As the debate over the word woke rages on, business leaders are grappling with the meaning and connotations of the term. (Spoiler alert: Woke means being aware of inequity and injustice.) Many conservative CEOs have followed the lead of politicians in using the label as a weapon, accusing others of contracting the “woke mind virus” or claiming that caring about “woke diversity” ignores the economy’s bottom line. But even politically moderate CEOs have become quick to reject the label.
Consider Larry Fink, CEO of the multinational investment firm BlackRock, who has led the charge of investing with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals in mind. In his annual letter to fellow chief executives in 2018, Fink asked, “What role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment? Are we working to create a diverse workforce?” BlackRock has continually led the charge in making ESG a mainstream pillar of investing. Those efforts seem socially aware. Still, Fink claimed that those initiatives are “not woke.”
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Or take the case of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. After George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, Dimon personally took a knee with employees in a New York Chase branch and went on to send a memo to the company’s employees that stated, “We are committed to fighting against racism and discrimination wherever and however it exists.” But, like Fink, Dimon has gone to lengths to separate stakeholder capitalism from the woke label, despite demonstrating awareness of inequity and injustice through commitments like JPMorgan Chase’s $30 billion investment in advancing racial equity.
Why do corporate leaders hesitate to embrace the woke label when being aware of inequity and injustice aligns with growing commitments to socially conscious business? One issue is the term’s evolution. In its 21st-century usage, woke emerged as a watchword for Black Americans in the fight against police brutality and racial discrimination, but in recent years the term has been transformed into a cudgel for the conservative right to fight culture wars. Recent polling finds that Americans generally understand that woke means “being informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices,” and not “being overly politically correct.” But they are also slightly more likely to view being called woke as an insult, not a compliment.
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