On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Harry Weiner, founding partner at On-Ramps
A Response to Charlie Scharf’s Unfortunate Reality

By Harry Weiner (he/him)

In June, Wells Fargo CEO, Charlie Scharf, said in a company memo, “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from.”

He’s right: There is an unfortunate reality—just not the one he was referring to. 

The unfortunate reality is that a CEO of a leading financial institution has this misguided perception. The unfortunate reality is that corporate leadership hasn’t made real progress toward addressing the vast inequity in recruiting and assessing candidates of color, especially Black candidates, despite paying lip service to the importance of diversity for decades. And it’s an unfortunate reality that Scharf tried to hide behind an “unconscious bias” in his apology on September 23.  The bias here is not unconscious, it’s unconscionable.

Sadly, I was not shocked to read about Scharf’s comments. For years, in the late 90s/early 2000s, I placed dozens of people each year into leadership roles at financial services companies, including many of the largest private equity, venture capital, and hedge funds in the world. In the eight years I did it, I don’t recall placing a single Black person. 

Was that due to a lack of Black talent? Absolutely not.  

Was that due to the fact that I did not spend any time thinking about building diverse candidate pools and being intentional about recruiting Black talent? Absolutely.

At the time, the conversation about the lack of representation of Black folks in financial services was a conversation that my clients and I were barely having. I feel deeply ashamed of this; it’s something I’ve spent the last 10+ years trying to make up for.

Scharf’s views are a product of systemic laziness across the industry, as opposed to a lack of qualified candidates. White executives simply aren’t doing the work that needs to be done. 

Candidate recruitment and assessment processes are broken. Recruiters continue to focus on what they perceive as an “elite” set of schools and organizations, instead of recognizing that there is great talent to be found in the alumni of every college and university—not to mention great talent that never graduated from college. Leaders continue to recruit from within a degree or two of their existing networks, and do nothing to intentionally expand and diversify their networks during periods when they’re not hiring. Hiring managers continue to measure candidates against criteria that align with narrow, often irrelevant attributes, as opposed to doing the work to break down role requirements into their core competencies, which any number of candidates could possess. And so the cycle continues—like hires like. 

The struggle to bring true equity to hiring processes is real. My company, an executive search firm that serves the social sector, grapples with it daily. We are reminded by our clients, our candidates, and, most importantly, our team that we need to do better—and that’s with just under half of our placements in any given year identifying as people of color. And they are 100% right. We need to do more. So much more. 

Regardless of the industry, this is hard work. But it’s crucial work. It’s time for white leaders to roll up their sleeves and do that work.