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Our Board Member Coretha Rushing on Racism and How to Make a Difference

Written by Molly Forman on Jun 9, 2020

Related content: Diversity And Inclusion, Leadership

Since the pandemic began, our CEO and Co-Founder Chip Paucek has hosted Daily Dose of Team Time, a company-wide call that gives 2U employees a chance to come together at the same time every weekday to check in with each other, share motivational and impactful stories, learn from one another, and have fun. Last week, Chip invited Board Member Coretha Rushing to join the global meeting. A human resources thought leader with more than 25 years of experience, including as head of human resources for Equifax and in senior human resources roles for The Coca-Cola Company, Coretha is an important voice on the issues of diversity and inclusion. On the call, she shared her personal, business, and holistic world perspective on the injustice and racism our Black colleagues are confronted with today and considerations for how to take action and make a difference.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of a Daily Dose of Team Time between Chip, Coretha, and our Chief Communications and Engagement Officer David Sutphen.

Chip Paucek: How are you doing?

Coretha Rushing: It has just been a very challenging time.

I was talking to a few 2Utes before we got started. My son is based in Brooklyn. He’s a writer for MTV, and he’s a graduate of UVA and he happened to be at UVA when they had that horrific march [the Unite the Right rally in 2017]. This has resurfaced a lot of feelings for him. I have my son, my husband, and I have several nieces and nephews. You name every emotion and they’ve expressed it. As a family, we’ve had a number of Zoom calls trying to create a safe place for people to talk and for people to share their feelings. We’re trying to help each other believe that there’s a better tomorrow. And there is a better tomorrow, but there’s work to be done. I think just trying to reconcile all of this has been hard. But people are trying to find a way to get along and trying to find a way to move through this. One thing my family has all agreed on is that we’re going to “slow our roll” on social media. You have to because it will wear you down and take you out.

Chip Paucek: You sent me an article that was really powerful called “Maintaining Professionalism in the Age of Black Death is Hard.” It was really an important piece for me, personally, to read as CEO of 2U. I would love for you to share your reflections for the broader team.

Coretha Rushing: The article was written by an individual who was trying to describe to CEOs and other executives, and specifically I think white executives, that when your African American employees come into work, if they’re acting like everything is OK and you say, “Good morning, how are you doing?” and they say, “Fine,” just know that they’re not.

One of the things I do in my retirement is work for a company as an executive coach and I cannot tell you the number of calls I’ve had from very senior African American executives who have phenomenal careers and experiences who are just, again, you name the emotion. Part of it is that they feel like they are carrying the burden of having to be the subject matter expert on all things Black at this time. One of the things I’ve been sharing with them is the way I survived.

When I reflect on my life, for the longest time I was the only one and the first one—and it wasn’t my intent. I was the first woman chief people officer at The Coca-Cola Company and the first African American woman when I worked at Equifax, a company that had been in Atlanta for over 100 years. I was the first Black executive at the C-suite and of my 13 years there, for 11 years I was the only woman on the leadership team. When you’ve been the only one for the longest, people get very comfortable with you. And if you don’t take the opportunity to teach, you find yourself in situations where people think they can say things with good intentions, like You’re the best Black person I know or We’re not talking about you.

I use every opportunity to, first of all, assume good intent. I assume that people want to be better, I assume people want to care, and when people make comments, or when people don’t make comments, I want to make sure they understand how I feel because nobody can debate how you feel. They can debate what you say and how you say it, but no one can take away the fact that you say you feel a certain way. I’ve tried to use my experiences, and I would encourage all of you to think about the following. There’s a study that talks about how the way to retain key talent is to make sure that everybody in your workplace thinks that they have a bestie or best friend at work. That is a key stickiness of working at a company: that you have people that you actually like. It’s times like these that test those friendships.

I’ll give you a real-life example that happened yesterday. I am a part of an organization of about 85 individuals. Currently there are three African Americans (all are women). This week, there was a plan for a Zoom social hour. Given this past week, I did not want to participate in this kind of event. Rather than just not showing up, I decided to send a note not only to the individual who invited me but to all of my colleagues.

I am the daughter, wife, mother, aunt, best friend of tons of great African American men. I’m not in the mood for a Zoom party. And if you are trying to make all of us feel better, I’ve got an idea because I’m not going to be on the call. Here’s the idea: I want you to reach out to one of your African American friends, but this time try to be a real friend and ask them how are they feeling, let them know that you empathize and feel with them and for them, and that you stand with them and that you don’t know what to say. That will be a start, but having a Zoom meeting and acting like this isn’t happening is not working for anybody, and it’s not working for me.

Immediately after I sent it I was like Oh, crap, I’m sure there are going to be some people who are going to be really freaked out. But just the opposite happened.

I started getting these emails—and mind you I started this job right at the beginning of the pandemic so most of these people I’ve only met through Zoom—from all over the world. They are sending me pictures of protests in the Netherlands, in Germany, and the UK and they are saying you’re right, this is exactly what we should be doing.

