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December 12, 2023 30 mins

Ep. 144 Jon Viard is Program Lead of the SARE Task Force at Northwestern Mutual, which stands for Sustained Action for Racial Equity. Prior to leading SARE, Jon was Senior Director of Centralized Supervision at Northwestern Mutual.

SARE encompasses an accelerator in NM’s ongoing commitment to fight racism, prejudice and social injustice in all forms and focuses on making bold, long-term, positive impact within black communities. Through SARE, they are supporting black entrepreneurship, black small businesses, supplier diversity, accessibility for clients and other important enterprises. Northwestern Mutual recently committed $175 million to help reduce the wealth gap, and support businesses and entrepreneurs as they continue to grow and create positive economic momentum within local communities.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
We are in the final weeks of the year, and
if you are a small business owner, an entrepreneur, a
startup founder, I highly suggest you listen to my recent
episode Evaluating your Tech Stack because at the end of
the year, you want to start thinking about what systems
have you been using that no longer serve you? Because
on January one, for many people and for many processes,

you need to clean break, and a fresh calendar allows
you that clean break so that you can go in
the year and do things more efficiently, more effectively with
better tools that suit your needs. That's episode one forty
three Evaluating your Tech Stack. I highly recommend it for you. You, yes, you,
I highly recommend it for you as you close out
twenty twenty three. Did you know you can get your

daily dose of black tech news at afrotech dot com. Well,
you can like this new story up about Terrence Howard,
who is suing caa creative artists agency, claiming he received
thirty to fifty percent less than what he should have
per episode of Empires. As everything always about business with
check class out of your voice when you're talking to me.
That story's up and it's brand new right now on

afrotech dot com or this story former NBA player Paul
Pierce settles with the SEC for one point four million
dollars over unlawful promotion of crypto securities. You gotta be
careful out here with these things, dope technology, risky proposition.
Find these stories in more at afrotech dot com, bookmarket
in your web browser. I'm well, lucas Black Tech Green

Money were here with another episode. I'm so excited for
this one because this one actually recorded live in person
in my studio back at toe House, and so you're
actually gonna see the video of this recording. I believe
it drops next week on YouTube. So makes you subscribe
to Black Tech Green Money on YouTube. But John Villard

is programmed lead of this SAYRE task Force at Northwestern Mutual,
which stands for Sustained Action for Racial Equity Sarah Sarah
encompasses an accelerator in Northmester Mutuals ongoing commitment to fight racism, prejudice,
and social injustice in all forms and focuses on making

BOWLD long term positive impact within Black communities. Through SAYRE,
they're focusing and supporting black entrepreneurship, black small business supplier
diversity accessibilities for clients and other important enterprises initiatives. So
prior to Sayer, John was senior director of Centralized Supervision
at Northwestern Mutual. And Northwestern Mutual actually recently committed one

hundred and seventy five million dollars to reduce the wealth
gap and support businesses and entrepreneurs as they continue to
grow and create positive economic momentum within local communities. And
as we reported in October, they've made a total of
sixteen investments nationally and local to Milwaukee, which has led

to further investments of nearly fifty five diverse businesses, the
majority of which are black owned. Enjoyed this conversation with
John Vard. John's good to have you here. Willis an
honor pleasure to be with you. Absolutely. So you are
program lead for Sustained Action for Racial Equity task Force
at Northwestern Mutual, and I want you to talk a

little bit about how you came into that role, a
little bit about your personal story. Sure for sure. So
I am a first generation American. My parents both immigrated
from Haiti in the late seventies and met in Chicago,
and so I grew up in a small household of
five but with a deep, deep connection to a Haitian

community that was based in Emison. So titaned Haitian family
all about kind of uplifting each other and making a
way for ourselves in the country. So fast forward, I
started working at Northwestern Mutual and have had an amazing
journey throughout my thirteen years with the company. But in
the summer of twenty twenty, was finding myself really sort
of having an identity crisis around you know, what am

