US business leaders are pushing back against years of corporate diversity efforts

By Elizabeth BennettFeatures correspondent

Getty Images Bill Ackman, chief executive officer of Pershing Square Capital Management LP (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images
Bill Ackman, chief executive officer of Pershing Square Capital Management LP, pushed back on DEI policies in an X post (Credit: Getty Images)

Diversity, equity and inclusion policies have become the norm at many companies. As some notable corporate leaders reject the approach, is a DEI backlash brewing?

Elon Musk used his social media platform X, formerly Twitter, on 3 January to tell his 168 million followers that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) was “just another word for racism”. Musk added his comments in a retweet of American hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, who had posted a long criticism of DEI policies, following his successful calls for the resignation of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s first black and female president.

In the same week, Chip Wilson, founder of activewear brand Lululemon, made headlines in a Forbes profile when he spoke out about the “whole diversity and inclusion thing”. The former CEO (Wilson left the company in 2013 but still remains a major shareholder), criticised Lululemon for wanting to be “everything to everybody”, and called the brand’s inclusive advertising imagery “unhealthy”, “sickly” and “not inspirational”. 

For the past several decades, corporate DEI policies have become an increasing priority, embraced by leaders of major businesses. Katleen De Stobbeleir, professor of leadership at Vlerick Business School, Belgium, says DEI has been a prominent theme since the 1960s, but the focus has amplified in the past decade. “It used to be a ‘nice to have’, and something for the more advanced companies. But today it has become a qualifying minimum and a topic that has received more attention from the C-suite.” 

Yet some of the same kinds of high-profile leaders who embraced the inclusive policies are now publicly critical of them.

Alamy Chip Wilson, founder of activewear brand Lululemon, criticised the brand for its inclusive advertising imagery, calling it "not inspirational" (Credit: Alamy)Alamy
Chip Wilson, founder of activewear brand Lululemon, criticised the brand for its inclusive advertising imagery, calling it “not inspirational” (Credit: Alamy)

Sankalp Chaturvedi, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership, and associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at London’s Imperial College Business School, says extensive research has shown “when gender, ethnicity or any form of the diversity are on the table, quality of discussions and decision-making is better, creativity is improved and the performance of the organisation and its culture is stronger”.

Yet despite this, these programmes are increasingly landing in corporate crosshairs.

Chaturvedi says the current public pushback is

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Business leaders say halted trade talks harm India and Canada

MONTREAL — Business leaders continue to grapple with fallout from the rift between the Canadian and Indian governments, saying the suspension of free trade talks helps no one.

Thesouringrelationship marks a major hurdle to boosting bilateral trade beyond last year’s $20.9 billion in goods and services and deters Indian students from studying in Canada, commercial groups say.

“Stopping any trade discussion or trade negotiation doesn’t make sense. How will that help us as a country?” asked Satish Thakkar, chairman of the Canada India Foundation. Canada halted trade treaty talks on Sept. 1.

“This is the biggest fall in Canada-India relations since the 1970s.”

They rapidly deteriorated after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Parliament on Sept. 18 that New Delhi may have been involved in the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh independence activist who was shot dead in June outside the gurdwara he led in Surrey, B.C.

In response, the Indian government suspended visa services for Canadian citizens — partially restored last month — and revoked diplomatic immunity from Canadian diplomats, prompting two-thirds of them to leave the country.

The trade potential between Canada and India — the world’s most populous nation and fastest growing large economy — remain largely unrealized, observers say. India remains Canada’s eighth-largest trading partner, well behind the U.S. and China.

Negotiations on the would-be Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement launched in 2010 before foundering in 2017. They resumed in 2022, with the goal of reaching a deal this year.

The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada says the treaty could increase two-way trade by up to $8.8 billion by 2035 and result in a Canadian GDP gain of up to $5.9 billion. Canada’s mineral, agriculture, chemicals and wood product sectors could all see sizable export boosts.

“There is a lot of complementarity between what Canada has and India needs,” said Victor Thomas, CEO of the Canada-India Business Council. “IT services, for example — a huge growth in very specific talent that, again, complements our economy that India can provide.

Of the 32,115 international tech workers who migrated to Canada between April 2022 and March 2023, nearly half — 15,097 — came from India, a July report from the Technology Councils of North America and Canada’s Tech Network found.

“This relationship is extremely important,” Thomas said. “But businesses like predictability and stability.”

The frayed relations mean “uncertainty prevails,” sowing doubt among some Indian

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People, housing, land: N.W.T. business leaders call for cascade of change from next gov’t

The outlook was rather grim.

“The recovery from the pandemic returns the economy to its pre-pandemic path of slow decline,” read this year’s budget documents for the Northwest Territories.

The budget goes on to list a raft of challenges: inflation, high interest rates, a shortage of workers, insufficient economic diversification, and the fast-approaching closure of the territory’s three diamond mines.

This summer’s devastating wildfires and evacuations haven’t helped the situation.

Now, candidates in the N.W.T. general election are out canvassing, and business leaders are expressing their concerns and offering ideas for how to invigorate the territory’s wilting economy.

