Jesse Jackson pushes Ford CEO for diversity, access

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. told Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett on Friday that he needs to be less insulated from suppliers owned by minorities and women, saying that’s the only way their presence in the automotive industry will improve.

Hackett agreed.

The comments came near the end of a morning discussion at the Rainbow Push Coalition’s annual automotive summit in Detroit. Hackett joined Jackson and James Lowry, a consultant who has helped corporations invest in minority communities, for a 40-minute discussion about diversity in the auto industry.

Ford has a history of working with Jackson and Lowry. In the 1980s, the men worked with the company to improve diversity. On Friday, they pushed the CEO again for more access to spur change as the company moves into a future of mobility and autonomous vehicles.

Jackson turned to football — a topic Hackett often turns to in speeches — to get his point across.

“If the football team had to go through several levels of bureaucracy to talk to the coach, they would never get his passion,” Jackson told Hackett. He said there are people who should have direct access to Hackett so he can hear their concerns.

“I think that the answers you seek may be in the room,” Jackson said.

Hackett called Jackson’s request a “get better or get worse” scenario, a phrase pulled from Michigan coach Bo Schembechler’s repertoire.

“That’s a great idea,” Hackett said. “To be totally candid, in the 100 days (assessment of Ford), I don’t think I met with enough suppliers (or) minority suppliers.”

Ford does very well in the Rainbow Push Coalition’s scorecard, which grades automakers for minority representation in several segments of the company: The company is at the top of 12 automakers in a survey which ranks automakers on ethnic diversity practices. Ford reflected “best” practices in all but the demographic of its dealers.

Hackett said the company has a few different ways to continue to improve minority representation both within the company, among the dealership base, and in the network of suppliers with which Ford works.

The entire industry is still making up for ground lost during the Great Recession. When the companies cut costs, minorities were some of the first to take a hit. Those suppliers were often the newest in Ford’s line-up, so they were the first to feel the effects.

“Ford has to get better,” Hackett said. “We have to design the system so we don’t lose suppliers or dealers when we have a downturn.”

The men also saw a chance for growth as the Baby Boomer generation begins its transition into retirement and the industry pushes into an era when the cars are so smart that they drive themselves. Suppliers will become even more important and prolific, Hackett said. There will be more chances for minority-owned businesses to get a piece of the work.

There will also be new, high-tech jobs in addition to the positions vacated as Boomers move out of the workforce. Hackett and Jackson touched on the importance of working with historically black colleges and universities to recruit technicians who are getting in on the ground floor of autonomous technology, coding and other aspects unique to the coveted “mobility” sphere Ford has recently entered.

Jackson pushed Hackett for a concrete plan to ensure minority representation and inclusion. Hackett told him there was a plan — a plan Jackson would be happy with — but did not give details.

Since taking the helm at Ford earlier this summer, Hackett has said several times publicly that Ford needs diverse opinions to succeed moving forward. He said that in Silicon Valley when speaking about mobility to a crowd of younger, tech-savvy people. He said it at a women’s business conference just days after being appointed CEO. And he said it Friday to the group gathered at MGM Grand in Detroit.

“I respect this man so much, I don’t want him to have to remind me,” Hackett said, referencing Jackson. “I feel like the chances here with software engineers coming out at a faster going to be better. Now we have the potential here that this can be great.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau