In My Reality, a new editorial series from D CEO, North Texas executives share their personal experiences of diversity and bias. First up is John Olajide, the CEO of Axxess and 2020 chair of the Dallas Regional Chamber. Olajide shared his story at a private “Courageous Conversations” event hosted by the Dallas Mavericks. Here are excerpts of his remarks.
“I’m originally from Nigeria, born and raised in Nigeria, and I came [to the United States] to go to college. I did not know that I was black until I came to America—at all. I grew up in a community where everyone looked like me, and I took that for granted. I went about my business every day, went to school, had great parents, saw successful business leaders, successful community leaders, and a lot of examples around me that I could look up to.
“When I came here, I realized very quickly that I was being told—in some cases, subtle, in some cases, not so subtle ways—that I had to be second class and I had to accept that. In my entire life, I never had to process things like that. And I refused to be second class. I refused to be second class to anyone. All humans have dignity, and there’s no way that should be accepted.
“As several black folks have spoken, we lead with the challenges of being a black person every single day. I’ve been blessed to have built a successful company, I know a lot of privileged circles, but I still deal with those challenges. There several times when I’m in a room with peers and colleagues, and I’m asked to get the water, [as if] I shouldn’t be there.
“As I navigated and thought about what my career would look like, I knew I had been blessed with a great education, I was reasonably talented, and I knew I could join an organization and build an enterprise and possibly rise to the top of that enterprise. But as I thought about America, I thought my chances of joining an organization and rising all the way to the top based on my talents and all that are just limited based on what I saw.
“I decided that I was committed to the idea of pursuing entrepreneurship early—I’ll roll the dice and take my shots. At least, even if I don’t do too well, I won’t have to deal with the crap that a lot of folks have to deal with in corporate America and all the injustices and indignity that you’ll have to face. I started an organization, and I’ve been blessed and work extremely hard, put a great team together, and it’s done very well nationwide and global, and we continue to grow.
Change Starts at the Top
“As business leaders, we have a greater responsibility to help get the change that we’re all talking about. The systemic issues were created by leaders, by business leaders, by community leaders. The challenges that we face; the challenges from slavery and the systemic racism that has existed for a long time. It’s an unfair system the way it is.
“No human wants their loved ones to be treated the way George Floyd was treated. I understand the outrage, the anger, the frustration, the sense of hopelessness, a sense of despair; I feel that. I live that every single day. I understand that. So, what I’m coming to do [as chair of the Dallas Regional Chamber] is getting all our business and community leaders together. We’re the ones with the power. We have a greater responsibility for this change.
“What we need to do is have conversations about it and say, ‘Look, there are systemic issues that hold our fellow citizens down.’ At the Dallas Regional Chamber, our mission is to make the Dallas region the best place to live, work, and do business for all citizens. We have to be candid that our community is not the best place to live, work, and do business for all our citizens. So we must do something about this.
“I just want to say that look, given how long it’s taken us to get here, if all the stars were aligned and all the powerful business leaders—mostly whites—agreed that we needed to change things and we all came together to make that change, we simply couldn’t snap our fingers and it’ll happen tomorrow. It’s taken four centuries to get to this point, and a lot of work needs to be done.
‘A Watershed Moment’
“When the whole George Floyd thing happened, a lot of entrepreneurs said, ‘Hey, John, you’re a black CEO, you’re a black leader, what are you gonna say about this?’ I went through a journey of processing my thoughts on what I needed to say about it. It’s not just an issue for black leaders or black CEOs; white leaders have to care about this.
“White CEOs have to say, ‘Enough. We’re going to take responsibility to make our community better than what it is now. We’re going to take action to make our society a lot more just and equitable for all people, and we will get the change that we seek.’
“It’s not going to come quickly. Chances are, we’re not going to see this beautiful utopia on arrival that we all want in our lifetimes, but we’ve got to take steps forward. I believe this is a watershed moment, and we have to take steps to start making that change happen. And I’m glad, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be at that seat, at that table where power is, and make sure we can educate all the leaders and listen and understand each other.
“And look, a lot of these leaders did not create this, they met this the way it is. They’re beneficiaries of that system. But what you will be held responsible for is the action that you took in your time. I can’t blame them for what happened 400 years ago, but today, we’re going to gather together to make this community equitable for all.”
Sofia Krusmark contributed to this article.