Black people who have the potential to be successful entrepreneurs and business leaders have rarely reached that potential, given the impact of systemic racism, including the fact that few are in positions where they can take part in the networking that leads to so many opportunities.
Abim Kolawole thinks change can occur and steps being taken now will have positive impact. And he is in a major position to help that become so.
Kolawole, a top executive of Northwestern Mutual – he was recently named vice-president of “customer experience integration and promoting journey “ and was previously vice president of digital innovation — said during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program posted on Marquette Law School’s website on February 17, 2021, that there is a greater sense of urgency around creating opportunity in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020.
Kolawole talked specifically about steps such as the creation by Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske of a racial equity task force within the company and the commitment by the company of $20 million to fund minority entrepreneurs launch ventures. Kolawole is playing a central role in administering the fund.
Gousha asked Kolawole how he responds to those who a doubtful that a corporate task force will change much. “The truth is in the proof points,” Kolawole said. He said the strong commitment of Northwestern Mutual leaders and the creation of the fund are proof points that they are serious, Good results, he said, will be an important proof point.
He said the company intended both to double down on past efforts to promote opportunity that didn’t bring big change and to find new paths. Kolawole said efforts such as these need to be bold and innovative if opportunity is to be increased in a genuine way.
Is $20 million enough to make major change? Kolawole said, “Every good thing starts with that one step.” In combination with similar efforts by corporations around the country, progress can be made. The words he used in referring to the Northwestern Mutual fund included both “incremental” and “transformational,” because both apply in some ways.
Kolawole’s career path has been impressive. It includes nine years as a member of the US Army Judge Adjutant General Corps, work at New York City law firm handling securities and finance issues, and time as a staff attorney for the US Securities & Exchange Commission enforcement division in New York. He has been with Northwestern Mutual for 18 years.
Kolawole said he is comfortable at home and at work when it comes to matters related to race – but not so much outside of those two settings. “The moment I step out of the four walls of my home or my company – and these are true experiences that I have – you realize you are just as susceptible, just as vulnerable” as any other black man, despite corporate titles and a good income.
He recounted an incident from not long before the pandemic began. He and some friends went out to dinner at a downtown Milwaukee steak house. As they were leaving, he was waiting near the door for the valet to bring his car. He said he intentionally stood off to the side to be less visible. But a car pulled up, a man got out, and the man came to Kolawole, handing him the keys to the man’s car.
“People are just wired to think about you in a certain way,” he said. “We’re still in that age and that time where these things happen. . . . . It impacts how you conduct yourself on a day-to-day basis.”
But it has not impacted Kolawole’s commitment to his career. He said his career mantra is: “You have to be open to personal disruption.” That has led him to take on increasingly impressive challenges. Making Milwaukee and other places better for potential Black entrepreneurs is now one of them.
To listen to the conversation with Kolawole, click here.