Only last year, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said she'd "spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
She might be now. Haley will hold a press conference this afternoon amid a mounting outcry over the state's flying of the Confederate flag, and some of that outcry has been coming from corporate leaders. In the wake of the race-driven fatal shooting of nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last week, some CEOs and former executives have spoken out in recent days about the controversial flag.
Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com — who recently garnered attention for leading a stand against potentially discriminatory legislation in Indiana — took to Twitter on Saturday to call for it to be taken down at the South Carolina capitol. He said he agreed with former Bain Capital head and presidential contender Mitt Romney, who had tweeted earlier on Saturday that the state should "take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove to honor victims."
Others shared their implicit support. Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted that "my thoughts are with the victim's families in SC. Let us honor their lives by eradicating racism & removing the symbols & words that feed it."
Airbnb founder Brian Chesky and Twitter's Jack Dorsey retweeted Romney's call for action. Microsoft's Satya Nadella wrote that "my hope is that together we can convert hate & racism to peace & understanding around the globe."
CEOs were once reluctant to wade into public debates on social issues, avoiding controversial topics like gun control, gay rights and same-sex marriage. But more and more are now doing so, perhaps because of the ease of speaking out on social media or the realization that customers and employees increasingly care about a corporation's values.
For instance, when recent legislation in Indiana and Arkansas would have allowed businesses to deny service to gay couples, CEOs at places like Wal-Mart and Marriott not only spoke out against it, they threw some economic weight behind it — threatening to withhold company investment or employee travel in those states.
But some say business leaders have been more hesitant when it comes to racism. Julian Bond, the longtime civil rights leader, told Fast Company recently, "my impression is American corporations are generally more eager to stand for gay rights than black rights, and they ought to be equally progressive."
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has been a notable recent exception, and yet his "Race Together" initiative fell flat. (Bond's quote appeared in the magazine's feature story about the effort.) As part of a broader campaign that includes hiring disadvantaged youth and opening more cafes in urban communities, Schultz encouraged his baristas to write #RaceTogether on the company's coffee cups in hopes of sparking discussions on race.
Instead, it sparked a huge backlash, with critics calling it tone-deaf and ill conceived.
Starbucks employees are no longer being asked to write on customers' cups, but Schultz is continuing his campaign. And in the wake of last week's shootings, he traveled to Charleston to meet with employees and the company pledged $100,000 to two funds in the community.
While he does not yet appear to have taken a public stand on the flag, Schultz did write a memo to employees about the shooting. In it, he called it a "senseless hate crime," quoted Martin Luther King, and ended by telling employees "please take care of one another, and know that together, we will not be bystanders." An email and phone call to company representatives about whether he plans to comment more specifically on the flag were not immediately returned.
Update: In a news conference Monday afternoon, Haley announced her view that the flag should come down. Starbucks afterward released a statement of support.