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Challenges and Progress: Four Leaders Discuss Economic Equity

Wednesday, February 3, 2021
Three men and one women in business attire.

Clockwise from top left: Nikki Lanier, Francois Henriquez, Douglas Scarboro and James Price

Compiled by Heather Hennerich, Editor

A childhood in segregated South Florida. The stories of parents whose experiences included jail and fire hose blasts in the fight for civil rights. The challenge of being the only Black person in a college finance or microeconomics class. The burden of being the only Black person in a workplace.

Four senior vice presidents at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis described those experiences and the challenges they’ve faced as Black Americans during a Timely Topics podcast episode released Dec. 2. They also discussed what progress has been made in terms of diversity, inclusion and equity, and what more can be done. (See box for definitions of the terms.)

Desegregation Alters a School Experience

Francois Henriquez is the child of parents who immigrated to the United States with dreams like those of many immigrant parents, he said: that their children would have greater opportunities and be able to go to better schools than they had. Henriquez, who is chief administrative officer and general counsel, has a Juris Doctor from Columbia University School of Law. But the first part of his education was in a segregated school in 1960s South Florida.

“It wasn’t until the late ’60s that school desegregation came to our part of the world, and for the first time in my life I was bussed out of my neighborhood into other schools, and there interacted with people who did not look like me,” Henriquez said.

“Our school was, at that point, a third Black and two-thirds white. And that was really my first experience with trying to figure out how to operate within a majority-white environment.”

The Influence of Civil Rights Experiences

Nikki Lanier’s parents engaged in the civil rights movement to oppose inequality, including segregation.

“My parents have experienced atrocities in the only country they know as home because of the skin that they were born in,” said Lanier, who is regional executive of the St. Louis Fed’s Louisville Branch. “Their civil rights experiences have included being jailed and hosed by fire hoses and bitten by police dogs, spat upon in sit-ins, chased down by Ku Klux Klan and police officers, wrongly arrested.

“So, the full gamut of what we know to have been a part of the civil rights movement and, bluntly, the full gamut of what we know to be the experience of Black people in this country, even today.”

Those are the experiences that shaped how her college professor parents led in their careers, raised her and served in their communities, said Lanier, who has a background in the human resources, health care and legal fields. Many of her parents’ coworkers had experiences similar to her parents’, she said.

“It shaped for me a really firm understanding of what it means to be Black in this country, and how I can marry academic prowess and professional acumen, advancing ideals around equity and equality,” said Lanier, who has a Juris Doctor from the University of Miami School of Law. “Not just how I should do it, or that I should do it, but almost a mandate, if you will."

What Do the Terms Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Mean?

James Price previously served as vice president of Diversity and Inclusion and director of the Bank’s Office of Minority Women and Inclusion (OMWI). He spoke about what the terms “diversity,” “inclusion” and “equity” mean to him.

Diversity, he said, basically means representation and the demographics of an organization. “Most of the time, [when] you talk about diversity in these days and times, you’re talking about race, gender, ethnicity,” Price said.

Inclusion is how an organization is using or “walking in” that diversity. “Are you listening to those folks? Are you benefiting from that diversity? That’s inclusion,” he explained.

Equity is more about fairness, Price said: How fair is an organization with opportunities, pay and promotions?

“So, to me, diversity and inclusion are just the start of it,” Price said. “If you’re not equitably treating and rewarding those folks for their contributions, then, to me, your overall program isn’t effective.”

Handling Challenges and Responsibility for Others

James Price leads areas including support services, facilities, law enforcement and cash operations.

Price attended a small liberal arts college that was predominantly white, he said, adding that he had to learn how to move in “white space.” The Black population on the campus was small, and the Black students had different majors.

“Then you put that into a classroom setting, where you’re the only Black person in the finance class or the microeconomics class,” Price said. “So, you’re kind of learning how to overcome that, because that is a built-in challenge that many Black people face every day in whatever their walk of life is.”

Douglas Scarboro, meanwhile, looked at his father’s example and felt a responsibility to do well. His father grew up in a farming family and saw how hard the work was and how slim the margins were, said Scarboro, who is regional executive of the Memphis Branch. His father loved science, and after serving in Vietnam he went to dental school—a path that ended up giving him a better financial future.

Scarboro’s challenge, as his father’s son, is understanding the responsibility for others and not only himself, he said: “To not only help and work in the Black community, but try to reach a new economic standing for Blacks.”

