The shocking and unnecessary deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others before them, sent ripples throughout the world. Unfortunately, these stories are not new, but with these deaths, it seems like people had the time to process things a lot differently.
Over the past several months, the world opened its eyes to the sad reality of systemic racism against the Black community. We also saw a seismic shift in businesses’ approach to the Black Lives Matter movement. Whereas before, organizations may have decided to tread lightly around race related issues, this year we saw companies of all sizes vocally lend their support to the movement. I’m proud to say that Emburse was one of these.
But while hashtags and temporary social media profile pictures may show a company’s support for the movement, they don’t necessarily achieve anything tangible beyond the feelgood factor. Some organizations went a step further and pledged to make corporate donations to organizations in support of Black Lives Matter. But while this also shows support, some would argue that donating money is a short-lived gesture and allows uncertainty to how impactful the donation was.
During discussions that I had with some of my colleagues in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the big recurring theme was “what can we actually do to make a real - lasting - difference?” What can Emburse do to not only show support for the Black community, but actually create solutions that can help end systemic racism and support Black-owned businesses? How can we leverage our technology, innovation, and our mission of humanizing work to help become part of the solution?
I talked with some of our executives about my idea, and was amazed by how enthusiastic the response was, and how completely supportive they all were of my idea to make a meaningful difference. And so, PROJECT RISE was born. PROJECT RISE is a grassroots effort, led by a diverse group of eight Emburse employees, spanning different groups with varying perspectives and backgrounds. Its mission is “To promote social and economic fairness in the Black community, and find sustainable ways to combat systemic racism through innovative solutions.”
This initiative started by speaking to more than 20 Black business owners and immersing ourselves in their experiences to better understand systemic racism. Their experiences, along with additional research, shaped the PROJECT RISE challenges we want to tackle, which include financial capital, human capital and social capital.
Last week, we held an immersive four-day innovation event to bring these ideas to reality. The event offered participants the opportunity to take meaningful action against systemic injustice, by serving as an incubator and launchpad for meaningful solutions. More than 150 employees came together from across the company, forming 20 teams to take on one of the 10 challenges that were identified prior to the event, ranging from reducing the racial funding and credit gap to helping Black business owners bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the first day, we brought together a roundtable discussion with three inspirational leaders from the Black community - Tammarrian Rogers (director of engineering at Snap, Inc.), Roslyn Asheford (CEO of Budget Blinds of Silver Spring and Bethesda), and Kevin Henderson (CEO and founder of Indenseo). The panelists shared personal stories and offered their perspectives on the unique challenges faced by Black entrepreneurs and professionals. After they set the stage, our teams came together for an idea share session to officially kick off the event.
The next two days were dedicated to innovation, and the teams broke off to work together. The last day was demo day, with a panel of esteemed judges joining us to provide feedback. Tammarrian Rogers from the earlier panel was joined by Pam Lazos (VP of international expansion at JP Morgan Chase) and Roy Liao (vice president at K1 Investment Management), as well as Emburse’s Nord Samuelson (president), Sunil Kayiti (chief technology officer), Ted Power (chief product officer) and Matt Gahr (chief revenue officer). The judging panel chose three winners, who all received prizes purchased from Black-owned businesses.
So what now? Now we work with our team of engineers and developers to take the best of these ideas from high-level demos to actual solutions that we can offer to our customers.
What differentiates this story are the people who gave their unwavering support, and I’d like to thank them all. My wish to take action was amplified by Nord’s enthusiasm and commitment. Nord took the time to have difficult conversations and provide the kind of executive sponsorship that prioritized these efforts. Sunil was also key in creating the PROJECT RISE committee, and leaders from across the organization worked as mentors for the teams, providing valuable insights and support. And of course our CEO Eric Friedrichsen’s top-level support for the initiative was also crucial.
What started off as an idea of how to contribute to such a massive problem grew in magnitude because of the support from my colleagues, executives, and many others inside and outside of the company. PROJECT RISE perfectly encapsulates our core values of sincerity, empathy, empowerment, individuality and teamwork. I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me in creating this initiative, especially my colleagues Ania, Francesca, Laura, Kofi, Rachel, Krishna and Van, who worked tirelessly with me over the past several months to bring this idea to fruition. I’m also excited about how we can develop these ideas to help elevate the Black community, and make 2021 the year when the movement changed from “we need to do something,” to “here’s how we’re making a difference.”