Columbia Business School

Making the Difference

Presented by Columbia Business School

portrait of Erika Irish Brown disrupting the modern-day workspace

The global headquarters of Bloomberg LP in midtown Manhattan can make visitors feel almost like they’ve been transported to the future. Glass walls curve upward and refract the light through airy gathering spaces where coworkers mingle over coffee or rush to meetings. On each floor, wide-open bullpens are interrupted by red-, blue-, and aquamarine–colored glass-walled offices and meeting rooms. Near the stairs, there’s a tank of brightly hued tropical fish. Erika Irish Brown ’98, the company’s first global head of diversity and inclusion, hurries past all of this, making small talk with the Bloomberg employees she encounters on her way.

Irish Brown’s charge is to make Bloomberg’s 192 offices around the world more equitable places to work, and the company’s pool of almost 19,000 employees more diverse. It’s a task akin to running a network of embassies, but its massive scope does not faze Irish Brown in the slightest. Her cool under pressure is a skill she started building many years ago across the East River.

Irish Brown was raised in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and in the decades before gentrification brought wood-fired pizza and yoga studios, the neighborhood of Caribbean immigrants “frankly was just okay,” she says. The youngest of five siblings, Irish Brown grew up in a household that valued education highly, mathematics in particular. Her mother taught math at a public junior high school in the nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and her father, although he never graduated from college, advanced through the administrative ranks of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), eventually becoming the head of computer services. “It was a really strong family unit,” Irish Brown says. “My father was brilliant, as far as I’m concerned, and very successful for an African American man of his time. There was a heavy emphasis on education and good grades. There was no ‘You tried your best’ if your grades weren’t up to par; we were asked, ‘What happened?’”

This focus on education would eventually lead to Irish Brown’s being appointed to work in the Treasury Department by President Bill Clinton and assuming progressively powerful roles in the world of global finance. Yet at no point was her path obvious. She still speaks lovingly of Saint Ann’s, an independent school in an old hotel in Brooklyn Heights. “It was this eclectic learning environment,” Irish Brown recalls. She was studying Latin in the fourth grade, and even now can faultlessly recite the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. She then went on to Stuyvesant High School, a selective public school in New York. While Saint Ann’s had been a nurturing environment, Stuyvesant was highly competitive. “It took me into the world of Manhattan; where I lived in Brooklyn was a world away,” she says. “Stuyvesant felt like it drew people from all over the world because you had so many first-generation immigrant families. It was my first exposure to a true meritocracy.” Irish Brown would carry these values—inclusion, fair competition, and merit-based rewards—with her throughout her career.

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While both Saint Ann’s and Stuyvesant were extremely diverse, Irish Brown attended college at SUNY Albany, in the comparatively whiter and more insular world of upstate New York. The transition was not necessarily an easy one. “It was the first time I was in an environment that wasn’t inclusive, so it felt very segregated to me,” Irish Brown recalls. “People sat in certain places in the cafeteria, not because you had to, but because those were the clusters that formed, and there were some issues on campus around race.” And, before meeting her, a freshman-year roommate expressed shock over the phone to Irish Brown that one of their suitemates was black. “She had no reason to know that I was African American as well, and that sort of set the tone going into school,” Irish Brown says. “All the unconscious bias and assumptions that people make just came through in that conversation.”

Nevertheless, Irish Brown thrived. Originally intending to follow in her father’s footsteps and study computer science, she found that she preferred economics and business. She became heavily involved in the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Albany State University Black Alliance and was a tutor for the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), where she helped encourage more people of color to study in STEM fields.

But Irish Brown’s public-finance professor helped change the course of her life when he recommended her for the Minority Internship in Public Finance sponsored by the New York State Housing Finance Agency. It was a yearlong program, one of the first targeted toward recruiting people of color into the financial services industry. Over the course of the year, Irish Brown trained at Lehman Brothers and interned at Chemical Securities and the New York State Housing Finance Agency. And she made important connections. “Most investment banks are not going to SUNY Albany to look for talent,” Irish Brown says, but she was hired the following year as an analyst at Lehman Brothers.

At Lehman, Irish Brown worked on housing finance with big clients such as the state of Connecticut and the city of New York, who were beginning to advocate for more diversity in the teams handling their accounts. Then, just three short years later, she was appointed by President Clinton as a senior policy analyst at the Treasury, where she helped create the finance control board for the District of Columbia. Irish Brown fondly recalls attending her first bill signing at the White House: “I’m 25 years old. I’m from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the president just shook my hand and thanked me for a bill that I was instrumental in crafting.”

Two years at the Treasury led Irish Brown to the conclusion that she wanted to work in corporate finance, and thus to Columbia Business School, viewing the Columbia MBA as a way to transition into that world. “I took advantage of every study tour that was offered. We did Africa; we did Brazil,” she says. And she was heavily involved in the Black Business Students Association, helping to revive its annual conference, which is still held today.

