Changemakers: Using Worker Voice to Dismantle Structural Racism and Unlock Opportunity

In June 2020, PayPal made a commitment to spend $530 million to support businesses owned by Black Americans and other entrepreneurs of color and communities across the country that have experienced a lack of public and private investment. That’s one of the largest financial pledges any company made to address income inequality amid the nationwide reckoning with social injustice that followed George Floyd’s death. PayPal confirmed and expanded its commitment to fighting economic inequality in December 2020, when it pledged an additional $5 million for program grants to its community partners who are working to strengthen Black business owners through microloans, technical assistance, mentoring, and access to digital solutions.

PayPal’s financial pledge and subsequent actions garnered a lot of coverage in the media, but not much is publicly known about how the pledge came about. The behind-the-scenes story is noteworthy because the company’s decision to make the pledge involved internal advocacy and candid conversations that were mobilized by an employee named Lisha Bell.

A product manager at PayPal, Bell is a first-generation college student, a single mother, an Ivy Leaguer and, as is clear from the conversation we share below, a Changemaker.

The story of how an individual employee like Bell was able to play a role in a major company’s investment worth more than half a billion dollars is an example of how Impact Employers are creating inclusive corporate cultures in which leaders listen to workers and partner with them on shared mission-driven concerns. As a financial technology company that facilitates payments between parties via proprietary technology platforms like PayPal, Venmo, Xoom, PayPal Credit, Braintree, Zettle, and Hyperwallet, PayPal is uniquely positioned to help eliminate this country’s racial wealth gap. JFF’s Carey O’Connor recently spoke with Bell about PayPal’s commitment to closing that gap and how she’s using her voice to drive change.

CO: $535 million is a lot of money, even for a big company like PayPal. How did you help start an internal dialogue around the issue of systemic racism?

Bell: After George Floyd’s death, the country was in mourning and dealing with COVID, and in this moment, a movement formed. Employees from the top and bottom ranks came together to discuss how PayPal could work to better understand and represent the realities of Black employees who were managing the distress of the pandemic and trauma of systemic racism. Many of our Black executives, leaders from our Black Employee Resource Group, and allies put together a plan. We formed a committee and worked over the weekend on a plan to engage other employees and allies. We also quickly determined what action we wanted — what we thought PayPal, and even corporate America itself, should do to address systemic racism. We were thinking about new ways PayPal’s products could be part of the solution needed to close the racial wealth gap and how PayPal’s own recruiting, hiring, and retention practices could be strengthened. We were so full of sorrow and anger — we used that emotional energy to think about how we could drive real change. This was a chance to make generational change happen.

PayPal’s CEO Dan Schulman reached out to schedule a listening session to hear Black employees’ concerns. When the listening session occurred, we were ready. We started by speaking about George Floyd’s murder — how it made us feel, and how frustrated we were from the lack of response from white corporate America. It felt like no one cared. We talked about how Black employees do not think corporate America is for them. We talked about the tech bubble where some Black employees have ping pong tables and endless free food and then go home where their family does not have enough money to eat or pay the rent. We demanded and pleaded for change.

Our CEO was intentionally listening and absorbing our comments. The call was intense but many truths emerged while listening to our stories and hearing how hurtful, how difficult, our reality was. We personally connected our human experiences and desires to be seen. It was these honest and at times uncomfortable conversations that helped to inform the substantial actions the company took soon after. Conversations amongst others inspired the financial commitment.

You make it sound so easy. I’m sure it wasn’t.

No, it wasn’t. The conversation with Dan was painful, raw. But as the conversation shifted from emotion to action, it was clear he wanted to do something decisive and wanted to partner with us on elements of what to do and how to do it. And we had a preliminary plan ready.

The previous weekend we had debated what we wanted to say, particularly what we thought needed to change. We agreed we needed to focus on breaking down the barriers that have historically challenged Black business ownership and wealth creation. We had discussed and debated all the angles needed to make that happen, while staying true to PayPal’s business model. PayPal is an online payments company — a combination of a bank and a technology company. We didn’t want to get too far away from what PayPal does best. Every detail wasn’t decided and agreed upon over that weekend or in the first meeting with Dan but a lot happened fast. At the same time, Dan was also meeting with Black leaders and experts in economic inclusion who provided critical guidance on the financial issues facing the Black community.

George Floyd died on May 25, 2020, and PayPal publicly announced the financial commitment on June 11, 2020. It was important that we were prepared and organized when the conversations started.

And the real work didn’t even start until after the announcement was made! Employees across the company came together to stand up each pillar of PayPal’s commitment. We had to create communications, write applications, find potential partners. . . . I personally wrote and defined the experience a small or midsize Black-owned business would encounter to receive funds for some of PayPal’s products so funds could be transferred using PayPal’s platforms. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes work that had to be done very quickly, in addition to our day jobs.

