when she took an internship at a nonprofit called Year Up. The organization helps prepare young adults, mostly poorer people of color, for entry-level IT jobs at large companies—jobs that recalled her first assignments at GE. “That student was me,” she says, “with different options and choices.”

Her assignment was to map out an expansion of Year Up from Boston to either Washington, D.C., or New York City. Boyea-Robinson pitched both. When she graduated in 2005, the nonprofit hired her to open the Washington location. She launched the first class in January 2006, and as she built Year Up’s presence in Washington, ­Boyea-Robinson’s work became a model for the organization nationwide, starting in New York later that year. Today, the nonprofit serves 16 metro areas and operates virtually in five others.

At Year Up, Boyea-Robinson began to hear about systemic racism, the biases that people collectively inject, consciously or not, into so many of the institutions and the rules governing society, leading to the disparate treatment of different groups of people. The knock-on effects from that discrimination exacerbate inequality—which then reinforces those biases in a sort of feedback loop. Thinking about all this, Boyea-Robinson concluded that she wanted to use systems engineering to tackle the problems of systemic racism on a larger scale.

Since launching CapEQ in 2011, Boyea-Robinson has worked with more than 50 clients, helping businesses such as Marriott and Nordstrom address their diversity and equity shortcomings. She has also worked with nonprofits and others seeking broader change, including those collaborating on Path to 15/55.

Path to 15/55 takes its premise from recent research by one of those organizations, the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, a trade group of nonprofits that make small loans to underserved entrepreneurs. The group found that if 15 percent of existing Black businesses could finance a single new employee, it would create US $55 billion in new economic activity. But Black entrepreneurs have been hobbled by the effects of an especially pernicious example of systemic racism. Until the 1960s, federal government policies explicitly prohibited Black people from buying homes in white neighborhoods and simultaneously decimated the value of Black neighborhoods. The result has been to deny most Black families the opportunity to build generational wealth on par with their white counterparts. Even today, Blacks are less likely to seek, or obtain, a home mortgage. Most small businesses are financed by savings or loans conditioned on good credit scores and a home that serves as collateral.

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The coalition Boyea-Robinson assembled is pressing for systemic change on several levels. It’s pushing bankers and the financial industry at large to confront their own biases in lending. It also disseminates novel strategies for financing Black businesses to avoid the barriers that Black borrowers face, such as the use of credit scores to assess creditworthiness. The group will then rigorously collect data on which strategies work and which don’t to propagate what’s successful. Separately, it’s agitating for government policy changes to allow these new strategies to flourish.

Boyea-Robinson manages Path to 15/55 as if she were testing software with a feedback loop of its own. It starts with building awareness around a specific issue and forging alliances, or alignments, with like-minded organizations, which then go to work as communities of action to implement change.

“Everything we learn from communities of action becomes the information that we raise awareness on,” she says. “And the loop starts again: awareness, alignment, action. These are all unit tests that become systems tests.”

Boyea-Robinson still finds resistance to financing equity among bank loan officers. “The way racism shows up in lending is bankers saying that this work is not investable,” she says. “Shifting the narrative is why we spend so much time sharing reports and stories.”

Backed with a $250,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation, Path to 15/55 launched its first Community of Action in January. Piggybacking on work led by the Beneficial State Foundation, ­Boyea-Robinson has recruited five financial institutions to experiment with innovative ways to underwrite loans, and to build durable support within their organizations for the work—which, ­Boyea-Robinson says, is the only way these changes will stick. These institutions are expected to begin lending money by midyear. To lessen the risk of losses, Path to 15/55 will make the $1 million it has raised so far available for these loans.

And she’s joining forces with business accelerators to launch a second community of action, aimed at helping Black entrepreneurs buy existing businesses in corporate supply chains, later this year.

“Being able to kind of turbocharge work that is already compelling,” she says, “has been pretty exciting.”

Source: spectrum

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