Over the next 50 years, Nielsen research predicts the Black population is expected to grow by 22 percent while the White (non-Hispanic) population is expected to shrink by 27 percent. Spending power among Black Americans is expected to reach $1.8 trillion by next year.
Retail is an industry known for its customer-facing roles and direct influence on consumers’ buying habits, and it is supposed to mirror society. “Supposed to” are key words. But it’s concerning to see the opposite—the lack of diversity in the legacy corporate American retail leadership landscape, particularly regarding the underrepresentation of the Black population. Despite the industry\’s large workforce, Black leadership is noticeably absent in executive management and the C-suite.
Confronting long-standing biases and institutional barriers paves the way for a more equitable retail industry. It may be uncomfortable, but these conversations will unlock a better future for sustaining a diverse, inclusive workforce.
Let’s dissect the challenges, deconstruct the obstacles, and identify actionable steps to correct this disparity. After all, we want the retail industry to truly represent the society it serves. Right?
What the Numbers Show
In the history of the Fortune 500 (which started in 1955), out of 1,800 chief executive officers, only 19 were Black. Currently, the number of Black CEOs in the Fortune 500 is at an all-time high, totaling eight Black executives, per AboveBoard\’s analysis. Drilling down to traditional retail, Marvin R. Ellison, President and CEO of Lowe\’s Companies Inc., is one of eight Black CEOs in the Fortune 500. When it comes to Black women, a Women of Color Retail Alliance report states that Black women constitute about 14 percent of the U.S. population, and they make up a mere 1.7 percent of executive roles in retail and consumer goods. Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., is the only Black female CEO in the S&P 500, according to information from Catalyst, and the highest-ranking Black CEO on the Fortune 500 list.
Black representation is slightly elevated in frontline-level, in-store jobs, yet it’s still not proportionate to its population. And these are typically lower-paying, often entry-level positions that rarely offer comprehensive benefits and do not elevate the voices of Black employees.
Despite the strides society has made toward equality and inclusivity, these numbers serve as a reminder that there is a pressing need for more focused and intentional efforts to bolster Black representation in leadership roles and the workforce at large.
Why Organizations Are Losing Black Executives
Outside of “traditional” corporate retail, we have many successful entrepreneurial retailers who are Black-owned and operated that are thriving.
A few examples: Daymond John launched the fashion apparel brand FUBU that’s grossed over $6 billion in sales. Fawn Weaver has made it in the retail food and beverage industry with her whiskey, Uncle Nearest while Danessa Myricks has made her place in the retail beauty industry. Jerry Lorenzo and his Fear of God is now a staple in the fashion industry. LYS Beauty founder and CEO Tisha Thompson runs the first Black-owned, clean makeup brand sold at Sephora. These all may not be mainstream big-box brands, but it shows Black entrepreneurs are often choosing themselves over established organizations.
In the corporate retail world, Black professionals face many systemic challenges that impact their professional growth and development. These challenges, often deeply rooted in bias and discrimination, can create an environment where Black candidates are less likely to be hired, promoted, or fairly compensated for their work.
Implicit bias can play the biggest role in these systemic issues. Hiring managers, often unconsciously, can favor candidates who look like them or share similar backgrounds. This bias creates a barrier to obtaining jobs or promotions. The bias is only exacerbated by AI-managed interviewing and screening programs.
I believe longstanding biases have flipped the mindset of most Black professionals from “I want to climb this corporate ladder” to “I would rather lead my own company.” In my opinion, this is why Black leadership in retail is lacking in established organizations. No one, regardless of ethnicity, lifestyle, or gender wants to work in a place where they aren\’t valued or feel outcasted.
DEI Initiatives Are Dying
Experts across industries have vouched for the importance of diversity. According to a McKinsey report, companies with higher diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above industry medians. Additionally, a Boston Consulting Group study found that diverse management teams innovate more effectively, leading to nearly 20 percent higher revenues from new products and services.
We’ve spent the last three years adjusting to enforced DEI initiatives and ambitious hirings of Black professionals, only to see the fire die out within a few months. Despite the research, companies are letting Black executives go for undisclosed, often for unsupported reasons. Even organizations that are genuinely trying to change the landscape have lost valuable Black employees who are opting out to start their own businesses.
I can say from experience that many DEI programs do not help Black employees find the power to create their own opportunities. I’ve personally witnessed Black mid-level managers gain promotions so the C-suite can have at least one “different perspective” to meet diversity requirements only for them to be demoted or laid off in just a few months. To make matters worse, the new Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action has prompted corporations to defund their inclusion programs, some of which were still in their infancy. It makes me wonder if these programs were ever a priority or just a fleeting trend.
We don’t need another dysfunctional DEI initiative. We need access to more networks that put us in close proximity to those who have the power to make change. According to Kimberly Minor, CEO of the Women of Color Retail Alliance, in-person networking events are key in elevating the status of Black women in retail. This can be exponentially expanded to support all Black professionals. By connecting aspiring leaders with established professionals in the field, these programs can provide valuable guidance, open doors to new opportunities, and create a sense of belonging that makes Black executives want to stay.
The Bottom Line
The retail industry stands at a pivotal intersection, where the ultimate goal is for its workforce to match the diversity of the society it serves. The persistent systemic barriers that continue to block the professional growth of Black people have changed the narrative for success. In my opinion, while retail executives have grown accustomed to hiring someone just because they’re Black, they’ve forgotten that working alongside the people they hire is a requirement.
You can’t add a few different faces to the team and call it a day: Building professional friendships show Black employees they are truly wanted. This is the foundation for strong networks that favor diversity – and it is a strategy to build an authentically inclusive workforce.
So, where’s Black leadership in retail? They’re thriving in spaces where they have friends and the power to develop spaces where they feel like they belong. My advice to retailers looking for great Black executives…create those authentic spaces and start making friends.