“Diversity means difference and inclusion are about people valuing that difference. … All employees have to believe that they have the same opportunity to thrive in the organization and achieve their career goals.”

Irish Brown’s career plan worked. When she finished her MBA, she was promptly hired by Morgan Stanley. “This was when I got into my groove around being actively involved in what we now call diversity and inclusion at these firms,” she says. “I always felt like it was something in my future, but I loved banking—I was really enjoying that—and I always called diversity and inclusion my second job.” As part of that second job, she traveled to historically black colleges and universities, such as Morehouse and Spelman, to speak on panels, recruit students into the financial industry, and conduct mock interviews. She also returned regularly to Columbia to speak with the Black Business Students Association about careers in banking. At Morgan Stanley, Irish Brown was assigned to a team working with BET to take BET.com public. When the IPO didn’t happen and BET was instead acquired by Viacom, she joined the network as vice president for business development and worked on financing for the company.

The dot-com bust got in the way, but it didn’t slow Irish Brown. Two years at BET turned into a return to Lehman Brothers—now as the senior vice president in charge of diversity recruiting—during the heady years of the mid-2000s. “Lehman profiled the person they wanted to head the effort to set up diversity recruiting, and they wanted it to be somebody that knew the business, knew the markets, could be commercial and would be credible.” The timing was perfect for Irish Brown, who had just become a mother and was thinking about what her professional legacy would be. “It was the perfect opportunity, the perfect timing, the perfect place—where I’d started my Wall Street career—to move into a full-time diversity role.”

Again, of course, a market crash intervened, this time the 2008 housing meltdown and subsequent collapse of Lehman Brothers. “It was definitely tragic,” she says. “I worked hard to try to help people without placement” find jobs. She joined the Obama transition team, working again at the Treasury to help the incoming administration hit the ground running, a particularly important task at the time given the national financial crisis. Then, after a long job search and a period of consulting, she rejoined corporate finance, taking a position as the senior vice president for diversity and inclusion at Bank of America. That role was more stable, and she was at the megabank for almost six years. During that time, she was particularly focused on bringing data—rather than merely anecdotal observations—into the conversation about diversity, demonstrating how it positively impacts the bottom line.

And then in 2015, she joined Bloomberg as its first chief diversity officer, where she leads a team of 10 people building diversity in Bloomberg around the world. The challenge is ensuring that while gender norms or religious practices may vary from country to country, for instance, within the walls of Bloomberg offices, every employee is treated fairly and by the same standards. Irish Brown’s definition of inclusion is extraordinarily clear: “Diversity means difference and inclusion are about people valuing that difference,” she says. In the past year at Bloomberg, one of Irish Brown’s biggest undertakings was ensuring that some 99 percent of the company’s more than 1,300 managers in offices around the world received unconscious-bias training. In addition, her team has helped get more than 5,400 of Bloomberg’s employees involved in diversity and inclusion initiatives—everything from mentoring programs to leadership conferences—a 57 percent increase from when she started.

“I know human resources and diversity, but I know finance and markets too,” Irish Brown says. “It was the perfect match in terms of the industries that I knew and had worked in.” She has completely reorganized the diversity and inclusion unit at Bloomberg, making it truly global by hiring a regional head in London to oversee the Europe, Middle East, and Africa offices, and one in Singapore to head the Asia-Pacific efforts.

She has also assigned each team member to a specific coverage area. These areas include metrics—quantifying the impact of diversity initiatives on the business’ performance; policy—creating and implementing the company’s 18-week, fully paid, gender-neutral parental-leave policy, for instance; and advocacy—which may include signing on to marriage equality amicus briefs.

“In her first two months at Bloomberg, she really revolutionized what I was doing,” says Michelle Ceran, a diversity and inclusion manager at Bloomberg. “She knows how to piece things together. She’s a great leader in the sense that she looks at everyone’s skill set and assigns them to projects to both challenge them and make the best use of their talents.”

And Irish Brown’s perspective on diversity, honed by her years at Saint Ann’s School and Stuyvesant High School, informs everything she does. “She talks a lot about diversity from an individual perspective. It’s ingrained in who she is. She takes pride in where she is in her journey and the responsibility that it brings, and she talks a lot about inclusive leadership and role modeling,” says Ceran, who personally views Irish Brown as a role model.

And with Irish Brown so deeply committed to diversity and inclusion, she remains driven, she says, to ensure that such equity becomes integral to the Bloomberg culture in each and every one of the 192 locations where the company operates. “All employees have to believe that they have the same opportunity to thrive in the organization and achieve their career goals.”


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