By Greg Cunningham
My story begins in Pittsburgh, a city that was highly segregated across racial and cultural lines during my youth.
My father, a butcher, passed away when I was 5-years-old, leaving my mom a widowed mother of five children.
My mom’s hope for me, the youngest, was that education would be my ticket to prosperity. She sent me to a suburban private school where I was not only in the minority, but I was one of the first Black kids to attend. It was the 1970s and inner cities were still smoldering from the tumultuous 1960s. On my very first day of elementary school, I was called a racial epithet – as a 6-year-old. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that day and the many incidents that followed affected my self-image and my confidence.
Years later when I got to the working world, I faced moments of self-doubt. For years, I tried to replicate how my peers spoke and carried themselves. I’d spend my Sunday nights thinking about how to best present a casual 30-second update during a weekly Monday morning staff meeting.
I’d attempt to mirror everyone else’s presentation style and content in hopes of fitting in and feeling as if I belonged. Ironically, all I felt was inadequate. Finally, one Monday morning I talked about seeing a movie with my family over the weekend, and mentioned an idea from the movie that could relate to our business. It sparked conversation and ideas; it was then I learned that being myself and mustering the courage to bring my authentic self to work was essential.
Now, I draw upon my past daily in my role as vice president of diversity and inclusion at U.S. Bank. Not necessarily the hardship of my youth, but having felt the universal emotions of fear, anxiety and the yearning for fairness and equality. I try to share my experiences in order to fuel the passion and purpose of others each day.
I’ve found it now more critical than ever to slow down and have conversations with those around me. In the process, my personal and professional lives have married to simply become “my life.” As a father of two teenagers, an 18-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter, I’ve found tumultuous times amid current events have created a unique opportunity to have meaningful conversations with my kids – at a time when anyone with teenagers knows how difficult it is to sit down to talk about anything without them looking down at their phones. I’ve painfully had to remind my 18-year-old son, Myles, to be constantly aware of stereotypes of young black men, despite the fact that he’s a student athlete on his way to Brown University to play Division I hockey.
In recent years I’ve finally started to see diversity and inclusion shifting from a socially responsible program to a business imperative. A recent McKinsey study, for example, found that companies with gender diversity in senior leadership had 15 percent better financial performance than the average company and those with ethnic diversity performed 35 percent better.
I look forward to continuing to grow into my role as head of global inclusion and diversity. I view my primary responsibility as making sure 67,000 employees at U.S. Bank find their voice. I don’t want them to try replicating someone else’s – like I did.
Greg Cunningham is vice president and head of global inclusion and diversity at U.S. Bank. As part of U.S. Bank’s companywide month of inclusion, Cunningham and his team are on a road trip throughout August to engage employees in conversations about inclusion, safety and current events.