Affirmative Action Backlash Is Coming for Your Business. Here’s What You Can Do.

Corporations must take a stand against anti-affirmative action litigation. This is not a question of feel-good altruism—it’s good business, too.

High school students attend a camp for coding at Georgetown University on Aug. 12, 2015. (Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Last month, an appellate court in Georgia issued an injunction against the Fearless Fund—a venture capital firm that awards grants to Black women entrepreneurs—forcing them to suspend operations. 

The reason? Racism. 

Yes, you read that correctly. The American Alliance for Equal Rights, the far-right group leading the lawsuit, alleged that the Fearless Fund engaged in racial discrimination by investing only in companies led by Black women. 

As the CEO of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit dedicated to diversifying the tech industry, this lawsuit felt like a troubling sign of things to come. Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the use of affirmative action in college admissions, conservatives are setting their sights on their next target: corporate America. 

I worry about what this means in the fight to create a more representative and equitable workforce. Leaders like myself face an uphill battle even in the best of times. I’m often the only Black woman, and sometimes the only woman in the room when trying to galvanize support for a cause rooted in gender and racial justice. If—or rather, when—conservatives come after organizations like mine, the consequences could reverberate across the entire economy.   

The far right’s goal isn’t just to draw new legal lines prohibiting consideration of race—it’s to scare companies away from diversifying their workforce entirely. As Stacey Abrams recently put it, “Lawsuits are designed not for victory, but for a chilling effect.” 

And it’s working. In hopes of avoiding litigation, the Small Business Administration paused its benefits application process for disadvantaged businesses. Even though the application has since reopened (applicants of color now must jump through additional hoops to prove their disadvantage), administrators worry that some businesses will forgo the process entirely, keeping them from funds they desperately need. 

As long as we’re living in a society where women and people of color face systemic barriers to success—driven by generations of structural inequality—we’ll need programs and pathways that give everyone a fair shot. 

Even before the affirmative action ruling, corporate support for Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work was already waning. Fewer than four years after George Floyd’s murder, when many companies made public promises to advance racial justice, companies walked back their commitments. Mentions of social impact initiatives during earnings calls have plummeted. Inflation and recession fears have led to workforce reductions across the country, leading companies to cut DEI jobs, scale back their diversity and equity efforts and, in some cases, eliminate entire DEI departments

The future is looking bleak, too. Venture capital investment is a strong indicator of where growth is occurring—or not—across the U.S. economy. From 2021 to 2022, venture funding to women-founded startups, which was scarce to begin with, fell even further. Venture capital for Black entrepreneurs decreased by a whopping 45 percent

In the wake of this onslaught of attacks on affirmative action and broader DEI initiatives, companies have a decision to make: Will they stand firm in their commitments to racial justice? Or were their 2020 promises just a lot of hot air? 

Girls Who Code partners with school districts, library networks and after-school programs across the U.S. to provide free computer science activities. (Girls Who Code / Instagram)

Thankfully, some companies have reaffirmed their commitment to advancing equality. Rather than staying silent, corporations should follow the lead of companies like Microsoft and Salesforce which have both taken a stand against anti-affirmative action litigation.

To be clear, this is not a question of feel-good altruism—it’s good business, too. Studies have shown that diverse workforces lead to better decisions and stronger financial results. Companies founded by women perform 63 percent better on average than all-male founding teams. Turns out, we can keep the commitments we made to women and communities of color and turn a profit. 

But, first we have to level the playing field. As long as we’re living in a society where women and people of color face systemic barriers to success—driven by generations of structural inequality—we’ll need programs and pathways that give everyone a fair shot. 

So Girls Who Code isn’t backing down. Instead, we are doubling down. We’re building pipelines for diverse students to break into the cybersecurity industry, gaming world, and more—and working even harder to close the gender gap in tech by 2030. 

Our mission means that we could easily become extremists’ next target. But our advice to other organizations who may find themselves in a similar position: These conservative crusaders are going to come for you anyway. You might as well get caught standing up for something. 

So, this Giving Tuesday: Stand up, and step up.

Remember how you felt when movements for Black lives became even more prominent in 2020. Remember the hope you felt when it seemed like so many, who had previously stayed silent, were starting to speak out for racial justice. Remember the promises you made and take this opportunity to not only do more but do better.

Recommit to diversity. Prioritize equity. Champion inclusion. And live up to the day’s name: GIVE. Donate to that nonprofit. Fund that venture. Back that idea. Give intentionally, give liberally and give urgently.

Up next:

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Dr. Tarika Barrett is the CEO of Girls Who Code, an international nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology by inspiring, educating and equipping young women with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities.