When Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison took the helm at one of the nation’s largest retailers, he looked around and saw he was surrounded by mostly white executives at his own company and in the business world.
It was not a new experience for him.
Ellison was born to parents who worked as sharecroppers. He grew up in a segregated community in the south. Now, he is one of four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500. But he said he’s tired of seeing CEOs and others pledge to add diversity and fight racism, but do little.
“Sometimes, you have to decide to talk less and do more,” he said at a virtual speaker series hosted by the National Retail Federation. “I’m very, very appreciative that there’s all this dialogue happening out there, but I didn’t have to see the horrific murder of George Floyd to understand there was racial injustice in America. I live it every day.”
Floyd’s killing was just the latest reminder of deep-rooted racism in the U.S., he said.
“As a Black man in America, this is mentally exhausting that in 2020, we’re still discussing racial injustice,” he said.
Ellison became the chief executive of Lowe’s two years ago and kicked off a company-wide turnaround effort. He was in the midst of overhauling the retailer’s website and adding to his leadership team when the pandemic struck. Over the past few months, Lowe’s has had to restock shelves, fulfill curbside pickup orders, install plexiglass and encourage social distancing as it kept its doors open as an essential retailer.
Since Floyd’s killing in late May, the 55-year-old chief executive said he’s reflected on his upbringing and the systemic racism he’s seen throughout his life. He grew up in rural Tennessee with six siblings. His family didn’t have indoor plumbing until he was six years old.
His father, who didn’t graduate from high school, pushed him to go to college from a young age. His parents stressed the importance of respecting everyone and working hard.
Even so, he said, they couldn’t protect him from the realities of the wider world.
“We still lived in a segregated community,” he said. “There were parts of town that the Blacks lived on, parts of town the whites lived on, and there were places I knew I couldn’t go as a young Black man.”
Ellison said his life experiences have fueled a commitment to diversity in the corporate world. When he arrived to Lowe’s, the company had only eight Black employees at the vice president level or higher — a number he was determined to increase.
“I didn’t need social unrest as a CEO for me to understand it was an issue,” he said.
He said Lowe’s now has two Black executive vice presidents, two Black senior vice president and 11 Black vice presidents. Two of the companies top executive roles — chief information officer and chief brand and marketing officer — are held by women, Seemantini Godbole and Marisa Thalberg, respectively. He recently promoted Janice Dupre Little, another woman and Black executive, to executive vice president of human resources.
“I’d love to tell you I’m this brilliant recruiter and I can assess talent that doesn’t exist,” he said. “The reality is these people were out there. They were either within Lowe’s being ignored or they were in the marketplace.”
“I just decided to not talk about it and to do something — and I’m still not satisfied,” he said. “We’re just getting started.”
In late May, Lowe’s decided to support Black and minority businesses in another way. It said it would give $25 million in grants to minority-owned small businesses to help them reopen and recover from the pandemic.
He said the company received about 110,000 grant applications.
“I was shocked by the demand,” he said. “That just tells you how great the need is out there for additional dollars.”
He said he and other CEOs’ actions will determine whether the national conversation about race is a fleeting moment or one that leads to tangible change.