Scarboro finished college and went to graduate school, with the idea that he wanted to exceed his father’s earnings and to provide more financial security for his family.

“And I think about that, and ultimately what it means when you’re mentoring or you’re doing something else,” he said. “You think about the images that Black boys see, and you always want to provide better images so that way it is not a replication of what happened in the past.”

Progress Offers Respite

Price has served in a number of positions in his 25 years at the St. Louis Fed. Early in his career at the Bank, the St. Louis Fed wasn’t as diverse as it is today, particularly in the management ranks, Price said.

He noted that he found himself to be the only Black person in the room in a lot of situations. “You are representing a lot of people in that room, because many times you’re the only person of your color that some of these folks are going to deal with on a consistent basis,” Price said.

“One of the biggest mental challenges you have in that environment is, you don’t necessarily believe there is a safe place to fail. … That’s a heavy burden to carry.”

Lanier said she also felt the pressure to be an example, and to ensure she’s not buying into or contributing to stereotypes about Black women.

“Having to always manage that has probably been my greatest burden in my professional life,” Lanier said. “Here at the Bank, I’m just really pleased to feel, finally, a sense of respite in that area. It’s not perfect, but it’s so much more advanced than what I had seen in years past.”

Change Starts at the Top

That progress has started at the top, where it starts with most organizations, Lanier said. She added that she has been able to witness the progress through her experiences on the Bank’s Management Committee.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Check out the work the St. Louis Fed is doing to build a more diverse and inclusive economy.

There is now more willingness to talk in the workplace about racial issues, Scarboro said. “The quiet conversations have gotten louder,” especially since last summer, he said.

When Scarboro joined the St. Louis Fed almost six years ago, he could feel that there had been a shift in the environment. The atmosphere had become one that would to allow for conversations that hadn’t previously been held about events outside the Bank, with the knowledge that employees’ experiences in the outside environment are going to affect how they orient to the workplace, he said.

Diversity Efforts Change over a Career

Henriquez gave a historical perspective on diversity, describing a lack of much diversity in his college and law school experience and earlier in his career. After law school, he worked at a large Wall Street law firm in which he was the only Black associate at the time—there were no Black partners and only one female partner.

He followed that with a stint at a large Kansas City law firm, where there also were few women or people of color, and then became the general counsel at a large financial institution where he was the only Black person in senior management.

While he has seen dramatic change in the areas of diversity, inclusion and equity over his career, people didn’t even talk seriously about diversity in the early 1980s, Henriquez said.

“If you wanted to work in organizations like large law firms or large banks, and you were Black or you were Hispanic or Asian, you just had to find a way to fit in and make yourself as acceptable and palatable to the majority and those in power as you possibly could,” he said.

What More Can Be Done

Henriquez echoed the earlier sentiments about possibly being the only Black person that people in the room will encounter.

“You have the burden of proving that you’re as good as they are, and that’s not a very welcoming environment at all,” Henriquez said. “And I think we’ve done a very good job here at the Bank of turning that around to some degree.

“And we’re much more welcoming. We focus on not just diversity, not just inclusion, but we’re working towards equity,” he added. “That’s a great thing to say.”

Lanier gave her definition of equity: an approach that helps dismantle racism in any work environment.

“Equity says, ‘We’re going to figure out where that structure is playing itself out. We’re going to unearth it, and we’re going to address it,’” Lanier said. “‘And, we’re going to do our part in trying to remedy the effects of it, cumulative and otherwise.’ So, that’s where I’d like to see us do more potent and pointed, focused work.”

People who are publicly and privately endorsing the need for diversity, equity and inclusion are allies, and are asking what they can do to help, Scarboro said.

“And the things I think about with that are privately and publicly endorsing, especially qualified minorities, for positions and for certain roles that you hadn’t necessarily thought of,” Scarboro said. “The public [support] is extremely important. The private is important as well.”

Price agreed.

“I think diversity, equity and inclusion are ‘we’ issues and not ‘they’ issues. So, it takes everyone to kind of move that needle,” he said.

Heather Hennerich 

Heather Hennerich is an editor with the St. Louis Fed External Engagement and Corporate Communications Division.

Tagged heather hennerichfrancois henriqueznikki lanierjames pricedouglas scarboroeconomic equitytimely topicsracial equitydiversity and inclusionculture