I doing in this kind of corporate space, not really
being as much part of the solution, you know, certainly
post George Floyd and everything that happened that summer, and
I was thinking about my wife was that was nine
months pregnant at the time, and I was thinking about
what would I tell my son about our roles to play,
you know, during this really trying time for the country,

and like what do we do about anything? Right? And
this Sareah role came up in terms of like how
do you align the mission and objectives of a corporate
entity with actionable impact outside our walls. And so I
went from very much being on the brink of like
I don't think this is this corporate thing is for
me anymore. I think I need to like really step
out to now. Not only can I have a meaningful

career here, but I can drive like real impact. And
I would argue, maybe even more so than some local
politicians or what have you can when you can channel
millions of dollars of corporate resources to moving the needle.
So yeah, yeah, so I'm interested. Twenty twenty was a
year that a lot of corporations were making promises, you know,
around what I want to talk about impact funds and

why it's important to Northwestern Mutual because you know, you
guys committed a hundred and seventy five million last I
looked to your impact fund designed to you know, help neighborhoods,
to small business owners and et cetera. There's ultimately no
entity outside holding people accountable. So how do you guys
hold yourself accountable to the promises that you guys have

made to you know, these communities. Yeah, that's a great question.
It's a really important one. And so what I love
about the way our CEO, John Schlisky has kind of
set this all up is we treat this as though
it's any other business imperative. Right, This is not like
a nice side project. We have a budget with oversight,
executive oversight. We have you know, regular cadence of meetings

with our CEO at the table saying where is this
and why isn't this moving fast enough? What are the
impediments unless clear them? And we've had that really since
its inception. And the other thing that I think is
really cool is we have very specific measurements again like
you would any other say, sales strategy or growth measure right,
and we're held accountable littles on a monthly basis. So

stuff is not looking right or moving at the pace
that folks think it should, believe you'll have to answer
to that at the literally senior most level of the company.
And that's what makes it a game changer is that
you have CEO investment in presence basically day in and
day out for the last three plus years on this.
One of the things I love about what you guys
are working on not only funding you know, things externally,

but also incorporating small businesses, minority owned businesses, black owned businesses,
and your vendor profile and so often you know, because
I've have small businesses and you hear this term about
capacity a lot. You know, we don't work with them
because they don't have the capacity, And so how do
you clear that hurdle and what kind of responsibility might

you feel to help people build the capacity so that
they can do more stuff? Yeah, I love that question.
So one of the things that I love about what
we did with the supplier diversity or business diversity spaces. Okay, uh,
the large, tried and true suppliers that we that just
maybe do have the capacity that we've relied on for years.
It's holding them accountable to as the experts in that

particular field, how are you building up other small like
smaller businesses or more nascent businesses. And so we changed
our contract language and our expectations of the those bigger
vendors that we are in a position to kind of
jump away from right away to how are they building
up others and certain targets within our spend with them
that need to go to those smaller, newer businesses. In addition,

we're doing things like a mentor protege relationship where Okay,
your business may not be ready for a fortune one
hundred supply chain today, but how can we dig in
your books, dig in your pitches, dig into how you
present you know your business, proposition your value, and help
coach you up so that you're ready and we'll go
first and bring you into our portfolio. But then not

only that, you're ready to go compete for others, and
so recognizing that there's there's a heavy front investment to
get people to that point of maturation. Everybody's not ready
for this for fortunate one hundred and what comes with that? Right?
Do you feel like it's your responsibility to help people
not only get them in and vet them to see
if they can do their work, but also to help
them Do you feel like that's your responsibility one percent?

Hundred percent? I think specifically as it relates to like
a place like Milwaukee, which has been our home for oh,
I don't know, one hundred and fifty plus years, there's
definitely this this this ownership of what are we doing
as a huge corporate citizen, as one of the biggest
corporate citizens to uplift others and invest in others in
our own backyard first and foremost. So you'll see, even
as you talk about like the Impact Investing Fund, we

have a whole sleeve that is just dedicated to what's
going on in our backyard at Milwaukee. Right, So we
can be doing all these things on the national sleep,
but if we're not making those investments in our community
to build those businesses up down the street, yeah, that's
not really worthwhile. You know, I was doing some research
on the Grow Gather Against the Gap conference and I
found this quote from you, and you had said, you know,

we have a small army dedicated unapologetically to accelerating progress
and not just with today in mind. Everything we do
at NM is with the next one hundred years in mind,
not just the next quarter. So like, talk up because
you mentioned some of the those that you guys hold
yourself accountable to talk about some of those goals that
you're measuring against to see if you're actually making progress. Yeah,

