Q&A: Fortune’s McGirt talks covering diversity and culture

Ellen McGirt

Ellen McGirt covers race, culture and leadership in a daily column and blog for Fortune called Race Ahead.

Last year, the blog won a National Headliner Award. The judges wrote, “Ellen McGirt’s columns are so needed right now, so helpful to a country struggling with issues of race (and gender, and, and, and ..). They are smart and thoughtful and informative, but also written in just the right tone — a feat in itself.”

Her reporting has taken her inside the C-suites of Facebook, Nike, Twitter, Intel, Xerox and Cisco; on the campaign trail with Barack Obama, and across Africa with Bono to study breakthrough philanthropy.

In the past, she’s written for Time, Money and Fast Company, where she wrote or contributed to more than 20 cover stories. Back when the web was young, she was the founder of a financial website for women called “Cassandra’s Revenge,” and established similar sites for AOL and Oxygen Media.

McGirt was the lead editor for “Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others,” a book published by Wiley in 2015. She attended Brown University and is on the board of L’Ecole de Choix, an elementary school in Mirebalais, Haiti.

McGirt spoke by Zoom with Talking Biz News on Friday afternoon about her beat. What follows is an edited transcript.

How did you get interested in journalism and business journalism?

I had a whole other career in the arts working in galleries and starting galleries and was the museum curator at a bunch of wonderful small outlets, mostly in New England, and I used to joke that I had lived through five major recessions, three of them were personal only to me. I decided that if I was going to work this hard selling pigment on canvas then I also wanted to be able to do something that really meant something to me.

So I joined a brokerage firm run by a man who used to buy paintings from me to learn the world of financial literacy and I used that as a jumping point to start my own website. It was called Cassandra’s Revenge, which was dedicated to women and financial literacy and it just was a weird confluence of events. The site was popular.  Yahoo featured it figure prominently in its new financial stuff.

And AOL hired me to build a financial site for information site for women. Then I joined Oxygen and next thing I know, I got an offer to join Money magazine as an entry-level person and worked my way up from there. So that’s how I started mostly it was personal finance and investing and after four years at Money I started looking up at Fortune, which was just two floors away, to write longer stories. After a year, I was lured away to Fast Company where I was a profile writer for seven years.

Take me back a little bit to Cassandra’s Revenge. Was was the content?

I think if I looked at it now. I would cringe. Sort of like how you would cringe if you saw your MySpace page right now. The tools were really rudimentary. I did a lot of coding myself, but the premise was the Trojan princess who had been given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo and then was cursed to never be believed.

This would have been 1995, 1996. There was a burgeoning movement to make investing easier for people. There was more information. It wasn’t just the domain of people who smoke cigars and called out stock tips from the corner offices.  It seemed to me that women were missing this opportunity and they weren’t being marketed to correctly or affirmed in their natural instincts around value and savings and the work that they already did in their lives and careers and in their homes. This was supposed to be a confidence builder. They already knew what to do. This was just a sense of how to do it. It was very basic financial literacy.

I was attempting to build a community of competent women who are prepared to get their questions answered and build wealth and safety and contribute to the wellbeing of their own families. It was very basic. It seemed revolutionary at the time, but it really wasn’t.

Was that similar to what you were writing about when you joined Money?

Some of the reporters at Money used to use my message boards looking for real people to write about and to include in Money magazine. So I was sort of known to them. I was in the satellite world. If you remember back to 2001 and 2002, there were still a huge work and psychological divide between people who made the magazines and people who did something on the website that was run by CNN. So I was a little bit like a lady in the wild from the Internet.

When did you start writing about race and culture as a business topic?

Looking back, these were questions I always ask. This was my orientation I brought into any interview that I had, but as a beat. It wasn’t until 2015, and I would never have pitched it because this was just a hard topic for media and business media in particular. But I got a direct message out of the blue from [now Fortune editor] Clif Leaf on Twitter, who I hadn’t talked to in eight years, asking me if I’d be willing to write a story about the lack of black men in the executive ranks in the Fortune 500 and it was such a surprising request and such a deviation.

I got on the phone right away. We sketched out what I thought was a pretty radical outline, different from what Fortune typically might have done, which was to look at the experience of black men from the time they’re born to the C-suite and where we lose them along the way. And it was a hard story, and it was an emotional story. I got a chance to talk to a lot of people, researchers and professional executives who had never been asked this kind of question before.

We hear about the talk that black parents give to black boys in particular about how to stay safe in the world. What’s that version in executive life? So it was really rich and emotional reporting and a story was very well received.

