What the Oscar Diversity Problem Says About Corporate America

Oscar Statuettes On Display At Chicago Museum Of Science & Industry

By Gina Grillo

Originally Posted on Fortune

It’s time for brands to take action.

Oscar buzz is taking on a different tone this year. After the recent backlash against the lack of diversity amongst this year’s Oscar nominees, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last Friday that it plans to double the number of diverse members by 2020. And while some have argued that the backlash and boycotts are an overreaction, it’s clear this moment serves as a rallying cry to take a harder look at the overall system and the foundational elements within corporate America that keep us from moving toward a more accepting, inclusive future.

The Academy’s commitment to increasing diversity within its membership is an excellent start. And now, the entertainment industry, along with all business communities, must take action to build a self-reinforcing culture that champions diversity, starting with leaders.

Spike Lee argued, “It goes further than the Academy Awards. It has to go back to the gatekeepers…The executives when they have these green-light meetings quarterly where they look at the scripts, they look who’s in it and they decide what we’re making and what we’re not making.”

Business leadership’s buy-in is imperative to winning the battle for diversity and inclusion. News of Apple’s (AAPL -4.43%) board recommending shareholders go against a motion for increased diversity in its senior management and board member roles is indicative of the challenge society is up against. Without support from the top, businesses can’t implement the necessary structural changes that shepherd in and retain diverse up-and-coming talent that will ascend the ranks and instill the diverse environment so many are striving for.

Diversity is a topic that has been discussed and debated across all industries—from calls for diverse thought and inclusion to buttress the environment to creative work product in advertising.

In business, leadership tends to go with a known entity vs. taking a chance on someone new, and the only way to achieve this change is by slowly adopting new practices and providing an opportunity in a more thoughtful way. Actress Viola Davis hit upon this point in her Emmy speech last year when she said, “…The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

The same rings true for industries across America. For diversity and inclusion to thrive within our greater business communities, business leaders must give people the chance to enter the corporate culture, become a fundamental component of business operations, and ultimately, help businesses thrive.

There is no debate that diversity drives innovation. Companies like American Express (AXP 0.56%) , AT&T (T 0.48%) , and Unilever (UNLVF -4.53%) are excellent examples of businesses that are winning by making diversity a key objective, and business leaders should all take note. Even in my industry, advertising—which faces its own challenges with diversity and inclusion—we are making progress by putting building blocks in place that will ensure our ranks grow with diverse talent in the future. For example, i’mPART and ADCOLOR provide scholarships and training to minorities to further their education, and each organization creates events and networking opportunities with our industry’s top thought leaders so that diverse talent can learn from their success.

There are a number of other ways companies across America can champion diversity. Commit to diverse hiring across all ranks, not only entry-level candidates. This might mean appointing a designated diversity officer. By hiring up-and-comers with diverse backgrounds, companies can arm them with the tools and confidence that will ensure their rise to the highest ranks of a company.

Once business leaders make these hires, they must institute an engaging corporate culture that proactively instills a sense of community and acceptance among talent. This means offering opportunities to incorporate employees into an organization’s initiatives and future growth by way of mentorship programs or clubs that allow employees to get to better know each other and understand each other’s unique strengths.

Finally, business leaders must win employee buy-in by outlining the business case for diversity and inclusion. While the moral reasons for diversity are apparent,Pinterest’s public battle for diversity over the last few years has revealed that not until employers directly link diversity to ROI, as they would a new business project or program, does change start to happen.

The Oscars started the dialog. Now brands must take action to ensure diversity and inclusion become a larger business issue—not just tackling this in small pockets by industry or company. If the business community begins to realize that every person is one step away from a success story, it may propel everyone into action.

It’s clear the challenge is faced in all sectors, which is why the global business community must come together and learn from each other to implement change.

Gina Grillo is the CEO and president of the Advertising Club of New York and the International ANDY Awards.