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Pledges vs. action: A consultant on the future of corporate social engagement

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Apr 29, 2021
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Deesha Dyer, who worked in the Obama White House and founded the social impact consulting firm Hook & Fasten, hopes companies follow through on their racial justice initiatives. Courtesy of Deesha Dyer
Back to Business

Pledges vs. action: A consultant on the future of corporate social engagement

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Apr 29, 2021
Heard on:
Deesha Dyer, who worked in the Obama White House and founded the social impact consulting firm Hook & Fasten, hopes companies follow through on their racial justice initiatives. Courtesy of Deesha Dyer
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As more people are vaccinated and the economy begins to reopen, Marketplace is launching the reporting series “Back to Business: What is the future of America’s small businesses?” “Marketplace Morning Report” is focusing on the specific challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for businesses owned by people of color at a time of tremendous economic change.

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke with Deesha Dyer, founder and CEO of the social impact consulting firm Hook & Fasten, who launched her business last spring at a time when many companies were scrambling to respond to multiple, intersecting crises around race and racism in America.

“The timing worked out perfectly. A lot of people that needed my services needed them in the pandemic because they needed to know how to respond to different coronavirus issues in communities of color,” said Dyer, who formerly served as White House social secretary during the Obama administration.

“We connect communities and we connect businesses together for long-standing social impact,” she added. “I think that people do bond over collective need and a collective wanting to fix things. And so that is where we come in — to really foster that relationship.”

Demand for Hook & Fasten’s services increased last summer after the murder of George Floyd, as more companies initiated or prioritized engagement with communities of color. Dyer is hopeful that business leaders will continue these efforts as the pandemic begins to wane.

“I think that a lot of companies have been shook up, and I do believe that they will continue their activism,” Dyer said.

“And I say that because, as we tell our businesses, once you get into this rhythm of shaking up that foundation, you’ll be able to talk to your customers better. You’ll be able to answer when there’s a crisis. You won’t have to scurry. And people will see that you’re authentic about it because this is your everyday work,” she told Brancaccio.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Deesha Dyer: “Even though we are not able to gather in person, I think that people do bond over collective need and a collective wanting to fix things.”

David Brancaccio: I get the feeling a lot of people are waiting for the right time to take the plunge into a new business for recovery to pick up. You opened one during the pandemic. Wasn’t that nervy?

Deesha Dyer: Yes, that was definitely nervy. But actually, the timing worked out perfectly. A lot of people that needed my services needed them in the pandemic because they needed to know how to respond to different coronavirus issues in communities of color. And so that’s what we do, we do social impact.

Hook & Fasten’s work

Brancaccio: So what does Hook & Fasten do? It’s community engagement, but it’s not one and done — you’re trying to help clients establish a more sustained relationship?

Dyer: Exactly right. We connect communities and we connect businesses together for long-standing social impact that goes beyond when their project is over. For example, you see a lot of people doing projects with community engagement, and it’s these one-touch things that are very helpful and very needed. You know, they’re feeding somebody lunch or gathering coats — all those are very necessary. But what Hook & Fasten does is we get to the root of why we need to give out free lunches. What is the deficit in the neighborhood? What is the issue that the neighborhood or the community is experiencing, from either a systemic point or maybe an access point, that they don’t have what they need, that these companies need to step in? So we really work on fixing the root when it comes to social impact. And that really being a partnership between the community and the corporation. Not a, not an imbalance, it’s a partnership.

Brancaccio: It’s interesting. There was a special, acute need during pandemic, so you got going. But the problem is, it’s hard to have any kind of relationship right now. I mean, so many of my work relationships have become more transactional because, you know, it’s a Zoom meeting a couple of times a week. And so forging relationships, which is what you do with this business, must be an added challenge in these circumstances.

Dyer: It’s definitely an added challenge. But the one thing is a lot of businesses, they already had social impact or community engagement programs. And so a lot of them had relationships with different communities before the pandemic hit. But once the pandemic hit, it really just accentuated a lot of the systemic issues and different issues, the societal issues, that are in these communities. And so, thankfully, most of our companies that we work with, they weren’t starting from nothing. They started with, you know, we’ve done this in this community in the past, or some of our employees are part of this community. So there was a connection. And even though we are not able to gather in person, and that makes it a little bit more difficult, I think that people do bond over collective need and a collective wanting to fix things. And so that is where we come in — to really foster that relationship the best that we can and make sure that it is ongoing and it’s authentic.

Following through on corporate pledges to address systemic racism

Brancaccio: What’s your sense, from your vantage point? A lot of companies made pledges last June about, we’re going to help address, let’s say, systemic racism. And I can’t find a organized tracking system for people who make good on the pledges they made last summer. How do you see it?

Dyer: I always say pledges and statements are nice. They help your consumers and your customers really [see] where you stand as far as your values. But when it comes to actual action, that’s the important part. The hard work really comes in when it comes to confronting your own systemic things within your walls — so before we even get to the community. The hard work is saying, “We pledge to fix” or “We pledge to reverse” or “We pledge to really address what we’ve done in the past that have contributed to a toxic work environment” or a group of people. Pledges, to me, have to come with action. But pledges also have to admit the fault of the internal workings, not just the external workings.

Brancaccio: And the companies you work with, you must have a sense that there is action behind the talk.

Dyer: We do. You know, with some of them it takes a little bit longer to get there. But we don’t really take on clients that want to be checkbox or performative. We say this is a long road. Especially if you’re a company that’s been in business for over five, 10, 20, 25 years, this is cemented in the foundation of your company, so what we’re asking you to do is go back to that foundation and change. And that is hard for people, especially when you’re a successful business. But I’ll tell you that once the work gets started, we do see transformational change. But it takes time. It’s not quick. It’s not in three months, it’s not in six months. Usually in nine months to a year comes the little, itty-bitty change.

The future of corporate social engagement

Brancaccio: It sounds like a lot of your clients were ready to make commitments during pandemic, but do you think there’ll be a further boom as recovery takes hold?

Dyer: We had a lot of people really answer the call to how coronavirus devastated Black and brown communities. This was before the murder of George Floyd, but it was still after Breonna Taylor. So it was interesting that we had people really come to light more on race issues with George Floyd.

I think that a lot of companies have been shook up, and I do believe that they will continue their activism and they will continue their outreach. And I say that because, as we tell our companies and we tell our businesses, once you get into this rhythm of shaking up that foundation, you’ll be able to talk to your customers better. You’ll be able to answer when there’s a crisis. You won’t have to scurry. And people will see that you’re authentic about it because this is your everyday work.

And so we have a lot of companies that are saying, “We got the motivation. Let’s keep going, let’s keep going, let’s keep going.” It makes them a better company all-around. And then they don’t have to prove themselves when the next tragedy happens, of just jumping up. They can say, “We’ve been doing the work.” And it’s not about them saying, “We’ve been doing the work,” it’s about the impact that they’re having on communities.

Brancaccio: So you were at the Ford Foundation for a couple years. And then, there you are starting this business. I mean, that’s a fraught moment. It’s probably pretty intense.

Dyer: It was. I stopped [working at] the Ford Foundation in September of 2019 to go be a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. And so a lot of what I learned at the Ford Foundation, I’ve put it in my business about meeting people where they are when it comes to communities. And what I tell businesses is, just because you’re giving the money or you’re giving the time or the resources, that does not give you power over a community.

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