We’ve all heard in some form or fashion the rhetoric behind the shortage of Black talent in corporate America. Amidst the pandemic, America is at a crossroads. We are witnessing major retail brands, fashion companies, and ad agencies face backlash for their insensitivity to the country’s history of racial injustices, their lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion, and the slow progress in hiring, promoting, and retaining people of color in leadership positions.
Fortunately, there are change agents who are working diligently to make sure diversity and inclusion isn’t just a trending topic, but a mission to create access to opportunities and advancement for underrepresented communities in corporate America.
Ezinne (Kwubiri) Okoro, is the newly appointed Global Chief Inclusion, Equity, & Diversity Officer at Wunderman Thompson. Prior to that, she was the first Black woman to hold the position as Head of Diversity and Inclusion for H&M North America and served in various roles in project management, auditing, compliance, change management, and employee engagement during her incredible 11-year tenure with Viacom Media Networks.
This Nigerian-born, American bred boss has a track record for producing a vast portfolio and knowledge managing different cultures and business strategies for projects in major markets such as Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, London, Milan, Spain, and Singapore.
Ezinne spoke with Her Agenda to share her thoughts about being a Black woman in corporate America, the projects she invested in during her time at H&M, and what to prepare for when entering into this line of work.
Her Agenda: It’s refreshing to see a fellow Nigerian woman with a name that looks like mine in a position of leadership for a major fashion retailer. As a Nigerian woman in corporate America what has this experience taught you about yourself?
Ezinne (Kwubiri) Okoro: I think that those who are Nigerian understand the pressure that can come with the expectations of our families to be successful. So my journey started in accounting and I went into accounting knowing that I wanted more for myself, but I thought it was a great start to business. I’m fortunate enough to have worked for really large notable global corporations and what I learned about myself is that I am truly resilient.
I learned that as you’re going through corporate America and you’re trying to advance and excel [focus on] how people can relate to you. Also, how can you create influence when a lot of people in the room actually don’t look like you? What is going to be that distinguishing factor for them to take me seriously? For me I feel like I’m not here to be placed at the back of the line. I’m not here to just be mediocre and ride the wave, I’m here to be the best of the best. There are additional biases and pre-judging that you get being Nigerian-American. I was born in Nigeria. I came here at a young age, so I definitely identify with both the United States and with Nigeria.
Her Agenda: Nigerians are making headlines in one way or another. Some negative, some positive. How has your upbringing as someone who was born in Nigeria and raised in America shaped your overall perspective of what it means to be an African woman in this country?
Ezinne Okoro: I’m privileged enough to know where my roots are. I love the privilege that I have excelling in the United States. I can’t take this for granted.
I’ve actually traveled back to Nigeria several times. We see that the way [the media frames] Nigeria is starting to change. They’re actually showing that we’re super influential millionaires. We have that generational wealth. It gives me even more energy and more motivation to do amazing things.
I’m trying to make sure that I’m contributing to that narrative of excellence, without feeling that I have to be perfect but showing people that you can make it if you work hard and you push forward.
Black leaders are of African descent, and that speaks volumes. I think Nike’s [latest product releases] are a great example of how they’ve really been showcasing and lifting Nigerian pride. I think all those things shaped me. I’m trying to make sure that I’m contributing to that narrative of excellence, without feeling that I have to be perfect but showing people that you can make it if you work hard and you push forward.
Her Agenda: I remember reading your career announcement on Instagram about your transition out of Viacom into H&M, and what you said about being a Black woman in rooms where people aren’t used to seeing you. Being in this room, have you been able to get a sense as to why some major companies have not prioritized diversifying their staff?
Ezinne Okoro: That’s the million-dollar question. I think it’s because they’re doing it with a very passive approach, kind of like whoever there is we will promote them but not understanding that you have to be intentional about the way that you recruit and retain people of color. It’s about access and opportunity. I may not have the same access as people who are coming from trust fund kids with parents who have the network where they are in powerful positions already. My entire family were immigrants so we were starting fresh. There was no network to lean on where you knew the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
I’m always pushed to lead with excellence and to be an expert so you can’t say that there is a lack of diverse talent because I’m one of them.
It’s unfortunate that some companies are really lax, they’ll tell you that they try. But I tell them if you look around and everyone looks just like you, that means the system that you’re leaning on is defective and you need to do something to fix that system. People are comfortable with other people that look and sound like them. You can get things approved easier because we all think the same. So in order for you to think differently, you have to be comfortable with someone who could challenge you. I’m not sure if everyone is comfortable with that.
Her Agenda: It reminds me of the remarks the Wells Fargo CEO said about the unfortunate reality of having a limited pool of Black talent to recruit from. What are your thoughts from someone like yourself who is invested in this work?
Ezinne Okoro: I’m sure, he is knocking his head on the table every day after that statement. In his mind, he is probably thinking ‘I put jobs up all the time. It’s not my fault people don’t apply. So, if we’re not getting the talent, it’s because the talent is not there’ and what he is saying is what a lot of leaders think.
If we think about the presidential debate that happened, when the current president said that racial sensitivity training is racist, if these are true beliefs that the majority have, then how are we going to be able to shift that narrative? The comment made me frustrated because I’m surrounded by brilliant people of color that I will call upon to be on my team any day. The problem is people are not giving them the opportunity and the access to get there.