Where’s the money going?

Most of the money, $500 million, is being invested in an Economic Opportunity Fund to increase access to capital for Black and underserved communities. This includes $100 million in investments by PayPal Ventures [the payment company’s investment arm] in Black and Latinx-led early-stage venture capital funds and $400 million in Black-owned banks like Optus in South Carolina so they have the capital to lend and grow. Banks need cash flow to issue mortgages and loans — they need money to make money. That is one of the biggest drivers of income inequality. If you don’t have anything to start with, it is hard to make more than minimum wage, much less create wealth.

PayPal also provided $15 million in grants for Black-owned businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic or civil unrest, while $5 million will go to PayPal’s nonprofit partners and $15 million to the company’s diversity and inclusion programs, along with thought leadership to advance public policy.

Of the $535 million PayPal pledged, $510 million has already been distributed to venture funds, community banks, credit unions and other organizations focused on underserved Black and Latinx communities.

You mentioned that PayPal is spending some of the financial pledge within the company itself. What’s happening?

Some of the money is supporting PayPal’s employee resources groups and to expand PayPal’s diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging programs. The company is also working to build a diverse talent pipeline. They are providing scholarships to historically Black colleges and paid internships to college students from populations that are underrepresented in the tech workforce. PayPal also expanded its Diverse Hiring Initiative to include all jobs in the company last year.

Is the money making an impact? Is it causing the change you wanted to occur?

Yes, but it takes time. Some of the pledged money was designed to provide immediate assistance to Black-owned businesses during the pandemic, while the rest is intended to create impact over the long-term. But much more work needs to be done to make opportunity more equal for everyone — we need sustained engagement from business leaders.

There are only a few ways to get wealth in this country — being a doctor, lawyer, a business executive, an entrepreneur. Working hard isn’t enough. You need to be in the right job and have the right support.

Corporate America has to figure out how to bring outsiders into the corporate workforce who haven’t had the exposure to the culture but who can get the work done. They need to embrace people who are capable but who do not have the perfect pedigree. Black talent needs to feel welcome and know they can thrive in that ecosystem.

Without change, corporate America will lose a generation of Black talent. I am not sure how you recover from that.

You took such bold action after George Floyd’s death. Was this the first time you stepped out and spoke up?

Early in my career, I wasn’t confident enough to say anything out loud. I saw things happen but didn’t feel like I could speak up. I wanted to keep my job — so I kept my head down.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina happened, I was working at Wells Fargo as a technical program manager. The World Cup was happening at the same time as the hurricane and there was competing television coverage. No one in the office wanted to watch the news coverage of the hurricane — they wanted to watch the World Cup. I didn’t say anything but kept thinking — I get that this is a celebratory time for your culture, but people are dying in my culture. I stayed quiet and offended, holding my anger and resentment inside. I couldn’t sleep at night and made myself feel sick.

Over time, I gained more confidence in my skills and work performance and found my voice.

When the subprime lending crisis erupted in 2007, I couldn’t stay quiet. Wells Fargo was giving people in my community extremely risky loans that they could not afford. They were falsifying people’s income and accounts so that they qualified for loans and Wells Fargo could double its loan originations. Their loan terms were predatory, and Wells Fargo’s leadership was going on record saying that they take no responsibility for subprime lending and the crisis — it was the borrowers’ fault. It was outrageous. They were a leader in subprime lending — predatory lending was part of their business model.

I spoke up and ended up meeting with the CEO of Wells Fargo. The process helped me become a leader and an advocate.

How did your actions prompt change?

My goal was to help other people like me speak up — to help people feel like they can be seen and heard. Most Black workers are in administrative jobs, call center roles. . . . They don’t have access to the rooms where decisions are made, and they have few opportunities to advance into them. They want to be seen and heard but do not have an effective way to communicate. No one is listening. Since they do not have a chance to voice their dissatisfaction, they just leave. That is where I can play. My superpower is my ability to be heard — I can write and speak bold opinions in a digestible way that people can hear.

What advice do you have for others who want to push for change in their companies?

Be clear about what you want — your ask — and be ready to follow up. And then follow up again. And again. And again. Follow up frequently and consistently. Make sure people know you are serious. Change doesn’t happen easily — you can’t change the world from asking for something once. You have to push. You have to be bold, and you have to put yourself on the line. I’ve been fired, laid off, and reprimanded for things I’ve said. Not everyone can do that — some people have kids to raise and mouths to feed, so make sure you are ready. It can be a bumpy ride.

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.org