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The Ernst & Young 2020 Global Private Equity Report found that 74% of private equity firms under $2.5 billion did not have set targets for ethnic diversity and had no plans to set any.
While this might come as a surprise to those with no history working in private equity or hedge funds, this statistic and the recent media attention Soo Kim has received regarding the TEGNA takeover, unfortunately, come as no surprise to me.
As a former employee of Standard General, one of only a handful of Black Americans working in the hedge fund sector and an immigrant founder, I’m appalled at the lack of diversity in this space. However, I can firmly say that it would be a lot worse without Soo Kim’s contribution — but we need more than just him to join the cause.
Related: 18 Business Leaders on Creating an Inclusive and Equitable Society
What’s happening with Soo Kim’s TEGNA takeover?
In February 2022, Soo Kim’s Standard General, with funding from Apollo Global Management announced a deal to acquire TV station owner TEGNA for roughly $8.6 billion. TEGNA is the second-largest local TV broadcaster by revenue, operating 64 TV stations and two radio stations across various markets in the U.S. Contrary to large TV consolidation mergers, this particular deal has drawn a number of vocal objectors.
Ostensibly, the critique has come from a union — The NewsGuild — that purports to be concerned about jobs, despite the public commitments that Standard General made to preserve local station employment. While concerns about jobs are admirable, the publicly filed comments from these groups include statements that, in so many words, say that Soo Kim’s ownership of this station group would do nothing to advance diversity as understood by the civil rights community and public interest.
Is there a “wrong” type of minority?
These commenters continue to say that Soo Kim was not barred by his race from becoming a successful entrepreneur.
As a fellow New Yorker and both graduates of Stuyvesant High School, I can speak to our experiences. Using his Asian ancestry against him is exactly the kind of short-sighted hateful rhetoric causing so many issues for Asian communities across America. I have seen this in all aspects of American life, from Wall Street firms to my days at West Point and in Baghdad.
When there’s a flag draped over your coffin, there is no “wrong type of minority.” Yet we seem to treat immigrant founders and founders of color like there is such a thing as a “wrong” type of minority.
The indivisible nature of the United States is our greatest strength, but that strength is weakened by the belief that Soo Kim being Asian makes him unqualified to pursue the commercial principles that our country was founded on.
However, what worries me more than anything is that Kim hasn’t been treated fairly by anyone throughout this deal. Are these political letters and criticism influencing the regulators whose judgment the closing of this deal depends on? I know firsthand how hard it is for founders of color to access the capital to pull off deals of this magnitude. An adverse outcome here would have a chilling impact on minority ownership of broadcasting assets at the very least. Perhaps this is what the objectors want.
While the thought of that is troubling at the very least, I believe what’s been so impactful and appalling to me throughout this entire debacle has been the fact that I know Soo Kim. I’ve worked with him, I have represented him on public company boards and I’ve seen what he stands for. It’s unimaginable to me that he could be on the receiving end of such racism when he so clearly stands for justice and equality.
Related: 6 Ways to Offer Allyship to Black Entrepreneurs
Commitment to diversity
As the founder of Standard General, Kim has been tireless in his commitment to diversity: from hiring to using his power to change companies to better reflect what America really looks like. More importantly, he didn’t limit his search to just Asian professionals. Black, Asian, Jewish and white employees all were represented in the 12-person team at Standard General while I was there. He has also consistently appointed women and people of color to the boards of his companies throughout the years.
I have seen the good he does in his companies and how hard he works to provide equal access to opportunities regardless of race or gender.
And, because I am the diversity and inclusion officer for the MediaCo board of directors, which owns the radio stations Hot 97 and WBLS (which has a management team that is over 50% diverse and a staff that is over 70% diverse overall), I would say that it is precisely Kim’s unique background that could help improve TEGNA own documented diversity issues.
If other leaders follow Kim’s lead, we can slowly but surely change the diversity problem. But we all have to actually commit.
How the TEGNA deal compares to other acquisitions
Just to drive my point home, I believe it’s important to take a look at how this TEGNA deal compares to other similar acquisitions.
Recently, the TV industry has seen a surge in big deals. For example, Gray Television acquired Meredith’s and Quincy’s local stations with virtually no opposition from across the aisle. Scripps bought ION Media Group and Nexstar Media Group also added to its empire by snatching up Tribune Broadcasting — moves that heavily concentrated power in this industry space.
All of those prior deals did not face any of the scrutiny and criticism from this deal, which is curious because the TEGNA deal shrinks the company with the concurrent sale of a number of stations to Cox Media Group, and does not require any statutory divestitures or regulatory rule waivers as each of the above did. And yet, with Standard General’s deal, the informal 180-day “shot clock” for a regulatory decision has long passed.
The point? The lack of opposition to other similar deals shows young entrepreneurs and immigrant founders that even when you try to play fair as a person of color in this industry, you just can’t seem to win.
Related: 5 Ways Entrepreneurs of Color Can Determine an Ally’s Authenticity
The system has to change
In one interview, Kim said that after the takeover, TEGNA would get a “company with a minority owner, run by a woman, that’s committed to serving diverse communities. We think that’s good business.”
It is good business, and I am delighted to see that Kim and Standard Media CEO Deb McDermott have received letters of support from legislators, civil rights groups and minority media groups. I applaud these groups for speaking up in defense of Soo Kim and other minorities in this space. I, too, am doing my part to speak up against these racist attacks. However, that isn’t enough anymore.
The system has to change — and it changes by not allowing these types of attacks, comments and ideals to persist in any way, shape or form. We must stop entertaining the idea that these types of comments are valid or even acceptable. We have as a nation all experienced the heartache of watching videos of racially motivated violence against people of color from all walks of life. Racial oppression takes place in the business world just as it does in the streets, just without the same visible evidence but the same indelible impact on those persons of color involved.
As a business leader, here’s how you can enact systemic change:
- When making hiring decisions, stop going with your gut. Newsflash, your gut always leads you to the most comfortable choice. Instead, create a list of metrics you will hire for and focus on hiring someone that meets those metrics. Blind auditions eliminated discrimination in the world’s greatest orchestras. Imagine what it could do for your business.
- Be aware that there are challenges diverse individuals face in business that you don’t see or experience. Do your best to factor those in when evaluating candidates. They may not have Goldman Sachs on their resume, but can you see evidence of ability in past academic performance or in other areas like military or community service?
As the great Martin Luther King Jr. said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
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