In the editing process, the whole process was effortless and a way that I wasn’t expecting. Shortly after that, PwC came along and said that they’re interested in sponsoring a richer and deeper conversation about race. We were building out our newsletter business, and they sponsored the first newsletter.

The one thing I know for a fact is that most people in working life do not need is a daily newsletter on race. Nobody needs that like they didn’t need my paintings. They didn’t need this like 18 times more. And so I really struggled at first, just to survive it, and to differentiate my voice from other newsletters and to make it a tool for inclusion.

How are you finding the content for the newsletter?

That was the hardest part. Right now my feed is perfectly aligned. I know where to look and people recommend things for me. And the big fear was I was going to make a huge mistake. I’m not trained on race, I’m not trained on race theory, and race is not just my personal experience. The big pressure was, I’m going to say something stupid and it just reigns down on the heads of my colleagues. So what should have been a relatively easy thing to do, I was working on them, eight, nine hours a day.

I struggled with all of that for about six months and little by little, it got easier.

One of the things that got easier is I convince people not to make it a morning send. There’s still this mindset that people were going to be reading these vital newsletters from Fortune as they were coming to work. And nobody wants an update on race as they’re on the train commuting to the office. So once I was being able to send it later in the day when people had a chance to catch their breath, I got a little bit of a rhythm and people got used to hearing me comment on things and invite them to think about things in an interesting way.

It’s a challenging beat and if it didn’t mean so much to me personally, to be able to have this conversation, I don’t think I would have survived it.

You mentioned that you were surprised that Clif commissioned this article. Were you surprised that they wanted us to do this newsletter as well?

Yeah, yeah, I love Clif and [Fortune CEO] Alan [Murray]. I certainly trusted their judgment. They clearly felt that there was room in the marketplace of ideas for this conversation. The first story was really well received, and then the newsletter started and that went well and it became, I sort of had a little piece of real estate that was sponsored and that’s a huge deal.

So they knew what they were hearing from readers and advertisers in ways that I had no access to. And they left me alone.  I don’t think anybody who comes from a big traditional organization feels that they have a handle on how to talk about race, particularly back then in 2016. This is when the first wave of really serious uprisings were around, police shootings. The Trump campaign is sort of winding up. There’s a lot of really tough rhetoric that now seems like just another day. But people were deeply frightened and struggling for ways to survive. What they were afraid about in their own lives, the safety of their family, finding the courage to draw leaders’ attention to the condition of people who work there at a time when everyone’s paying lip service to diversity inclusion, but not making much headway.

That was sort of the emotional landscape that we were wading into. It was surprising that it grew rapidly. It’s not supported by a conference, for example. It’s not supported by a channel on the website. So this little newsletter stands shoulder to shoulder with a lot of the other newsletters that we do have. I’m not allowed to sharing numbers, but I’m really proud. There’s a high open rate and I have a very dedicated community who really care about it. If you’re willing to read a daily newsletter on race you care about it.

When did you feel like the business community really started paying attention to what you were putting out?

It’s like two weeks ago. That’s the actual, honest answer. Every now and then a big Fortune 500 CEO would mention something or retweet me or ask me another question, particularly if I covered something that someone that worked in their organization who was doing interesting work that didn’t know about and I get invited to a lot of things, and I became more courageous about bringing these discussions to their own conferences and meetups and trade groups.  I was sort of weaving my way into the corporate world as a person who could survive these difficult conversations and was writing about it.

I can’t even put words around what’s happened in the last couple weeks, and I really struggle. It’s an emotional beat and it takes a toll on me and I really struggled to determine what I think about what’s happening. I think something important to happening now. So that’s, that’s how I’m getting my bearings here.

This past week Fortune produced a huge project of being black in Corporate America. How were you involved in that?

We all were involved. It was not my origin, but we all got to work out right away. Karen Yuan is the editor for all the newsletters who was deeply involved in our projects and all of our ideas and she spearheaded the idea. We all participated an amplified and we’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of responses.

That was very powerful stuff.

This was the kind of thing where everyone could understand the priority, and I think we had our pivot muscles working because we all sort of pivoted to care about the pandemic and understand what that meant. And now we’re working on this in a really powerful way. We just were able to pull together all of their resources and develop something that was powerful right at the time when people needed to see and hear it.

Since you’ve been covering this for a while, how do you discern when a company is really serious about this issue versus just putting out a statement that’s just to appease people?