absolutely so. I think if you can think about our
work in say as sort of being like within our house,
get our own house in order first and foremost. So
it's what's the representation look like across all levels of
the organization, So not just frontline you know kind of
folks answering the phones, but what do we look like
in the executive ranks. And I think our best sort
of barometer for our measurement for successes, Does it look

like the nation that we operate in? Right? If we're
a national company and let's just say black folks, for example,
are thirteen and a half percent roughly, well, we should
at least be reflective of that thirteen and a half percent,
Not that it's a quota per se, but that's a
good starting point to say, do we even look like
the nation we're trying to serve? Right? So we have that,
So that's kind of getting our own house in order.

And then one of the things that we're doing externally,
it's all about the goals of you know, one, helping
to close the wealth gap. So how are we putting
the hundreds of billions of dollars that we, as an
enormous institutional investor have putting it to work in building
small business, building black businesses of varying sizes, right, narrowing
that wealth gap through investment, access to capital, et cetera.

And then the last piece is what our company does
is leave people off better off than we found them
with financial plans, you know, risk mitigation strategies, right, things
like life insurance that black folks folks may not know,
have a higher propensity, they have a higher desire for
life insurance than any other segment in the country. There's
this like this, this notion of legacy and paying it

for it. How are we reaching more black households to
help give them access to that, to those critical products
and strategies to help protect their family for generations. So
we talk about more black households, We talk about putting
more billions of dollars to work. We talk about, you know,
diversifying our supplier pipelines and things of that nature, and
then of course getting our own house in order. Uh.

You previously mentioned Milwaukee, which I love. So a lot
of the work I'm passionate about is about the middle
is because I recognize that most of us who are
interested in tech and et cetera don't live in New
York at LA. We live in these other cities. And
so what is unique or important or an advantage of
being based in Milwaukee? Then a lot of other places

that you guys could be Yeah, yeah, are their advantages? Yeah?
I think so. I think as somebody that is raising
us his son in Milwaukee, I definitely think so. I
think when I think about Milwaukee, I first and foremost
think about like the value proposition to like live and
just have a wonderful life. And actually I was talking
about this with a colleague of mind even today. The accessibility,

the the the access to to culture, to to just
good hard working people, like there's just all the things
that you would want in a place to sort of
raise a family. So that check there. I think that
there is tremendous opportunity as you think about Milwaukee being
a destination for talent, that we might have some work
to do in terms of the external image, but once

you actually come and experience it, it is a really
special place with I would argue world class amenities that
are kind of a best kept secret, if you will,
so that when people get there it's like, oh, wow,
this is dope. Milwaukee's dope. Come people walking into summer,
come in the winter, coming this summer, and you'll say, wow,
I never would have envisioned this about you know, Wisconsin
or specifically Milwaukee. And so I think as a place

to live, it's huge. When you're talking about building tech
talent and things of that nature, I think what you
have are several really really strong corporate entities, strong partnerships
across you know, government, and things of that nature that
are really trying to create an ecosystem that fosters that
kind of creative growth, if you will. So you have

a bunch of leaders in the area that are really
invested in making it a destination a choice for talent,
for tech talent in particular of them. I want to
talk about the Impact Fund again, and so I imagine
I don't know this, but I imagine a lot of
the bet you're making or funds that you're exporting from
your bank counts to other folks, is put into organizations
who are doing the work in those communities. I mean,

I'm gonna let you speak to that, but I want
to talk about how organizations who are doing the work
reach out to you guys to say, we're doing this
great work in whatever city. Can we be part of
this thing? How does the fund work? Yeah? Absolutely, So
I would start by saying, impact investing in Northwestern Mutual
is the way to kind of, you know, reach out

and download sort of what it is that we do,
what it is that we offer in that particular space.
And so our fund is really divided into two sleeves
that I think I mentioned earlier. One is a local
sleeve that is very much focused on local impact investing
in Milwaukee business owners and Milwaukee businesses. And in that space,
we've made some investments that we're really proud of in CDFI,

so Community Development Financial Institute and what those are. Think
them as like local community banks that have the sort
of ground game to do the kind of like smaller
scale lending and investing that our community needs. Right as
a huge corpord entity, we're looking at money in pretty
big terms, like in the millions, right, but everyone doesn't
need a million dollars plus to get invested to get

