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Accountability From the Top

Lessons Learned from Corning's CEO-Led Office of Racial Equality and Social Unity

A group of people in the shape of a scales of justice.

In 2020, Corning created the Office of Racial Equality and Social Unity (ORESU). The murder of George Floyd and several other racially motivated incidents, along with the national riots and dialogue that ensued, were clearly a major impetus. When our leaders came together to discuss these events, we agreed we wanted to do something. But, at first, we didn't know what that would be.

Corning is very much an operational, hands-on company. We try to take actions only in places where we have the presence and power to actually make a difference—in the communities where we live and work. Corning has been committed to DE&I for many years, but we wanted to capitalize on this momentum to make sustainable changes.

Our next step was to conduct listening sessions to better understand what our employees were thinking and feeling. Everyone had strong opinions. We incorporated this feedback into the creation of our goals for ORESU.

Unity, Not Just Equity

We specifically added the goal of "social unity" because we knew that if we simply named our initiative "Racial Equality" or "Racial Equity," this might prompt a reaction we didn't intend. We wanted to say that no matter where you fall politically, religiously or socially, we're here for you. We want social unity. We want everyone to get along, including our employees. We've been trying to encourage people that they can share their opinions on any issue, as long as everybody's being treated respectfully and allowed to have a voice.

In 2020, we were also revising our corporate operating model because the company was preparing for a new era of growth. We established what we call the Office of the CEO, which is a smaller group of our most senior executives with the authority to make decisions about significant internal and external issues. We decided to place ORESU under the Office of the CEO to make sure people understood how serious this initiative was for us.

We have three senior leaders running each of the components of ORESU. Since I run the Office of the CEO, I oversee ORESU and its three work streams. My job is to coordinate all these activities, ensure each is well-resourced and to hold the company accountable to its commitment.

The first of ORESU's three work streams is our internal focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. The second stream is at the local level, in regions where we have facilities. And the third is national, which represents the greatest challenge because we are not as large as Apple or Google. We are not so massive that whenever we talk, people listen. Our hope on the national level was that there would be coalitions of groups that we would work with if their goals aligned with ours.

Screen Shot 2023-01-03 at 24227 PM.pngDefining Success

When we first rolled out our plan for ORESU to our top 200 leaders in the company, someone posed the question that the senior leadership team had asked itself early on: What does success look like?

My answer in 2020 was that if we're still talking about ORESU in two years and it still has the same energy we have today, that is success. And it still has that energy. ORESU continues to be effective, progressive and sustainable.

Success internally will also be measured by whether we meet the metrics we set for ourselves in terms of recruiting, retaining and fostering an inclusive workplace. We have programs that identify and develop diverse talent, with specific succession plans for leadership positions.

We've also implemented unconscious bias training so employees can understand that we all have biases and how to address them. Most people, once they've learned they're biased in a particular way, want to change their approach and thinking. Last year, our salaried employees received training. This year, our hourly workforce received it. Going forward, additional DE&I topics are being rolled out to our employees.

We have had many successes at the local level as well. For example, Corning employees make up about half the people who live in Corning, New York, a small town of about 11,000 people. In 2020, we met with the chief of police, the mayor, the sheriff and the state police in this region. We brought them all together and asked, "What can we do to help you?" We believed the issues were broader than instances of mistreatment of minorities by police. After meeting with them, we ended up purchasing body cameras for 11 municipalities in the area, which not only protect the people the police deal with, but also protect the police.

In addition, we extended our longstanding support of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Corning donated $5.5 million over five years to provide more than 50 scholarships to students to prepare them for STEM education and careers.

We also created programs in local schools that improve diversity, including DE&I training for teachers, staff and students, and recruiting programs for Black teachers. We've even launched a podcast, called Vital Voices, in which students and teachers who have benefited from these programs share their experiences. The goal is to encourage others to pursue STEM and education careers and emphasize the importance of helping your community.

3 Lessons Learned

Now that our ORESU initiative is more than two years old, it's a good time to reflect on lessons we've learned that might be useful for other organizations.

1. Think globally. The first step is to know your audience, as in your employee base. At the outset, we were thinking about this initiative more from a U.S. perspective. We heard from employees in other countries saying that we hadn't considered what happens in countries like China, Japan or India.

The message was that we should be thinking beyond the United States, and we heard it clearly. As a first step, we sharpened our focus on gender equity and equality at our offices and operations in several countries.

My advice to people who are thinking about going down a similar path: If you are running a global company, you should think about this issue globally. Don't think only about the U.S., because there are racial equality, racial equity and social unity issues around the world.

2. Lead from the top. I want to underscore the importance of having initiatives like this placed under the top level of a corporation. In our case, that was under the Office of the CEO. We also had unanimous support from our board of directors. In fact, each of our directors even signed up to work with the ORESU leaders. This type of initiative needs powerful backing to succeed.

3. Allocate time and attention. Finally, make sure the person leading the initiative—or in our case, each of the pillars of the initiative—has the time to do the job effectively. You don't want your new program to be run as a part-time job. It's about focus and time and making sure the initiative has real power behind it. These are some of the main reasons ORESU has been a success for Corning.

We realize our actions through ORESU are just the beginning of our journey toward building greater racial equality and social unity. We know it's not easy to create lasting change, so we'll continue to evaluate the most effective ways to drive sustainable progress within our communities.    

Lewis Steverson is the executive vice president and chief legal and administrative officer at Corning. He previously served as senior vice president and general counsel for Motorola Solutions.


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