A Black CEO’s Conversations with His White Friends

According to 2020 U.S. Census data, the poverty rates for Black and Hispanic people in the United States have dipped to historic lows. While this is good news, the report also notes that “Blacks and Hispanics continue to be over-represented in the population in poverty relative to their representation in the overall population.” Entrepreneur and author Melvin Gravely, among others, contends that this is part of the legacy of slavery and racism we still live with today.

One reason that the rates declined for Black Americans was likely in part due to programs to help lift children and families out of poverty. Gravely, CEO of TriVersity Construction located in Cincinnati, Ohio, in addition to being the author of numerous books and holding a PhD in business administration, credits his success to such programs. Instead of going to his local school, he was put in another school that provided him with more opportunities. While he always worked hard to get where he is, he points to affirmative action programs as helping him gain access to opportunities he might not have otherwise had.

Talking About the Roots of Racism 

Gravely wrote his most recent book, Dear White Friend, to respond to conversations he’s been having with his white friends. “I’d like to have more productive conversations about race,” he explains in a recent episode of Leading with Genuine Care. He argues how important it is to understand the legacy of slavery in the United States. He sees a hierarchy of opportunities and power that exist, with white people at the top, Black people at the bottom and “everyone else” in between. This situation is a direct result of the legacy of slavery compounded by institutional and societal racism.

To illustrate this point, Gravely points to education professors who ran a Monopoly game as a way to help teach this concept. One group was allowed to start before the others, getting full access to property and wealth. Two groups started behind that one group; the second group was able to acquire some of the wealth, but not as much. The third group was left scrambling with what was left, putting them at a clear disadvantage. This, Gravely says, goes a long way in illustrating why we are still living with the legacy of slavery today. “It’s more about equity than equality,” he explains. While currently African Americans seem to have equality, they are still facing inequities because of the oppression and discrimination previous generations have experienced.

Understanding this key concept is the first step toward change. The next steps are accepting it, acknowledging it, and acting and speaking with intention. From there, people can start to have conversations and take action to address inequities. This is by no means necessarily easy. Gravely expresses frustration with friends who seem to “get it” and then go back to their “silos” and previous ways of thinking. “We need to deepen the roots of knowledge,” Gravely says; we need to first all understand that the problem of racism originates with the fact that the very founding of our nation rested on slavery.

Acting With Intention

For Gravely, making change is all about acting with intention. While he understands the symbolism of taking down a statue that glorifies a past that rested on the oppression of Black people, he is more interested in the intention behind it. “My fear is we lower a statue but we don’t change our hearts, minds, or approaches.” He also says he would like to see more Black producers of materials, rather than focusing on the images on packages, such as the recent criticisms of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.

Once people seriously accept and acknowledge the legacy of slavery, they can then move toward having conversations with others and acting with intention to change it. Gravely calls such changes “disruptions,” pointing to the affirmative action programs he benefitted from as examples of such disruptions. He also doesn’t see such disruptions as a diminishment of what he’s accomplished. “There was no natural way for me to engage in those opportunities without actions of intentionality. I’m an affirmative action baby and I’m proud of that,” he says.

But you don’t need to work on such a big scale to help. Gravely says that if everyone acts in their own spheres, eventually that movement will touch more and more people, spreading outwards.

Benefitting Bystanders

Gravely defines a racist as someone who sets out to intentionally do harm. That doesn’t mean his well-meaning white friends are off the hook, however. He encourages whites to recognize their privilege and understand that they are “benefitting bystanders.” They need to step outside their comfort zone and act with intention to be allies and help make change.

What can white friends do to be part of the solution?  Short of violence, “whatever is necessary,” Gravely says. “There’s no single solution.”

One place to start, Gravely says, is to get more comfortable with the topic, to seek out information and perspectives and be willing to engage. He recommends reading books and listening to podcasts as two possible ways to build more confidence to talk about race. Eventually this will help buid connections across races. Ultimately, Gravely says, “we’ve got to get to a place where we can have deeper conversations at a heart level.”

We all can also work on questioning our judgments about others, too, by asking “Why is it this way?” instead of “What about . . . ?” An example would be when a white friend points to high rates of single mothers among Black families, implying that this situation rests on individual choices. Instead, ask “Why is it this way?” and consider how a history of the forced separaton of parents from their children and mothers and fathers from each other throughout slavery have contributed to such a culture. More recently, he points out how the criminalization of drugs – with Black people – particuarly men – being incarcerated at rates five times that of white people, has further impacted the family.

Gravely holds himself to the same standards as he expects from others. He’s caught himself being judgmental, and has had to ask “why” something might be the way it is. “It’s easy to get caught in your own stuff and project it onto others,” he says.


Until recently Gravely did not support reparations, the idea of giving all descendants of slaves financial compensation. But as he investigated the issue more, he became a bigger supporter of it. Then, he realized it was more about overcoming the belief that it would never happen. He believes such payments can go a long way toward breaking the cycle of poverty that generations of African Americans have inherited. To Gravely, the “why” is clear; where people get hung up on the “how” and the concerns people have about how the money will be used if given to individuals.  And yet, he points out, “we just transferred millions of dollars from the government to paycheck protection programs,” 99% of which went to white people.

Still, Gravely’s message is hopeful. He “believes in the promise” of America, he says. He has pledged to continue this work by committing to 60% of his time to share his message.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion 

In addition to writing and talking about race, Gravely believes in making these issues central to the way he does business. His company, TriVersity, holds diversity and inclusion as one of its core values. The founding CEO and his two partners wanted to start a company owned by African Americans. The name comes from combining the number of the original founders with the word “diversity.”

Gravely, who later bought the company, believes this core value means being intentional about hiring and retention. He wants to make diversity meaningful. “It’s imperative that we do it better than anyone else on the planet,” he says. He sees the strength of having a diverse staff and says, “If you live by the five values of the company, you can work here.”

Gravely encourages leaders to not only read his book but also to download his discussion workbook to help guide them in starting to put these principles into practices. The workbook can be found at dearwhitefriend.com. 

The conversation with Melvin Gravely continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast, where we talk more about race, diversity, equity, and building a better future. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne. Check out my website or some of my other work here.