That’s what’s difficult about this time, people don’t know what to say. But it’s not acceptable not to say anything and it is a problem that cannot be fixed by Black people. We can’t fix it by ourselves and we should stop trying to fix it. We should stop trying to make people feel comfortable when we feel uncomfortable. That is not to say you should be rude. Everybody has feelings. Again, I always lead with good intent. I always assume that we all want to be better people. I assume that people ultimately care and when they make mistakes and they’re insensitive, they do them in error. And when they do them intentionally, for me, it takes the power away. Once I know that someone did something hurtful, it doesn’t hurt anymore because I have zero expectations of what they’ll do tomorrow.

What I’ve been excited about with 2U is that Chip has made every effort to put these things front and center. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that this has happened, but it’s the connection of all of these events that matters. It’s not only the George Floyd situation, it’s the situation we had in Georgia [the killing of Ahmaud Arbery], it’s the woman in Central Park [a white woman calling the police on a Black birdwatcher]. However you feel politically, this is not a black-and-white issue; this is an everybody against racism issue, and racism is a big nut to crack. You can’t legislate feelings, and that is why this is so incredibly difficult. But at least respect people’s feelings and I think that is the best anybody and everybody can do.

Chip Paucek: I wanted to say to the company that I think what people don’t realize about a board is that the board has a very distinct role in the company, and it’s not just shareholder value, it’s to support and—I'm speaking candidly—to hire and fire the CEO. The board is really important to me and what I do every day. And Coretha, being one of the key members of the company and one of the key members of the board and one of my bosses, you have been so critical and instrumental for me in figuring out how to handle these things. What advice are you giving me today?

Coretha Rushing: When I worked at Coca-Cola, I had the pleasure of traveling. The company was in 220 countries at the time and I probably hit the majority of those. For an extended period of my career I was in essence the chief people officer for the Africa group, so all 53 countries on the continent of Africa. One of the things I learned most when I was in South Africa is the fact that they had a reconciliation panel and they were forced to talk about the atrocities that occurred based on apartheid. They’re very open in terms of having conversations about race, which we haven’t been in this country. I am always very mindful of some of the words of Nelson Mandela and the one piece of advice that I would give you, Chip, is a statement that he made where he said, “May the choices reflect your hope and not your fears.” I would say that to everybody.

Each and every day we make choices, and it’s so easy to be afraid. When you’re fearful, you make all the wrong choices and you’re cautious about things that you don’t need to be cautious about and you’re self-indulgent and only focused on yourself. So I would say, as a business leader and in your personal life, may your choices reflect your hope and not your fears. When you think about your hope, you tend to be a person who thinks with a half-full glass, and not a half-empty glass.

David Sutphen: I know you’re a positive person because I’ve spent time with you. In a moment like this where it’s hard to think about the glass being half full, what gives you hope and inspiration in these moments?

Coretha Rushing: What gives me hope is realizing that the images that we’re seeing do not reflect the whole [the media focus on infrequent instances of looting vs the vast majority of peaceful protests]. That is not the best of us and, most importantly, that is not the majority of us.

I think what’s happened is people have been so frustrated for so long on a number of topics and on a variety of issues that many of us are now a part of the silent majority. I think what needs to happen is we need to find our voice and we need to ask ourselves at this point in time if I am not a part of the solution, then am I a part of the problem?

When I raised my son, I tried to give him as many diverse and exposed experiences as possible, but he has had the benefit of a very privileged life because his parents have worked hard. Unlike my parents, who never tried to describe what you need to do and how you need to feel and how you need to respond in this environment and never gave me the talk, I worked hard to give my son that balance. What’s frustrating about this time is again trying to help him understand that the legislative process works, and the reason it’s not working is that everybody is not fully engaged. Everybody is not voting and having their voices heard.

While you may be angry and frustrated, consider all the tools available to you to make a difference. I want to believe that there are more good people than there are bad people. In fact, I know there are. But we all have to hold ourselves accountable for missing a local election, not going to a PTA meeting, and then getting upset when something happens inappropriately in our child’s school. We have to show up, we have to stand up, and we have to be counted.

That’s what gives me hope, David, because I think this will make people realize all of these issues are connected. The legislative process takes time, but it works, and we just have to continue not only to vote but then also hold people accountable. It’s not just our political institutions—it’s all of our institutions. We have to hold people accountable.

This feeling that people have around their frustration, there is action behind that frustration. Get yourself to the point of understanding what is the productive action I can take. It is not grousing with like-minded people. It is reaching out to the person who is different than you but seems to want to understand.

Chip Paucek: I think it’s safe to say that we will have Coretha back again. I think you all understand now why she’s on the board. She’s a powerful woman. Any final words you would like to leave everyone with?

Coretha Rushing: Each of you has a gift. Use your gift to make a difference and reach out to someone. It doesn’t help to stay by yourself. Even in the height of the pandemic, find a way to reach out.

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