Land development difficulties

Right now, getting land from the territorial government in Yellowknife ‘is like pulling teeth out of your face,’ said Rob Warburton, a Yellowknife developer and city councillor. (Submitted by Rob Warburton)

“Fundamentally, if you want to grow the economy, you need to grow your population,” said Rob Warburton, a Yellowknife developer and city councillor. 

Specifically, the territory needs more skilled workers, he said, but a lack of housing across the N.W.T. is a big barrier to bringing them in.

“All the focus of government is consistently about social housing and the housing corporation, which needs a lot of attention, but there’s no conversation around the private sector, which actually provides most of your housing in Yellowknife, Hay River,” he said. 

“I’d love to hear some candidates talk about how do we support economic growth in partnership with industry, because that’s who actually builds your housing, that’s who employs a lot of people.”

One thing the territorial government could do to spur housing development is make more land available to communities, he said. Right now, he said, the process for getting that land in Yellowknife is akin to “pulling teeth out of your face.”

Adrian Bell, a realtor and president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, agrees that growing the population and addressing the labour shortage are key to economic growth — and that more housing is necessary to achieve those things. 

“I hear this all the time of people who’ve accepted jobs and they come to town to try to find housing and they can’t, and they have to turn the job down and they leave,” he said. 

A headshot of Yellowknife realtor Adrian Bell.
‘I hear this all the time of people who’ve accepted jobs and they come to town to try to find housing and they can’t, and they have to turn the job
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Why Business Leaders Should View Artificial Intelligence As A Co-Pilot

Darren Person is the Chief Digital Officer at Circana. He leads the company’s new digital initiatives that combine marketing and technology.

Across industries, people have been voicing worries about artificial intelligence replacing jobs. These worries aren’t unfounded: A report published by the Pew Research Center in July 2023 indicated that in 2022, “19% of American workers were in jobs that are the most exposed to AI, in which the most important activities may be either replaced or assisted by AI.” What’s more, a June 2023 report by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that in May 2023, 3,900 jobs were cut due to AI. On the flip side, some companies have restricted or banned the use of AI in their workplaces.

Business leaders shouldn’t approach AI from these two extremes. They shouldn’t consider AI as a direct replacement for jobs, nor should they back away from it. Instead, they should shift their mindsets and view this technology as a co-pilot.

An ‘Us Versus Them’ Mentality Will Get Companies Nowhere

The reality is that AI is here to stay, and companies that want to be innovative will need to leverage it smartly. The companies that don’t lean into it risk falling behind their competitors eventually. Consider some of the other market disruptions we’ve seen and the companies that failed because they didn’t get ahead of those disruptions. A prominent example? Video rental stores. As one bankruptcy case study noted, Giants Movie Gallery and Blockbuster “began struggling to compete with streaming and mailing platforms,” and both were “driven into bankruptcy because they failed to adapt quickly enough.”

Business leaders should not approach AI with an “us versus them” mentality. As the saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Think about this: When your industry is being disrupted, who better to take the helm than you?

Replacing Jobs With AI Is Not The Answer

However, some business leaders have jumped to the other extreme, using AI to replace employees. Companies are generally trying to reduce costs and grow simultaneously. With AI in the mix, there’s arguably greater tension between these two goals—executives might be inclined to view AI as a quick cost-saving measure. But this, in my view, is not the answer in many cases. Over-reliance on AI could hinder or dismantle critical business functions.

A research paper published in June 2023 gives valuable insights into

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Israel-Hamas war: Business leaders on causes, ripple effects

The attack on Israel this weekend sent shock waves around the world, prompting world leaders to weigh in on the rapidly evolving conflict. Also watching the turmoil were prominent figures in the business community, many of whom shared their insights and reactions. 

Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, who heads Pershing Square Capital, criticized President Joe Biden and previous administrations for poor leadership. He lamented in an X post that the U.S. “did nothing” in response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, “abandoned Afghanistan in a sloppy withdrawal” in 2021, and most recently took Ukraine “out of the budget to keep the government temporarily open.”

He added: “Why did Hamas invade Israel last night? Because the United States has consistently not kept its word on its foreign policy commitments and we look very weak. Terrorism loves a leadership vacuum and we have created one.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has faced accusations of amplifying anti-Semitic voices on X, wrote of the attack: “Sorry to see what’s happening in Israel. I hope there can be peace one day.”

Musk directed attention to Iran, which backs Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that attacked Israel. “[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei’s official position is clear that the eradication of Israel is the actual goal, not just supporting Palestinians,” he wrote on Sunday. “That will not happen. All that actually happens, decade after decade, is a never-ending cycle of violence and vengeance. Stoking the fires of hatred isn’t working. Perhaps it is time to consider something else.”

Jacob Helberg, who previously led Google’s policy efforts and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote: “Make no mistake: the new revisionist authoritarian axis is China-Russia-Iran. Russia is waging a campaign in Ukraine. Iran is waging a campaign in Israel. China is preparing a campaign in Taiwan. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Chamath Palihapitiya, CEO of VC firm Social Capital, turned his attention to oil, writing on Sunday: “How does oil not spike again now on the back of two hot wars (Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine) and a 1.5M barrel production cut by OPEC with an SPR [Strategic Petroleum Reserves] that is at the same level it was in the mid 1980s?”

Energy traders quickly turned their attention to Iran’s oil exports, which have helped to moderate fuel prices amid supply squeezes by Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“I think this development will

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