This is why I’m always pushed to lead with excellence and to be an expert so you can’t say that there is a lack of diverse talent because I’m one of them.
Her Agenda: And that would be an example of ‘unconscious bias.’ This is something I’m sure was a flaw you saw at H&M especially after the viral incident with the young African-American boy wearing the coolest monkey in the jungle shirt or the Black child model whose hair was unkempt in an H&M ad. What other areas did you see H&M needed improvement and how did you tackle those issues?
Ezinne Okoro: I think that in part of needing inclusion and diversity in any company, the things that you’re mentioning are customer-facing and its public, and even as you’re thinking about advertisement and marketing you also have to look at what’s happening within your walls as well.
We can go back to how we are recruiting, what does the promotional work look like? Are we being transparent and in our process? You take those things into consideration as well and once you’re inside a company it’s like walking into a messy house. What section of the house should I clean first? You have to come up with a plan to prioritize and figure out where the biggest gaps are or deciding on what things I know that I can get done very quickly, and then navigate through. Lastly, be receptive to the change that they want to implement. What do you want to learn from this? What are the risk assessments? What can you change to minimize the risk of this occurring again?
Her Agenda: What pressures did you face as the Head of Diversity and Inclusion? What were some positives you saw in this role?
Ezinne Okoro: I [knew] that I [had] direct support. Everyone knows I’m very vocal and if they are aware of something, I’m not going to let it fall flat. Being a part of the change, a lot of times within the community a lot of people are accustomed to cancel culture mentality. It’s something I don’t necessarily believe in because we can’t cancel something 100 percent. Part of the cancellation needs to be accountability so how do you drive accountability forward?
We can’t cancel something 100 percent. Part of the cancellation needs to be accountability so how do you drive accountability forward?
Her Agenda: Your objective has been to design strategies to increase inclusion and diversity to optimize business goals. What were some projects that you worked on?
Ezinne Okoro: Amazing things have been accomplished. H&M did a collaboration with award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter. She’s such a dynamic soul and she even has an endowment scholarship for Hampton University which is her alma mater. Those are the things where it’s not about sales. It’s not just about clothes, but we are uplifting an award-winning costume designer that has been in the game for years and really just getting her flowers now.
Another thing that’s important to me is that the company wasn’t just donating dollars, H&M also made sure that we were creating true partnerships with organizations like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. The fund is an organization that provides support for different HBCUs, and they are able to support the talent pipeline. Through them, we are supporting the future leaders of America.
Her Agenda: You’ve had more than a decade worth of experience in leadership and management roles at Viacom in addition to serving as a fellow for the council of urban professionals to get to this point in your career. I mean you attended Howard University where they pride themselves on Black Excellence. Was this career path your calling?
Ezinne Okoro: I wouldn’t have known that prior to, but I think now that I’m in it. I’m like, this is my purpose. When you’re younger and you’re trying to get a job, you’re just focused on trying to make sure you have financial independence. As you continue to navigate and you have more life experiences, then you want to live with purpose. The companies may change, the actual titles may change, but the advocacy of Black and brown and LGBTQ+, the disabled, veterans and any of these marginalized minority groups, the advocacy for them in corporate America is my calling. To be at the frontlines of change comes with a certain level of responsibility. It also comes with a fair level of gratitude to even know that people are actually prepared to listen to me.
When you’re younger and you’re trying to get a job, you’re just focused on trying to make sure you have financial independence. As you continue to navigate and you have more life experiences, then you want to live with purpose.
Her Agenda: Does H&M have plans on partnering with people of color and diverse talents for fashion wear? For example, Black people spend billions of dollars in the US every year at major retailers, but there is a lack of representation in stores. Are they working to reflect diversity in their products?
Ezinne Okoro: I don’t know what the future holds for the company, but another thing we’ve been able to do is sign on in a partnership with the Black in Fashion Council. They were established by Lindsay Peoples Wagner who is the Editor-in-Chief at Teen Vogue and Sandrine Charles who owns her own consulting company to bridge that gap between the iconic fashion retail brands and Black designers, creators, models, and producers. The work that they are doing is going to start to open the eyes of all these companies figuring how to get more diverse talents in the room. The future is bright and I believe companies are really starting to have these conversations. The goal is to see how sustainable it’s going to be.
Her Agenda: What advice would you give women who are looking to enter into leadership roles like this? What should they be prepared for?
Ezinne Okoro: You have to be passionate. How are you influencing when people may not even agree with your thinking? Keep up to speed with what’s happening in the world outside of the way that you identify. Most people are still sheltering in place and working remotely. This is the opportunity to learn more, pick up a class, join a workshop, really understand why you want to be in this role, and how to get there. Put yourself out there. You don’t have to wait for a big role to come up. I was doing the work before I even got the title to do the work.
I’m not a person that believes just in my title. I thought I could do anything that I wanted to do. I was [always serving as a] resource and I call myself a universal leader. I was getting the work done but I was also taking the initiative. Start contributing to whatever organization or industry you’re a part of. That doesn’t mean start something new, it just means taking an inventory as to what is around you and seeing where you can make an impact.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]