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Marvin Ellison changes racial makeup of Lowe’s executive ranks, challenges CEOs to do more

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As one of four Black Fortune 500 CEOs in America, Marvin Ellison is using his position to promote diversity and to challenge other corporate leaders to do more in the fight against racism.

“As a black man in America, this is mentally exhausting that in 2020 we’re still discussing racial injustice,” he said at a virtual conversation broadcast by the National Retail Federation last week. “I mean, it’s something that that I’ve lived with my entire life.”

Marvin EllisonLowe’s

CEO Marvin Ellison

Ellison was born in 1965 in rural western Tennessee. His parents worked as sharecroppers to provide for Ellison and his five siblings. He recalled what it was like growing up in a segregated community. “There were parts of the town that the Blacks lived in and parts of the town where the whites lived in,” he said. “There were places I knew I couldn’t go, as a young Black man it’s just the way it was.”

Ellison started in retail earning $4.35 an hour as a part-time associate at Target and worked his way up the corporate ladder at the Minnesota-based chain and also Atlanta-based Home Depot. He became CEO of J.C. Penney in 2015 and Lowe’s in 2018. Now he’s fighting corporate inequality from the top, and calling on other CEOs to do the same.

“Sometimes you have to decide to talk less and do more,” Ellison said. “I’m very appreciative that there is all of this dialogue happening out there. But I didn’t have to see the horrific murder of George Floyd to understand that there was racial injustice in America. I live it every day.”

When he arrived at Mooresville-based Lowe’s, there were eight Blacks with titles of vice president or higher. “I didn’t need social unrest as a CEO for me to understand that was an issue. We just decided to fix the issue,” he said. Now, Lowe’s has two Black executive vice presidents, two Black senior vice presidents and 11 Black vice presidents, as well as women serving as chief information officer, chief brand and marketing officer and 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,” Ellison said. “The reality is these people were out there. They were either within Lowe’s being ignored or they were in the marketplace.”

He said it’s important to force candid dialogue about equality within companies. Lowe’s has developed a leadership guide to help facilitate those conversations. “The only way we’re going to start to move in the right direction is if we create safe environments to have uncomfortable conversations,” Ellison said. 

“I’ll challenge all my CEOs and senior leaders out there who make hiring decisions: Stop talking and start doing, because at the end of the day, that’s what matters.”

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