'We all need to have some skin in the game': BlackRock's diversity head, driving change at a delicate moment, details the money manager's challenges and priorities

By Rebecca Ungarino

Michelle Gadsden-Williams is in charge of making BlackRock, the world's largest and most influential asset manager, a more inclusive place. She has her work cut out for her. 

Gadsden-Williams, who was appointed BlackRock's global head of diversity, equity, and inclusion last September, is now overseeing a new, multi-year strategy intended to improve inclusivity internally for the firm's 16,500 employees and externally, through efforts with vendors and clients.

BlackRock's approach, presented in detail to employees for the first time last week, involves tying managers' pay to diversity progress in a more robust way than it has in the past; work with a growing number of minority-owned businesses; increasing gender and ethnic representation in senior levels of the firm; engaging through its investment stewardship unit with clients it invests in to promote diversity; and other plans.

In implementing a firm-wide strategy of this scale and trying to make it effective as possible, Gadsden-Williams said a key hurdle is getting "everyone invested in what this work really is." 

"It's about all of us, and not some of us. So even white males, they have a role to play as allies, and so everyone needs to feel like they're a part of this. This is not just about women and people of color and individuals of diverse profile or background; this is about all of us," she said in a recent interview with Insider. "In order for this to work, we all need to have some skin in the game."

It's a strategy that builds on a set of goals BlackRock outlined last summer, as the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 touched off a wave of companies' renewed commitments to equity. That June, the firm said Black employees count for just 3% of leaders at the director level and above, and 5% of its overall US workforce, and said by 2024 it would aim to double Black senior leadership representation and increase overall representation by 30%.

While the foundation for the four-year strategy was put in place in mid-2020, plans to infuse inclusivity in a more rigorous fashion across the sprawling firm are rolling out at a tense moment.

After public reports by two former BlackRock analysts who said they were discriminated against and harassed there started circulating last month, the firm's human resources chief has addressed the situation through internal memos to employees and said it will improve the way it handles employees' complaints.

The firm is also facing a lawsuit filed in late January by a former Black female employee who said the firm "urged" her to leave after she reported discrimination there. A spokesperson said BlackRock has no tolerance for discrimination of any kind, and that it conducted a thorough review of her claims and found no basis for them.

'The conviction to change' 

Gadsden-Williams has overseen firm-wide inclusion initiatives on and off Wall Street for nearly three decades. She previously led inclusion and diversity in North America for professional services firm Accenture. Earlier in her career, Gadsden-Williams served as the top diversity and inclusion officer at Credit Suisse and led global diversity efforts at Novartis.

She replaced former diversity and inclusion head Jonathan McBride, according to Black Enterprise, which first reported her appointment in September. McBride, a former Obama administration official, left BlackRock in 2019; Americas diversity, equity, and inclusion head Birgit Boykin served as interim global head last year.

BlackRock
BlackRock's New York City headquarters.
Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

Across industries, she said challenges come with employees who "might not see themselves as part of the strategy, when in fact, they are," making sure people hold themselves accountable for leading inclusively, and holding on to good talent, especially younger employees just entering professional life. 

"We have a next generation of talent, and they want to be the Larry Finks of tomorrow, and they are just out of school. They have aspirations, and a north star, and they want to get promoted every year; and that's just not possible. So, it's really trying to understand the unique needs and wants of a very generationally diverse workforce, and making sure that everyone feels like they can realize their ambition," Gadsden-Williams said. 

She consulted with colleagues across the firm, including BlackRock Chief Executive Larry Fink, President Rob Kapito, and employee networks — like the firm's women's network and other specialized groups geared toward LGBTQ colleagues, or those with disabilities — for feedback on how to craft the diversity strategy that starts with priorities for 2021 and extends plans through 2024. 

"There are three things that I look for personally, as a diversity executive, in my conversations with CEOs and others when it comes to this work: it's the courage to act; the commitment to lead; and the conviction to change," she said.