The ARD spoke with members of TXI, a product innovation firm that, as of January 2023, transitioned to full employee ownership through a new employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). During a nationwide period where dynamics between employees and employers continue to fracture and DEI initiatives fall short, ESOPs can open up opportunities, extend capital, and shift power to marginalized people traditionally barred from a seat at the table. We discuss the value of fostering belonging and how actualized DEI can be more than just a statement. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
• Learn how major corporations have committed to racial equity using this tracker by Just Capital.
• Learn more about ESOPs and how they can help promote economic justice by closing the racial and gender wealth gap.
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Q: Traditionally, race, gender, and disability are topics companies shy away from or subtly discourage employees from discussing. But these conversations are at the core of our individual lives and ingrained in the work that TXI does as well, but not initially. Why the shift?
Kara Carrell, developer and Community Engagement Chair: There’s definitely been an impetus to bring folks’ lived experience into the space, but there was already a space for folks to have more in-depth learning and difficult conversations. The company had just gone through a whole audit around exit interviews and thinking about the staff and how we communicate. So as I started working and thinking more about the language we use for DEI, going into DEIB, it was thinking about what those actually mean, diving further into what equity means, understanding how each of these pieces translates to racial justice, and talking about what justice means.
Q: One thing that you guys incorporate is the “B” part, the belonging. Why did you include what is often missing within many corporate companies that do DEI?
KC: The thing that I’ve held as important for the concept of DEIB is that it’s cyclical. You have diversity, which is just like a number, like a numbers game, right? Then you have equity, which understands that that number game is inherently an issue because of oppression. And then you activate inclusion to act against that. And then belonging is the point at which folks feel like they’re now part of a group. And they have a level of agency and ownership to that. Once you’re there, who else is missing? Why are they not here? You start the process again. The ending is not like a solution. It’s us continuing to learn about ourselves so that inherently doesn’t end. Because of that, we’ll continue to dive deeper into our understanding of ourselves, our understanding of each other, and our understanding of society. That’s why belonging is an important step to sit with and celebrate and then move into what more work can we do? How can we engage with that knowledge in belonging to fight against systems?
Brittney Braxton, Software Engineer and DEIB member: It’s valuable to have belonging, especially within corporate America [where] that doesn’t get propagated well enough so that folks who aren’t the typical majority don’t see themselves and don’t know how to act truthfully within that kind of environment. It’s easy to stamp this, put up a statement on a website, and then move on. DEI is framed in a concept of one hurdle to get over, and then we’ll be done. And that’s going to be solved in a week or a month. When they see this is a whole year, and the only progress made is they’ve interviewed one person of color, they’re like, “this is too much for me. I give up.” We saw a lot of that, unfortunately, within 2020 and 2021 and subsequent cuts of budgets and roles of these people who are focusing on these very hard things.
Q: There has been an uptick in worker strikes coinciding with recent massive layoffs. What does that tell us of the state of workplace culture? How does that affect the work that you all do?
Claire Podulka, Chief of Staff: We saw, coming out of 2020 and the pandemic coinciding with uprisings, a massive shift in the way that people were thinking of the role of work in their lives, particularly in the United States. And that shift surprised a lot of corporate America. We’re still seeing this power struggle play out.
It’s an interesting moment for us to become employee-owned. We’ve taken these two forces fighting each other in much of the grander economy. We’re like, no, they’re the same people now. We can fight amongst each other and disagree on many things, but that’s a community disagreeing, arguing, figuring it out, compromising, consenting, and working together versus this push-pull of two diametrically opposed forces who have ultimately divergent interests.
Lloyd Philbrook, Chief Equity Officer and Senior Engineer: We try and plan around this notion of potential crises that may happen, be happening, and directly tie the process that we would go through as an organization sustaining ourselves because we are a community. The reality may be that we all need to take a 20% pay cut at some point because of the economy, but that is something that we would have a ton of conversations about before it happened rather than you showing up on Monday morning and you’ve got an email that says, “congratulations, you are one of the 10,000.” One of the questions that it brings up for me, and I think it’s brought it up for workers within those industries, is what sort of power do we hold in these positions?
Q: In listening to you all speak, sustainability and community are integral to this work and you as individuals. What would you say is the benefit of ESOP and DEIB in your lives?
CP: Everything that you’ve heard everybody talking about doesn’t stick around when private equity shows up. So by keeping ownership within the group that has built all of the fundamentals of this culture and is continuing to steward those into the future, then it’s about the longevity of the business.
We had more than one owner previously, but they were majority white, majority men, majority straight cis. And this has democratized that greatly. This is primarily due to what we know about the inequities of access to capital and disparities and generational wealth that are passed down to folks with different identities and the ability to grant this kind of ownership just as a benefit of employment and what this means for long-term wealth building for all of our people and their families is really huge.
KC: This is a really good time to make these two dots, [ESOP and equity], connect. What kind of impact will a long-term wealth-building benefit have for the black folks at our company? This is super new, so I still don’t know what that impact will be for me, but I can foresee how much of an impact it will make in my life and my family based on my ability to keep this work at TXI. Also, we hire folks at different levels that wouldn’t have this kind of opportunity if they worked at some mega-tech company.
In the history of thinking about ownership at TXI, we had an opportunity to become an owner through a different platform, which I had qualified for but couldn’t do because of the amount of capital needed. I had a lot of anxiety about it because I was like, “Black woman owner, that needs to happen.” But also, “I can’t do that. It’s not accessible to me,” even though it’s available to me. Now, I don’t have to think about things being inaccessible to me because it’s now just available.