their business off the ground are accelerated. So these cdfives
have the ground game to say, let me get really
intimately familiar with Will's business, his books, et cetera, make
the right sort of lending and investment decisions to help
him be successful, and then also do other wrap around
services to help consult on things like taxes and all
these other things that you may not necessarily be familiar
with starting a small business. So that's kind of the

local sleep. On a national level, we really partner with
a number of strong financial national and global even financial
institutions that have a really good pulse on a number
of different sectors that advance sustainable housing, that advance educational
priorities in all the sort of pillars that we have,
and so they're really looking at how can they put

larger swats of money to work on a national sleeve.
So we're parted with folks like Black Rock and others
that that had that sort of ground game too. You
mentioned a little bit about your CEO and his involvement,
and so often these efforts aren't led by somebody in
senior leadership, and yours is, and I wonder can you
speak more to how serious you guys take this, because

at the end of the day, sustainability is what matters
one hundred percent. I will say so from day one
and to this day, our CEO has been at the table.
He chairs our Sustained Action for Racial Equity, the task
force that we talked about. We have six of our
senior leaders So think of these are folks that are
responsible for huge portions of our business, that are directly

accountable for the results that that that we set out
to accomplish, and so we have executive oversight, we have
we have rigorous reporting metrics and and real accountability in
the sense that like if we don't hit some of
these things. Some of this is out of our control,
but the parts that are it will have direct impacts

on people's performance and myself included performance in a very
very real way. This is no different. I cannot emphasize enough.
It's no different than any other growth priority that we
would have as a fortune one hundred. It's it's it's
treated with that same level of intensity. I would argue
in some spaces even more leadership investment an investment in

terms of like their physical presence, their physical they're like
engagement in a meaningful way. And then again, what gets
measured gets done, and you know, success is required for
folks to accomplish their their personal goals and their performance goals.
I want you to share some information about your Black
Founders Accelerator program. You know, I think about some of

the issues I've experienced and heard about through black entrepreneurs
where they might get invited to expos and conferences where
people want to hear about their business. And what I've
heard and often many different spaces, is we come and
do we do these expos that we present and it's
a big it's a dog and pony show, but nobody
ever walks away with a deal or they never walk

away with a meeting to actually get a serious look
at what they do, talk about how yours is, how
yours works, and how it might be different. Yeah. Absolutely
so super proud of this. So our Blackfounder Accelerator, we
choose ten businesses per year. We typically do two cohorts
of five each year. And that might not sound like

a lot, but it's intentionally very very selective. So I
think we have upwards of seven hundred and fifty applicants
that we like, thoroughly vet and go through that process with.
And essentially what we're doing is we partner with a
company called Generator that has a really strong sort of
development game for early stage entrepreneurs and mid stage entrepreneurs
as well, and we go through a twelve week program

with them where we're helping them or find their pitch,
their business, their you know, every aspect of their business.
Really we invest one hundred thousand dollars, so this is
not like a get. We are very much investors, and
we also open them up to further investment in other
parts of our business. And then we appoint an executive
mentor to sit in with those founders and really provide

particular guidances unique to their business. Excuse me. So you
might have a business with some strong regulatory concerns, So
we're going to try to find somebody from the Northwestern
mutual ranks that's an expert in regulatory you know, fintech
regulatory considerations, and try to pair that founder with them
so that they could really get C suite level insights

on how to build their business in a way that
will ultimately be attractive to the big both further investors
but companies that might want to use that service into
the future. So we do that, We bring these cohorts in,
we really try to build a sort of spirit of
family across the cohorts and the alum and then what
we do after that is try to really keep them

as a part of this ecosystem and introduce them connect
them to as many resources and further opportunities to raise
more capital. In fact, going back to our dashboard and
in our metrics for results, one of our results, one
of our metrics is are we helping our founders raise
a particular amount of capital? Right, So we have targets
to help graduates of our program meet certain fundraising criteria,

so that incentivizes us to really be diligent about how
can I introduce Will to as many people in that
lane that can help him further grow that business after
he's left our program. So we're specifically very choose, like
we're particularly picky and very very much kind of overweighted
in the not overweighted, but very much leaned into how

