February 18, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 24th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.
I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.
The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, inspired an awareness and awakening on injustice in our nation. Enough is enough! Yet what we all witnessed at the Capitol on January 6 is yet another sobering reminder of how far the United States has to go, how deep and great our divide is.
Then came the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021, and Kamala Harris as our nation's first female, Black and Indian American vice president. Any transfer of power brings the prospect of hope, new thinking and innovation, a fresh perspective.
But no one illustrated all of that better than Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate. She is a shining example of this burgeoning potential of the young people we serve at the Y and their ability to bring about change. To be able to talk to our neighbors, respect our differences, and see the humanness and wholeness of one another. There was so much brilliance in Amanda's Inaugural Poem, titled "The Hill We Climb," but these lines in particular resonate with me and our mission at the Y:
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us
The YMCA of the North will continue its efforts to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural organization. To that end, I will continue to have these conversations with influencers and leaders who will be a part of the solution.
My 14th guest is Steve White, who worked at Pepsi and Colgate-Palmolive before spending over two decades at Comcast. For a decade, he was president of the West Division, where he was responsible for $17 billion in annual revenue with P&L responsibility, and oversaw 30,000 internal and external employees in 13 western states. But last October, he transitioned into a new role, as special counsel to Comcast's CEO, working on a number of initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion, and leadership programming and development. He is, as you'll quickly find out, a thought leader with an incredible story.
I hope you will enjoy Part 1 of my conversation with Steve White.
Glen: Steve, let's start with a little bit about your background.
Steve: Thank you, Glen. Unfortunately, like many young kids, I grew up without a dad. My single mother had an eighth-grade education, high school janitor for 35 years. I decided to divorce my father, which was not my plan nor my desire. But at that time, at 10 years old, you realize you're not in charge.
Most of my formative years were in Indianapolis, Indiana. I attended Arsenal Technical High School, the largest high school in the state of Indiana, about 5,500 kids. My graduation class was 1,200.
I was blessed enough to be one of those kids who, through some decent grades and a lot of mentors and help, was able to go to Indiana University as part of a program that focused on inner-city kids who showed some potential, but provided them an opportunity to get to school.
It was not a full scholarship or full ride. It was one of those things, "We're going to get you there, but you're going to have to be a partner in this enterprise if you expect to be successful and graduate," which I did in 1982, with a degree in journalism and a minor in business. I started climbing the corporate ladder: American Hospital Supply, Pepsi, Colgate-Palmolive, and then ultimately Comcast, being part of the cable business for the last 18 years.
It’s been an interesting ride. And, as you know Glen, and as you go through this journey, there have to be other people. They're not necessarily giving you a handout, but a hand up.
And I certainly have that, starting with a great wife, Barbita White. We've been blessed to have a young child come later to us in life. His name is Steven Andrew White II. We call him Stevie. He turned eight years old on December 18. What a miracle, we share the same birthday!
Glen: That's amazing!
Steve: When I look for a birthday gift, my wife says, "Look at that big-headed boy there, there's your birthday gift." So that's the story.
Just short of 40 years in corporate America. And while America certainly has a lot of issues and challenges, there's not too many other countries I want to live and grow up and develop in. And so I am the American dream. So the possibilities are there.
But I was blessed to receive more than a handful of opportunities, and I was smart enough to realize there were opportunities, and I grabbed onto it as aggressively as I could.
Glen: Well, I miss that stage with an eight-year-old. That is the best. Our kids are 16 and 18 now, and while also a great time in life, it is different, right? They need you in distinct ways, and they're pushing back while forming their independence. They're not running to see you when you come through the door. I look back so fondly on the time our kids were that age…just an absolute, golden era. Enjoy every minute!
Steve: They're growing up so fast now, Glen. They're so independent. They have so many friends, and Stevie is an only child. So my wife goes out of her way to have plenty of play-dates, things normally when you have two or three brothers and sisters, they play with each other. So we have kids running around the house, which is great.
Glen: You recently made a change. Can you share what you've been up to in your current role and maybe where things are headed?
Steve: I believe we live our life in acts. I believe I'm embarking on Act Three. I was inspired by a book called, "Halftime," by a gentleman by the name of Bob Buford, who owned a small cable company. And the premise of the book is the talk about taking success to significance. So it's one thing to have success. It's another thing to pay it forward or pay it back, and that is the idea of significance.
So I made the decision probably in 1996, 1997, that my Third Act would be broken into a three-part play. Part One of the play is certainly family. My wife has a prison ministry. That is her “why,” that is what lights her boat, her being able to give back and preach the gospel. So I want to support her. I also have a unique responsibility to a child, particularly a young African American child, and how many dads get an opportunity to be there for those meaningful moments to pour into that child? Because I truly believe this child came to us as a miracle and there is something special intended for him, and my job and responsibility is to ensure that we pull that out of him, and we develop that, so he can be inspired. Another part of my family focus is a concentrated effort on my health. I don't need to tell you the health of our community, particularly in the African American community, is not very good. It can be better. And so I want to live by example, really ensuring that this temple that I've been blessed with is healthy and hopefully, through role modeling, I will be able to talk about health in a way that inspires people to really take care of themselves. Then hopefully, I continue to do some other things, like family travel and play some golf.
The Second Act of the play is to continue to stay involved in business and utilize by platform. I will continue to stay with Comcast as president special counsel to the CEO. One of my responsibilities will be to continue to advance our diversity, equality and inclusion efforts. We've made a substantial investment of $100 million. I also serve on three public boards: Hormel Foods, W.W. Grainger and Shaw Communications. Then I'll do some private equity work.
