Kenneth Charles understands the need for diversity in the workplace and the challenges workers face. That experience includes nearly losing out on a transfer to a sales position in Atlanta 24 years ago because the manager didn’t think local customers would accept an African American sale representative.
His experience extends through an entire career involved with driving more diverse hiring in corporate America, including 15 years at General Mills, a founding corporate partner of The Consortium. He’s now vice president for global inclusion and staffing at General Mills, which has been a Consortium partner for one-third of the company’s history.
Charles’ commitment to The Consortium is so deep, in fact, he’s one of only three Eagle Club members who isn’t actually in The Consortium. Eagle Club members commit to donating $5,000 a year in three consecutive years. Charles joined the exclusive group of high-level individual donors in 2006. We asked him to tell us why, and to talk more about his commitment to the cause of diversity and the Consortium community.
You’re a member of the Eagle Club, but not a Consortium alumnus yourself. What compelled you to get involved with The Consortium in the first place?
It was my job and my joy. My job at the time was to lead marketing recruiting and university relations for General Mills, a founding sponsor of The Consortium. For almost 50 years—think about that!—for almost 50 years, General Mills has understood the opportunity and responsibility to diversify business. As a company, we’re all in. We’ve enjoyed exceptional talent over the years from The Consortium; we have at least four officers who are Consortium alumni.
The joy? I love connecting talent with opportunity and empowering people to achieve their ambitions. The Consortium was just a great big sandbox for me to play in. I enjoyed leading the Corporate Advisory Board and serving as a trustee. It was a great team of folks who were personally committed to the mission, and the work we did was one of the highlights of my career.
I would have loved to have been a member of The Consortium, but I didn’t get the memo. It’s horrible that there are candidates who would be eligible that don’t learn the MBA world’s best-keep secret. I’m personally committed to helping at least one person each year navigate the selection process. I challenge each alum and partner to do the same.
Why have you decided to become so deeply involved financially?
My wife Karen and I believe in what we call the “four investments.” One of the four is “invest in your community.” If we’re savvy, we think about our investment strategy, our retirement plan, our 401(k) allocation—we’re thoughtful and deliberate with our money.
But what if you applied that same thinking to your community investments—time, talent, and treasure? Whether you have $20 or a million, you can make a difference. As a family, we invest in pre-K development and a K-8 charter school for economically challenged kids to set the right foundation and the UNCF to support kids who have done everything right, but need assistance to go off to school.
When we invest in The Consortium, we’re investing in leadership. We’re both INROADS kids. I still remember their mission—to develop and place talented minority youth in business and industry and prepare them for corporate and community leadership. Investing in young people attaining their MBA from a top-tier B-school is helping that mission become reality. Our community, our nation, desperately needs leaders with the right training and the right values. Financially supporting The Consortium moves the needle on both.
What benefits have you drawn from your association with The Consortium, both personally and professionally?
My association with the Consortium staff, schools and partner companies has been incredibly rewarding. Not only have I enjoyed lasting friendships, but together, we made a tangible impact on the talent pipeline. I continue to be inspired by students and alumni. Consider me a fan in the stands cheering for your success, (and) a coach and mentor when I’m able. Finally, an investor who is very satisfied by the return on investment from this franchise.
How has the climate for diversity in U.S. business helped or hindered you on your path? Has that climate changed over the years? Have you seen ebbs and flows? In what way?
The world has changed considerably since 1991 when I was almost denied a promotion and transfer to Atlanta because the regional sales manager (for U.S. Steel, where he worked at the time) didn’t think our customers would accept an African American sales representative. However some things haven’t changed, like the proportional representation of women and people of color in leadership in this country—count CEOs, senators, etc.
While there is still work to be done, we have more skilled professionals and wealth than ever before. The opportunity is to focus those resources in the areas that will generate the greatest return for our communities.
Without a doubt, we should collectively double down on education at every level. Education not just in marketable skills, but we need to remind these talented individuals of their responsibility and accountability to their communities.
I read your 2012 testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. It sounds so simple when you spell out the business case for diversity. Why do you suppose it’s not more widely understood?
Usually in business, we ask, “What does the data say?” and then drive our strategies and operations appropriately to deliver results. I say “usually,” because diversity and inclusion tends to be an exception.
For 25 years, we’ve been talking about the business case and the inevitability of the demographic shift. It’s arithmetic. For some reason, despite overwhelming evidence, some people, some organizations, choose not to get it. I’ve come to peace with that. I work for a company that will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, (and) as I said, we’ve supported The Consortium for 50 years. The companies that get it will endure and prosper. The others will fade away. It’s that simple.
When is the last time you referred someone—either a student prospect or a business associate—to The Consortium? What was the conversation like?
I had a coffee chat two weeks ago. I have another next week. I think I have a recommendation that’s due pretty soon. It’s not that hard. Simply commit to helping one person each year. Selling The Consortium is easy. It’s the fellowship. Yes, the financial support is great, but the community, the fellowship of peers, and companies, and schools all working together—that’s the magic.