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Invest Less in White Realization; Invest More in Black and Brown Advantage: A Case Study by Acumen Talent

By: Anna Stillwell, Acumen Talent
  • Blog

These ideas evolved in conversation. Primary conversation partners include: Angel L. Lewis, Esq. and Yassin Choye. Conversations with Angel L. Lewis have spanned five years.

At Acumen, we’re investors. A different kind of investor. We invest in people and companies working to solve problems for people living in poverty, essential products and services that bring more opportunities, more choices to millions.

Our work in the world addresses structural inequities, so our work on representation and inclusion within our organization should follow suit. And we are investors, so our work on representation and inclusion should consider carefully how we deploy resources: to which end, for which kind of return, for whom? Contemplating our core competence (investing) and our mission (structural inequity), led to a simple, but uncommon strategy: invest less in white realization; invest more in Black and brown advantage.

What does that mean? It means shifting the conversation away from the inner lives of white people (such as identity, privilege, unconscious bias and other inner realizations), and shifting the conversation toward understanding and intervening against structural barriers to equal opportunity.

We began our work in 2018. What did we do first?

Show me the money: equity and transparency

There is a well-documented pay gap for black, brown and female employees. The work begins when we invest equally in all talent. Investment means money—not words, not good intentions—but equal pay. So that’s where Acumen began: with the money.1

Acumen already had comparable pay on the back end, a beautiful legacy to inherit. Trouble is, employees did not know that, and there was no philosophy to encapsulate how it worked. Now we have a simple philosophy that clarifies common employee misunderstandings about pay: comparable pay in comparable markets for comparable accountabilities, experience, and education. In other words, for your level of accountability, you will be paid comparably to your cohort in that market. It’s a philosophy grounded in equity. This is not an aspiration for the future. This is our current reality.

We are experimenting with equity in one additional way: the spread between the highest and least paid among us. We assessed the spread. Then the senior Management Committee agreed to hold the ceiling (the two senior-most salaries) across 2018, 2019 and 2020, halve the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for all U.S. Chief Executives for two years, and redeploy savings to nudge up the floor (relatively more junior salaries) based on benchmark data. We chose this experiment because if all we do is benchmark our salaries to “the market,” we’re capitulating to the structural inequity baked into the market, which structurally skews toward the interests of the 1 percent (globally).

But it’s not enough to have comparable pay. Your employees and incoming candidates need to know it and be able to scrutinize it. So, Acumen rolled out a number of initiatives on the transparency front:

  • Total Rewards up front: We now disclose Total Rewards in our first encounter in our interview process in many geographies (Nairobi, Lagos, London, New York and San Francisco). We explain our compensation philosophy, base compensation, performance-based bonus, retirement, sick leave, vacation, parental leave, and medical insurance. We explain that we don’t really negotiate salary because we’re working to reward accountabilities more, and negotiation skills less. Plus, big data shows that those negotiations tend to prefer three characteristics: whiteness, maleness and heteronormativity. If the package works for them, they carry forward in the process with rewards determined and agreed upon.
  • Criteria for pay, performance and promotion in onboarding: All onboarding employees receive a digital pamphlet, “What To Expect At Acumen.” It answers three questions all employees have: How will I be paid? How will my performance be evaluated? How do promotions work? When criteria for pay, performance and promotion are not transparent, the consequences can be more detrimental for systematically marginalized groups, as unwritten rules tend to offer unseen advantages to white people, while documented, objective criteria are good for everyone.
  • Transparent salary bands. We are rolling out salary bands across eight geographies over the next few years. Accompanying the bands is a course where employees learn about the levers of compensation and how Acumen thinks about it: from bonuses, cost of living adjustments, exceptional inflation, scope increases and promotions, and more.

With comparability and transparency on pay, performance and promotion, we laid the foundation for economic inclusion. We then turned our attention to better attracting different kinds of people in the U.S.

Taking down the invisible ‘whites only’ signs

These invisible signs are not all racist, but they are all exclusive, in-groupish, clique-ish. Every culture has a way of interacting. White culture is no different. But if we grew up within white culture as a white person, we tend not to see our own culture or believe that we even have one…it just is. That’s why the signs are often invisible to us.

