How the dialogue on diversity is reshaping business

Philip Sun and Kirk Morrison joined Wharton dean Erika James for a discussion about how diversity is reshaping businesses and brands. The discussion, titled “Race & The Selling of America,” moderated by marketing professor Americus Reed, is the final segment of the Beyond Business series, which tackles the complex and pressing issues affecting individuals and organizations across the world.

Person in demonstration crowd holding a sign that reads IF YOU CHANGE NOTHING NOTHING CHANGES.
Pre-pandemic image

The image of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick leaving the field after his last game in January 2017 still haunts Morrison, an ESPN broadcaster.

“I was kind of overwhelmed with emotion because I saw him walking off the field, and I knew it would be for the last time,” says Morrison, a former linebacker for the Oakland Raiders. “What he started back then is acceptable now. It was not acceptable back in 2016 because of where our country was at.”

The cultural shift is also evident in Hollywood. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign that began five years ago has been putting steady pressure on an industry legendary for its lack of diversity in front of and behind the cameras.

“Anytime there’s a spotlight on just how noninclusive any industry is, companies tend to react,” says Sun, president/managing partner and co-founder of M88, a talent management firm focused on writers, actors, directors and producers of color.

“The awakening of what happened with George Floyd came at the perfect time,” Morrison says “It was the perfect time because we all had nowhere to go. We all were on lockdown, and we couldn’t turn the channel.”

Sun, who recently left position as one of the first Asian-American partners in the talent firm William Morris Endeavor and start his own agency, dismissed the idea that minority-owned and focused businesses are niche, pointing out that the majority of the world’s population is not white. Business is all about the bottom line, and in Hollywood that means content that sells. The newer generation is creating content around their own stories, and the public is clamoring for it. The paying audience is no longer just older white males, he says.

“It just got a little bit tiresome feeling like diversity and inclusion was a policy or a program or an afterthought or a reaction,” Sun says. “We really wanted to build a firm that had those principles at the core, so you don’t have to push for them. They’re just there.”

Morrison is having more conversations than ever with executives who want to hear his perspective, and he exhorts others to ask questions, seek feedback, do their own research and keep talking.

Sun advises minorities to seek out white allies, particularly those in executive positions who can help bring about change.

“Ask your white counterparts who are in the smallest rooms to put somebody like us—who is ready for it and experienced enough and deserving to be there—in those smallest rooms.” he says. “When women and people of color and allies are in the smallest rooms, then the change happens.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.