Championing Positive Change With Cox Automotive

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Maria Soklis, President, Cox Automotive Canada & Brazil and Pako Tshiamala, a co-chair of the organization’s Black Employee Network (BEN), join Autosphere’s Huw Evans for a look at a new initiative to champion change and inclusivity in the workplace. Photo: Autosphere

Cox Automotive is looking to combat anti-black and systemic racism, through its Black Employee Network (BEN) employee resource group and signing the BlackNorth Initiative’s CEO Pledge.

Championing positive change is something we should all strive for. In 2020, Cox Automotive Canada announced a plan to combat anti-black and systemic racism through the creation of an Employee Resource Group (ERG) called the Black Employee Network (BEN).

With the creation of BEN and the signing of the BlackNorth Initiative’s CEO Pledge (being the first automotive industry company in Canada to do so), Cox Automotive is looking to set the standard for inclusion and positive change both within its four walls and the larger business community in Canada.

Autosphere.ca recently interviewed President of Cox Automotive Canada & Brazil, Maria Soklis, and Pako Tshiamala, one of the key founders and co-chairs of BEN, to ask them about the Black Employee Network, the CEO pledge and what these ground-breaking initiatives are looking to achieve in the coming months and years. Here’s what they had to say.

About handling racism in the workplace

Big companies sometimes either avoid or don’t know how to handle difficult topics like racism; why is it important to you and Cox Automotive Canada that we are sitting here today talking about this new initiative?

Maria Soklis: I think a lot of companies avoid talking about difficult topics because it has the potential to introduce controversy and expose vulnerabilities. At Cox Automotive Canada we believe that difficult conversations are foundational and pivotal in making sure you understand what is compelling and important to your people and for it to then help drive a more inclusive and positive environment.

About Black Employee Network (BEN)

Can you tell us a little more about BEN and some of the factors that led to the establishment of the Black Employee Network?

Pako Tshiamala: The Black Employee Network is an employee resource group where team members of all genders and races who are passionate about learning about what anti-black and systemic racism is and how they can do their part in essentially ending it in all aspects of our lives (can do so).

As far as the factors that led to establishing and creating it, we were actually inspired by Maria and an employee resource group she leads at Cox Automotive Canada called Women With Drive. And, like BEN, it addresses matters like systemic barriers and discrimination. I have also been a part of organizations that have black-focused ERGs and saw the contribution they made to the organization in terms of boosting employee engagement and contributing to company culture.

I think the most important thing for me and other passionate black people who started the Black Employee Network however; is that it has inspired black talent to bring their true selves to work.

We started BEN back in February of 2020 and it was only possible because we worked with an organization that has the very role model and of kind of leadership that Maria and other key executives bring to our company.

About ‘Always Doing the Right Thing’ and Black Employee Network (BEN)

With Cox Automotive’s guiding principle of ‘Always Doing the Right Thing,’ what are some of the objectives the organization has planned for BEN as a vehicle to help champion positive change?

Maria: The best way to answer this question is that the Black Employee Network has three very clear objectives and that is to educate, to celebrate and to inspire.

The best way we can help BEN to reach their objectives is to provide a safe environment where they can meet and speak about difficult topics and where they can comfortably build initiatives to include or drive a more inclusive environment—one that combats anti-black and systemic racism.

Additionally, the way we plan to support them is by providing resources they need to put these initiatives into play and to hold both themselves and the organization accountable to monitoring progress throughout the year.

About the ‘Real About Race’ series

Can you tell us a little about the Real About Race video series and its objectives?

Pako: The Real About Race Series is a set of educational videos that essentially capture dialogue between senior leaders at Cox Automotive and black talent. Dialogue focuses on topics such as anti-black and systemic racism amongst other things and the goal is to essentially inspire similar conversations throughout the entire organization.

Black people face a lot of trauma in their communities and a lot of the healing comes through dialogue and we just want to inspire our organization. We can start by having dialogue and showing them how those dialogues can be had in a professional setting and in a meaningful way.

I just want to add that initiatives like the Real About Race Series could not have been possible if we didn’t have the true support we have from our senior leadership team and their willingness to want to participate in such dialogue, despite how difficult it can be to have these conversations. Kudos to them for supporting us from day one.

Our leadership team actually dared us to do something industry wide and I am happy to say we will be sharing some footage of our video interviews on public platforms such as our website as well as on LinkedIn so we can help inspire similar conversations in the wider business community beyond the four walls of our organization.

About The BlackNorth Initiative and CEO Pledge

Can you tell us a little about the BlackNorth Initiative and why you chose to sign the CEO pledge? 

Maria: The Black North (Initiative) Pledge is an initiative that is currently holding over 300 very influential companies here in Canada accountable to driving positive change and helping combat anti-black and systemic racism.

The reason that I decided to take the pledge on behalf of the company was, first of all, their mission statement which actually aligned with ours and it was very compelling. Second of all, they took a business first approach to tackle this compelling issue, which I felt had sustainability power and that is obviously important when you take on a pledge or a new initiative.

And then finally, back to my original point, BlackNorth were providing seven criteria that they were holding these companies and CEOs accountable to and I think we all know that where there is focus and accountability, positive change follows. Those were some of the reasons why we decided to take this pledge.

About setting precedents in the Canadian automotive industry

What does it mean to you and the BEN team to be the first automotive related company in Canada to adopt the BlackNorth Initiative CEO pledge what are some of the precedents you’re hoping to set in terms of spreading awareness regarding inclusivity both within Canada’s business communities and beyond?

Pako: It definitely makes us realize that we have a responsibility to be a role model.

Being the first ones to sign in the automotive industry means there will be a lot of eyes upon us and people will be looking to see what kind of impact we make, not only within our organization but also the community at large. As far as a precedence that we want to set, both in the business community in Canada and beyond, the time do the right thing is always now.

If we can do it, then you can do it too. We are happy to share our best practices, people can reach out to us at [email protected]. Doing things like this is never easy, but if we can learn from each other then why not?

For those of us who work within an international organization, (and because) systemic and anti-black racism is a global problem, because of the reach of our organization, BEN has the ability to affect change at a global level and if we can do it, you can do it too.

About having those difficult conversations surrounding racism

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Maria: I think I would love to leave one message and that message is: Difficult conversations are very hard to have. They really are because again, they can introduce controversy which can expose a company’s vulnerabilities but without having difficult conversations it is hard to build a foundation by which you can drive positive change.

As long as you do it in a professional way and in the spirit of doing the right thing by your employees and team members to further evolve your business and our industry, I think it is ok, and you don’t have to be the first. That being said, there is not one single person or one single organization that can drive the kind of change we need to in order to combat anti-black and systemic racism and create a more inclusive environment.

I would hope that our industry decides to lead in their own professional environment or to follow our lead, because I believe there are a lot of things we do right as an industry, but this is one area where we can do much better.

It’s time to do it because we have been here a long time and while we have been having these discussions for a long time and we really need to leave the industry at some point in a better place, so that future generations don’t have to worry about topics such as inclusivity and anti-black and systemic racism.

Pako: I would say that with initiatives like this, black employees should really be at the helm of leading conversations on anti-black and systemic racism in the workplace and I hope this interview can inspire you, if you are a black person, to reach out to your executive team and propose to lead efforts like BEN at your organization.

And to executives that aren’t black, I would say follow the example set by Maria and reach out to your black talent and inspire them to champion initiatives like this to empower them and provide them with the tools they need to do it effectively.


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