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Greenville Business Magazine

Community Matters: Racial Equity

Jul 22, 2020 10:20AM ● By David Dykes

By Tammy Joyner 

Michelin has built a 131-year-old reputation for making reliably rugged tires. Lately, the French tiremaker’s North American operation has focused on being a dependable corporate titan in a crisis. 

Leaders at Michelin’s North American headquarters in Greenville are helping the surrounding community and other parts of the country weather the deadly pandemic and the divisive racial squalls that have erupted since the Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The incident was captured on video. 

Michelin was among the first of Greenville’s corporate community to donate to United Way’s emergency Covid-19 fund which to date has raised about $2 million. Additionally, leaders at Michelin’s world headquarters in France sent 800,000 masks which were promptly distributed throughout the United States and Canada. Some 200,000 of those masks were distributed in South Carolina. 

Not satisfied to stop there, Michelin’s Greenville operation’s engineering team set about retrofitting machines normally used to make textiles for tires. Those machines are now making masks. Even the company CEO was trained on how to make masks on the machines. 

“Those are just a few things we’re doing and hopefully it’ll have a lasting effect on the community,” Will Whitley, director of community relations and state government affairs in Greenville, said during Tuesday’s Greenville Chamber Community Matters webinar on Racial Equity & Adapting to Customer Needs. 

The Community Matters series focuses on topics pertinent to the community. Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Carlos Phillips led Tuesday’s 45-minute session. 

In addition to donating money and resources, Michelin is taking a harder look at ways to boost its diversity and inclusion, according to Mike Williams, director of recruiting and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Michelin. 

 Williams recalled how deeply affected he was after seeing the Floyd video. It conjured up Williams’ own rarely-talked-about encounters with the police. Like the time in 2001, just before dusk, Williams was pulled over and as he reached for his wallet the policeman, who was white, pulled out his gun and pointed at the then-29-year-old Williams’ head. 

“That has left a tremendous mark on me,” Williams said in a follow-up interview with Greenville Business Magazine. “I can still feel the barrel of his gun right near my head.” Williams later learned he had been pulled over for driving with his fog lights instead of headlights. 

Williams told the story to about 125 human resources colleagues from around the U.S. and Canada. That led to other meetings where people of all persuasions shared experiences including times when white colleagues were allies for people of color. 

The meetings led to the creation of an in-house program at Michelin called Responding to Racism, Injustice, and Inequality Through Sustainable Social Empowerment and Engagement or RISE². 

“Ultimately, RISE is about taking the issues impacting our country today - racial and social injustices - and bringing them to light to improve our diversity and inclusion as a corporation,” Williams said. 

“A lot of the country was trying to figure out what’s going on,” Williams said. “We were all stunned and several days after there was quite a bit of silence while outraged spilled out into the streets. 

“It was a relief to talk about what had happened to each other,” Williams said. “When you can touch somebody’s heart, you can have an impact and influence on them. What’s been important in what’s going on now (across the country) is that it’s given us a broader and necessary platform.” 

“We’ve gone from awareness to discussion about making a business case. Now we’re at the point where everybody wants to be valued and that leads to inclusion,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of (activities) to get everyone on the same page. So different continents have different things they want to focus on.” 

One way Michelin has seen concrete evidence of change is its work with Textio, an artificial intelligence company that helped Michelin with its job descriptions. 

“We wanted to make sure we’re recruiting and attracting diverse candidates,” Williams said. Michelin used a Textio tool that helped the company make its job posting more diverse and inclusive. 

“We’re trying to do better at being more inclusive,” Williams said. 

The national unrest in America has only “accelerated” Michelin’s inclusion and diversity strategy, Williams said. 

While the multinational conglomerate is making strides toward creating a more equitable workplace, Williams told the webinar audience that smaller companies can be “much more nimble and have the ability to create change much more immediately.” 

Michelin’s North American operation has 21,448 employees and 19 manufacturing plants in the United States and Canada. Globally, the company has 127,000 employees and more than $24 billion in 2019 sales.