Then finally, the Third Act will be the idea of service and giving back, and there are two specific areas I'm going to focus on. One is writing about leadership, talking about leadership, sharing wisdom around leadership, sharing all my mistakes. And I'm going to do that through a few vehicles. I have a pretty active social media platform on Facebook, on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. I have a website, SteveWhiteSpeaks.com and we just finished my book, and the working title is, Uncompromising. It's built around the premise of the Mark Twain quote, "The two most important days in your life: The day you're born and the day you find out why." So Uncompromising talks about finding your fight, finding your why, defining your why, and how do you live your why in an uncompromising way. Certainly, there are many ways and many times to compromise, but when it comes to your vision and your why, that is not the time to compromise. So I'll focus on leadership, speaking about it, talking about it, helping wherever I can.
And then certainly education, and there are two opportunities I'm looking at today. One is serving as an executive in residence with a local university, and finding some type of inner-city education program that I could be involved in. I served on Denver Scholarship Foundation's board for seven years, and we did a lot of good work. So something else in the education space that I can share my wisdom but more importantly, pour into some young people to help them find their why. Because once you find your why, that is the inspiration that motors you to great success. Hard work certainly is important. Attitude is certainly important. But what really charges you is when you find why you're on this earth. And so that's the Three-Part Play that I'm embarking on.
But on a side note, Glen, I really do believe part of paying it forward is to ensure that you're creating a legacy for others. So I was really excited to help pick my replacement at Comcast. My company allowed me to pick an African-American executive who I've been grooming, and now he steps into that position because that's how you increase diversity in corporate America. You got to hold, serve and build from there. You can't have one, and lose one because you never gain traction. So certainly acquisition is important. Retention is important. But sponsorship is ultimately the way that we truly improve the representation in corporate America. And so now his responsibility is to ensure that he's making that table of prosperity broader for others. I can take it so far. Now the next person has to take it to the next level and that's how we truly build a diverse country.
Glen: Really powerful. I appreciate the elegance and clarity of your outline for how you might go after and find your why. It's clear that faith comes through, and I'm really interested to learn more about the faith component, relative to your leadership. Would you mind sharing about that?
Steve: Well, Glen, the easiest way to talk about it is, I think in life, you need a moral compass that guides you through some very difficult times and decisions. If you have lived a full life, you have been punched in the stomach, you have been tempted, you have fallen off your track. If you're honest and vulnerable, success is never a straight line. It is a very crooked road. And so during those times, what brings you back to your center? What keeps you focused? What makes that down day or month, not turn into a down year or a down decade?
Something has to center you, and so recognizing that, as part of my faith, that I am here by the grace of God. Any success that I've attained has not been on my own. Folks have been put in my life, and I believe it's beyond just being lucky. I believe there has been a destiny set for me, and my job is to follow. So having something that serves as a moral compass for me, that guides me through these tricky roads, really is the road that faith has played.
The second way is, it provides a shield of armor. Because if you're an African American living in this country, particularly in corporate America, it is so easy to become a victim. It is so easy to say, "You know what, I didn't get that because of this. I didn't get this because they don't understand me. I didn't get this because I wear my hair this way."
And so as you go through life, that is the first sign of defeat is when you start blaming others. And maybe there have been some unfair things that happened to me, but I own me, I have radical responsibility, and I know that because of the shield of armor that I put on every single morning when I get up, that is my way of taking radical responsibility to move forward.
If I had to pick one phrase, "This moral compass that guides my decisions and guides my approach, helps me with my attitude and allows me to navigate a very complicated place."
Glen: I appreciate you sharing that. I want to pivot a little bit to your goals around equity and inclusion, especially as it relates to this new role. Where were you when you witnessed — or if you witnessed — the killing of George Floyd?
Steve: I was with my wife. We were watching a news show, and I had heard about the video, but had not seen it. You know Glen, the sad thing is, we start to become immune to this. I think back to 1992, after seeing the Rodney King video, because that had been the most horrific video that I had seen. So with George Floyd, three things immediately came to me. First, what do I tell my seven-year-old son? I give my wife credit, but she has spent countless hours, researching children's books that highlight the positive — we call it — brown people. We say, "You are special. You're not different, you're special." And then I thought about what would I say to my 30,000 employees. Many of them are in the struggle. Yes, I am a part of the struggle. But do I live that struggle every day, as a privileged corporate executive? Absolutely not.
But I have men and women who are in the struggle and how do I talk to them about this, so they remain optimistic and not down. And then the third thing, Glen, I thought of C.T. Vivian. He was a historical civil rights leader, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. He recently died, and he was 95 years old. His son, Al, teaches and coaches around diversity. So I remember 25 years ago, being in a diversity program with him — when I was an employee of Pepsi — and he posed a question to all of us, and we had a mixture of Black, white, Hispanic, and men and women. He said, "I have a question for you. What have we — as Black people — ever done to white people that would drive this level of disrespect, lack of honor and lack of support?" And it stunned us. Yes, I'm sure there been some individual cases, but as a people, what would bring this level of anger and hate and disrespect and creating this level of inequality, when they have the power to create a more just society. And it stunned us.
I immediately thought, "What did this man do that was so bad, or so wrong? Had he been running through the streets with a shotgun killing people? Had he kidnapped a school bus of children? What had he done?"
And these were the three things that popped into my mind. And early, the next morning, I penned a 700 word note to my team, talking about this but remaining optimistic at the same time.
To learn more about Steve White, click here. Look for Part 2 of A Conversation on Race with Steve next week.