We started at the beginning of the employee lifecycle—with job descriptions—looking for these invisible signs.2 Job descriptions provide clues to who you are. Word choice and use of jargon communicates a lot about your culture. We found subtle in-group or in-culture language in our job descriptions. There was slang—even hip, millennial slang—which is tough on people who speak English as a second language or grew up in a culture where the reference is not meaningful. Having identified these patterns in language, we began revising our job descriptions: removing in-group language and slang, and better describing the skills and qualifications needed.3 We then began advertising these jobs in new communities. We made many small bets and tracked the traffic from different postings.

For our interview process, our first priority was moving toward a consistent system across eight geographies. Consistency is one structural hedge against bias. As is objectivity, so we structured and programmed the questions and take-home-tests to focus on skills. That way candidates would be more consistently rated for their skills rather than subjective criteria, such as personality type. To date, we’ve offered no training to hiring managers in bias. That’s because we are not currently investing in inner realizations. Right now, we’re removing systemic barriers, not changing minds.

Sourcing and screening candidates are two influential positions in any organization. How these positions are played has more to do with the future of a company than many leaders realize. Talent selection is too important to be done on automatic pilot or by an algorithm.4 Therefore, we invested in the people doing sourcing and screening.

Acumen developed no hiring targets. Because we are not hiring a mandatory group of people, we are hiring the most qualified person for the job.

Where we are now: preliminary returns

We are very early in our work. We have so much to learn. Nevertheless, we are able to assess some preliminary returns. In 2019 in the U.S., we saw a 700 percent increase in our black employee base. In 2019, black employees represented 19 percent of our US employee base.5 In 2020, we saw a 37.5 percent increase. Now black employees represent 18 percent of our U.S employees. We hired at nearly all levels of accountability—from senior to junior and levels in between. If we include people of other races, orientations, faiths and cultures, the shift is larger still. We will continue with our approach and refine or shift as we learn.

Where we’re heading next

Acumen Talent is headed for further experimentation in-line with our strategy. We’ve rolled out a listening practicum across the organization.6 It will be followed by an exploration of political history and policy,6 likely in reading and discussion groups.

We’re rolling out practicums on listening because we want to collectively train in the skills required for a diverse group of people to function creatively and productively together. We are choosing listening instead of identity as learning to listen may be more foundational for a culture to function well. Listening is interpersonal—between people—so it can help build a collective understanding. Exploring one’s identity is intrapersonal—within a person.  Although identity is essential for leaders: who you are; where you come from; what you stand for, listening might build a stronger cultural fabric. Besides, if people understand their identity—or even their privilege—and still can’t listen, good luck working together across lines of difference to deliver on your mission.

Then, political history and policy.7 We will read about systemic barriers to equal opportunity and speculate about how to soften or remove them. Understanding the barriers—and looking for the opportunities within them—will make us better investors and a better employer.

The road ahead is interesting. The work requires continual evaluation of how we invest our time and attention and the nature of the return. But there are so many opportunities, so many bright and unique people to meet, so much to learn, and so many ways to work it.


[1] The money is often one of the last places many companies go, if ever. Many organizations start with training on unconscious bias or a conversation on identity. However, this can be an investment in white realization and potentially be a one-off, check-the-box kind of initiative, though in many cases it has led to more. More often it seems many organizations stop there. Often many white people can get caught up in their own realization and mistake this for the work of representation and inclusion, or get overwhelmed and stop there.

[2] I almost always begin problem solving upstream (in this case, at the beginning of the employee lifecycle). If you start mid-stream, you may fail to understand where the problem began and which of the consequent downstream issues are symptoms of an upstream problem. Don’t chase symptoms.

[3] If a job requires a college degree, it should be stated in the qualifications. Some may tell you to remove this requirement in service of representation and inclusion, but that suggests that black and brown people do not go to college. That is not true. Bias lurks in that opinion, however popular.

[4] At a certain scale, algorithms are an important option. Certainly not at Acumen’s scale. In certain technical roles they can be very useful. But, at our scale and level of technicality, best to leave it to human decision.

[5] This preliminary result says nothing about retention. That may be where we encounter our next issue as it is the next step in the employee lifecycle. That’s why worked on the minimum viable solution (equity and transparency in pay, performance and promotion) before stepping on the gas in recruiting.

[6] Our version of listening is not sentimental. It’s less about empathy (imagining another’s experience) and more about paying attention and seeking to understand the assumptions, facts, values, emotions and meaning another is making of them.

[7] Grant Quigley, who was hired as a Risk Manager one year before a global pandemic emerged, was the person who came up with this idea.

[8] In different geographies, we will discuss different texts. Anyone from any geography could join any group.