That’s a great question. And there are a couple of ways. Some are practical and others are very human. The most I think what we’ve learned, and I mean the community of researchers and people who are really expert at this that let me hang around with them, is that there are some very specific things that any company can do that indicate that they are serious about bringing people who are under represented and making them feel welcome. An example of the first one is linking diversity goals to executive compensation. You just get everybody’s attention right away.

And there are more nuanced things that need to happen. In terms of hiring, removing bias from the hiring process, having that diverse slate of candidates for every single opportunity and promotion, and a diverse slate of interviewers — some really basic stuff that sounds easy, but actually it’s challenging to implement. A lot of it requires repeated conversations from the very highest level of why this is necessary.

And there’s a longer discussion of linking this to better business outcomes. But there’s a business case for diversity, which is when you think about it, a deeply insulting framing that I hope is finally over. It frames the enterprise and the white leadership as opening the door to welcome people who are different from because it will make the business better when in fact it’s an outdated way of thinking about that.

So as executive leaders become more fluent, they feel more comfortable talking about this their feelings, they’re holding open meetings, they’re listening to employees. They’re building ways that people who are bumping up against each other and in ways that are uncomfortable to report this. They’re looking at what leaders who are struggling and making mistakes around race as a developmental opportunity that they can learn and grow. Those are the kinds of things that make for a welcoming workforce, the human part of it is, and I can assure you this happens.

I have a private LinkedIn group of diversity and inclusion practitioners and am constantly fine tuning my ideas and listening to what’s happening. They have the world that they’re looking at. But I also have thousands and thousands and thousands of people who work for these companies and they’re more than happy to tell me what their experience is actually like. I’m an unusual position to have the the anecdotal courage to ask a senior executive.

If you’re doing something interesting with HBCUs, for example. But what I’m hearing from your employees is that the work is just not sticking. What can you tell me about how you’re learning? How are you listening and what do you plan to do about that? I do struggle with this piece. I had to really understand that my job here was not to expose and yell and confront and crow every time a diversity report comes out and it hasn’t changed.

I could do that. It probably would drive some traffic, but it wouldn’t help anybody solve the problem, and it wouldn’t help people who are working at these companies. Companies contribute to the solutions that they need to be contributing to.

I hope smarter questions, probing questions, understanding that this is hard, and there are no simple answers, but the truth is we can’t get any of it done if a majority culture people in the United States, of course, I mean, white people, white men, in particular aren’t able to stay the course.

White men really need to start shutting up and listening. I really think that’s the first step.

It’s capitalism, though. If you work in a zero sum system and there’s clearly only certain seats for certain people, you’re asking people to rethink wiring that not just goes back centuries, but it’s your entire career. But listening is a good way to start.

You recently got some help with the newsletter. Is that just because of what’s been going on right now?

I have often worked with editors and sometimes we have a lot of people, and sometimes we don’t have a lot of people. And so sometimes I’ve been a one-woman show and sometimes I’ve had people pitch in and be able to help, but I’m really always looking for somebody to to join me.

It gets scary. You know, Kobe Bryant falls from the sky. I don’t want to get this wrong. This is an important moment to examine some really tender things. So having a sounding board has made all the difference in the world.

I just want to make sure everything goes smoothly and Aric Jenkins stepped up. He is wonderful. We had not gotten chance to work together before because I’m remote. He’s funny and kind and a thoughtful reporter and I told I warned him like, I know you’re going to think I’m exaggerating, but the first time you put yourself out there, you’re going to be surrounded by every uncle and aunt in Corporate America. And it was true. He just got the greatest reception for his recent Juneteenth essay and new Twitter followers and lots of LinkedIn requests and lots of notes. It is such a metaphor for what it’s actually like to work with people who care about diversity and inclusion. So they were super welcoming, and I was really happy.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m starting to see other major publications business publications, even mainstream publications, start to pay more attention to race and diversity as a business story. Would you agree with that?

I would. And I think, I think it’s great. I would love to feel that I was early on this, but I don’t think it matters. What matters is that the journalists who have been overlooked, who have a real fluency in this, are getting to tell stories. That may have made a difference and highlight that the math of big businesses is undeniable.

It’s got to make an impact. So let’s just the idea that business has a bigger purpose to fix the world, whether it’s climate or trafficking, whatever it is and fixing the things that they broke, which requires a different kind of leader, more collaborative, more curious more open, more willing to to just look at how the world actually operates and that dovetails nicely.

I’m going to let you go. But I have to ask about the sign behind you. I can’t read all of it. So what does it say?

It says if you work really hard and are kind, amazing things will happen.