do we make this a very very thorough partnership and
be close with them? And speaking about partnerships, you guys
partner with Kellogg, which is like a leading business school
in the world. You partner with them for Gather against
the Gap a lot of your initiatives. Why is that
partnership important in what do you hope that it lends

to success? Yeah, I think thanks for the question. So
our CEO is actually in the lum of Kellogg and
so that's sort of where the initial idea came. But
the thought being that Kellogg is a world class institution,
like you mentioned, I think, top two or three in
all business school rankings year over year. And what's so
special about Kellogg is they have you know, many many
decades of shaping business practices successfully. And so we think

about one Evanson is but an hour away from Milwaukee.
So there's that proximity too. We had the connection with
our CEO being in lumber More importantly, they have sixty
five thousand executives across the globe that sit at the
helm of real, real capital like organizations and dollar amounts
that can change the makeup of this country and even

the world. You know, I'm not Oh, it doesn't sound
too part this guy, but the world like they can
do that. They have that in their alumni ranks. They
have nineteen of the Fortune five hundred CEOs or Kellogg
alumn Wow. So the thought was, Okay, this is a
world class research institution, world class alumni bas teaming up
with them and using ourselves as a case study to say, look,

Northwestern Mutual doesn't have all this figured out, like we're learning.
We're still learning every day. People have been at supplier
diversity and things of that nature impact investing for much
longer than we have. But we're here, we're fully invested.
What can we learn from you as an academic institution,
and then what can we learn in and how can
we inspire others within your alumni base to steer their

organizations towards driving impact as well? And by the way,
you're also pumping out and cultivating future executives of tomorrow
that need to have this this as a part of
their game, right, they need to know how their organizations
are making an impact beyond just shareholder return. Right. Gather
against the Gap. I've been touching on this and lot
people don't know. Let's talk about first. What Gather against

the Gap was? Yeah, speak to that. Yeah, So Gather
against the Gap was this idea of Okay, again in
the spirit of us trying to get better at doing
this work. We don't have all the answers. We're proud
of what we done, long way to go. How can
we convene other leaders, other you know, large corporate entities
leaders at the helm of these massive amounts of capital.

I think we had in the room more than a
trillion dollars in assets under management. And that was just you,
That was just We had two hundred I think it
was like two hundred and twenty five, two hundred and
fifty something like that in attendance, physically c suite leaders. Okay,
and you know, kell Loogg brought this academic lens of Okay,

if we removed all barriers and thought about what are
the levers that corporations can pull that the business community
can pull to legitimately begin to narrow and eventually close
the wealth gap. Like it's possible. But what it takes
was essentially investing in black businesses, right, So black business development.
It's getting more corporations to open up their supply chains

and start to bring in black business as a part
of that. So grow business through through leveraging the supply chain,
and then that's access to capital. And then when you
combine all those things over time and you really can
create a sort of like a multiplier effect, we can
start to move that needle. And so everybody in that
room was aligned on that vision and came to get actionable,

like practical when you go in on Monday, here are
three to five things that you can do from your seat,
and I think we accomplish that in space. Your CEO
had this to say about one of the themes that
came out of the conference. He said, sustained action requires
sustained leadership. When leaders show up consistently for their impact initiatives,

they create a multiplier effect to your point, within their organization.
What do you hope other businesses in your vertical takeaway
from that conference and then you know, how do you
continue because you said you guys kind of want to
be a representation like this work is possible if we
collectively do this together. Like what do you hope they
take away from that initiative and that's the work that continues. Yeah,

I think what's been most impact I think to folk
so like obviously if you got like literally skin in
the game and this is something that you know, this
is just so you're so passionate about this topic, Like
that's one thing. There's sort of the there's the moral
imperative to to close the wealth gap because it's gonna
help benefit the country undeniably. But then there's also a
real business case for doing it too. So let's just

say that's not enough for you as a leader, Like, yeah,
that sounds good, but I've got I've got shareholders to
worry about. I think what our CEO would argue, you know,
not to be his ambassador necessarily, but there's real growth
potential and business value. That's what we wanted to do
together against the gap. And in many respects, what we're
doing with say is how can we do both? Right?

