TIME 100 Talks
June 9, 2020 2:29 PM EDT

Tristan Walker, the founder and CEO of Walker & Company Brands, believes that business leaders need to be speaking up about the need for racial justice in this moment, something he’s modeling by example at his own company.

During a TIME 100 Talks discussion with TIME correspondent Justin Worland, Walker, who was a 2019 TIME 100 Next honoree, discussed why taking a stand when it comes to social issues is part of his duty as a leader in both his community and his company.

“I am a Black man before I am a CEO or founder,” Walker says. “I am a Black father. I am a Black son. I am a Black brother. I am a Black husband. And it’s important for me to show our people, many of whom also represent the audience that is experiencing this trauma, that we care. If I’m not acknowledging this trauma, if I am not helping model the way and if I am not active — who do we do this for in the first place? Walker company was really built on representing a future that we feel deserves to exist and it is my duty to speak out, not only as a Black man, but also as the founder and CEO, representing an audience that is going through this together.”

In light of the nationwide protests about racism and police brutality, many companies have issued messages of solidarity over social media. However, Walker stresses that businesses also need to take the responsibility of practicing what they preach, starting with having dialogue not only externally, but internally about racial injustice.

“I’m very lucky to be running Walker Company, where these conversations are welcome, it’s important that all the other organizations recognize that this kind of conversation is necessary,” Walker says. “Because without the acknowledgment of that trauma, how can you progress? There are folks within your company who are experiencing it in real time and if our company is about our people, then we need to be empathetic to that. And once that acknowledgement happens, then we can model the way effectively.”

Walker also made the case that people who are looking to commit to longterm change when it comes to racial justice should consider how economic opportunities can center and empower the Black community.

“I think the economic empowerment of Black folks is, in essence, the greatest economic opportunity of my lifetime,” Walker says. “Whether it be for profit or not for profit. I think for America, it is the most important thing that it could focus on right now.”

And while many things feel uncertain during this difficult time, Walker is confident that this moment will bring positive change for the future.

“We’ve seen over the past 400 years of this physical and emotional trauma, we’ve seen some progress and I can only hope that there will be more,” he says. “Folks who are out there on the front lines, organizations that are realizing that the ways that they’ve done business in the past has changed, our people trying to find ways that we can inspire action — not only for ourselves, but also for our consumers. It’s difficult not to feel some semblance of optimism that things can be better. And I think it will, but we really have to keep persisting…I think progress will come.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com.

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