It's not an either or when you put these things
together you'll see tremendous growth like our company has enjoyed
since we've started this work, unprecedented growth and our advisor
force and the productivity of our advisor force. And that
growth didn't come from you know, middle aged white man.
It came from the diverse segments that we've been more
intentional about bringing on. It's powered unbelievable growth for our

business over the last couple of years. So I guess
what I would say to take away is this isn't
a charity case, right. This is a combination of obviously
the right thing to do that will benefit us all,
but then also it's good for your bottom line too
when it's done right for the people who when you
think about doing this work, the people who may never
own a small business and may never come to you know,
be in your pipeline of future employees, but they just

work normal, everyday jobs. How does this work benefit them potentially?
I love that question. That's a deeply personal one for me.
So I mentioned earlier this goal of trying to reach
more Black households, more American households, period, but in particular
black households, and I think of my own family, right,
So I mentioned family came here from Haiti, built up
from the ground up, gave three kids a college education,

what have you? And I watched my parents work very,
very diligently to rise in their own spirits. My mom
did own a small business. It was a home daycare owner,
had kids at our house every day. My mom my
dad worked for a variety of banks, worked up from
the mailroom to manageagement. Will have you? So really a
career company man. And at the end of that, I
think about, well, what did all that get them? Apps

in a financial plan? And so right now we're at
the stage of their lives where they're looking at a
retirement that it's not looking so great because they didn't
have somebody that sat down with them and got them
on a game plan early on. There were things that
I wish they had the right advisor. I wish they
had an advisor to expose them to things really really
think things that would be seem like really small investments

at the time that could have been paid dividends for
them in their retirement years. So now we're trying to
figure out how do we supplement that and give them
a respectful retirement. But it's kind of late in the
game for that. So what I would say is, as
much as our folks can get get a financial advisor
to help you, and you know, I happen to believe
that we have the best in the industry at Northwestern Mutual,
but get somebody to sit down with you and talk

through a plan. Talk through things like disability insurance if
you happen to be disabled and not able to go
back to work, talk about how you're putting money away
thoughtfully before it's so late in the game that you
know you're really trying to play catchup, which is tough.
So you've guys said which I imagine Gather Against the
Gap falls under that, this relationship with Kellogg falls under
that Black Founder Accelerator falls under that, the Impact Fund,

I imagine falls under that. When you think about Kellogg,
like that's an important relationship. Just from externally, I can
know that that's an important relationship. What does the future
hold for? What the direction you guys want to take that,
How do you want to grow that relationship. I think
we learned so much with Gather Against the Gap, and
the key being we need to be able to provide

the business community with actionable, like tangible, practical takeaway steps
to make any of this stuff actually happen. And so
I think we've only begun to scrape the surface of
how do we take the learnings from these in person
convenings of the different conversations or research that Kellogg is doing,
and then how do we partner together and using them
as a case study, Like we'll be that case study,
how do we partner to is still more of that

down and spread it across the business community. So we'll
look forward to looking at, you know, across the different
dimensions of say procurement and supplier diversity. How do we
get the best of the best together to talk about
those and distill those action steps down you talk about
access to capital, impact investing, things of that nature, how
do we get the best of the best there, pair
it with the research and distill that across the business community.

So we're really looking at not just hey, we did
this nice event, A bunch of people came, it was great,
we took great pictures, check out the video and turn
it into tangible a campaign of academic and sort of
like business facing communications on how to go put that
stuff to work. Right. It's not just it's not trying
to be a commercial like, let's actually get this stuff done.

So people want to learn more about what Northwestern Mutual
is doing, what the founders, the Black Founders fund and
so if they want to learn more about this stuff
dive in. Where should they go? Yeah, I would send
them to Northwestern Mutual dot com. And then if you
have any any questions or your business you think might
be a good fit, you want to learn more about
impact investing, impact investing in Northwestern Mutual. And then we'll

make sure we'll get your right folks to hear that
via due We'll have you man Pleasure, Pleasure. It's so
much that was fun. Black Tech Green Money is a

production of Blavity Afro Tech on the Black Effect podcast
Network and I Hire Media and it's produced by Morgan
Debonne and me Well Lucas. The additional production support by
Said and Rose Lucas. Special thank you to Michael Davis,
Vanessa Serrano, Mayam Moltdrew. Learn more about my guess and
other tech this There's an Innovator's an afrotech dot com.

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