An Elite Consulting Firm Said ‘Black Lives Matter,’ But Staffers Never Got The Message
After four months of working for the small management consulting firm Red Associates in New York City, Funke Sangodeyi felt like something was “off.”
Sangodeyi, who has a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. from Harvard and a master’s from Cambridge, was at a company retreat in the spring of 2015. There were workshops and team-building exercises typical of such gatherings. The setting was posh, the south of France, a couple of hours outside Nice, recalled Sangodeyi, who is Nigerian American and in her early 40s.
Then at a party one night at a villa overlooking the lush countryside, a senior manager, a white man, approached her. “Oh my God, your skin is so dark,” Sangodeyi recalled him saying. “Does it come in shades darker than yours?”
She was shocked. “You don’t say that,” she told him. “It’s a bizarre thing to say.”
That was just the start of a disturbing few years for Sangodeyi at Red Associates, a management consulting firm based in Copenhagen and New York City that currently has 51 employees.
Red is small compared to competitors like McKinsey, but not insignificant; its clients have included global giants such as Lego, Facebook, Google, Samsung and the Ford Motor Company. Red is also partly owned by Cognizant, a multibillion-dollar, publicly traded global tech consultancy.
Like many consulting firms, Red markets itself as an elite group that offers brilliant insights. But a close look at the firm raises questions about what “elite” actually means.
HuffPost spoke with 11 former employees and others close to the firm, a mix of white and nonwhite men and women. Nine requested anonymity, fearing reprisals from the firm. Together, they paint a picture of a company led by mostly white partners, some of whom appear to view themselves as superior to people of other races, nationalities and classes.
Partners mocked the accents and appearance of Indian colleagues, characterized Black female employees as “angry” and “scary,” and used stereotypes about Chinese people while doing work for clients in that country. Class distinctions were particularly fraught: One former employee says she was mocked for the brand of tea she drank.
“Comments like these are of course completely inappropriate and wrong,” the company said in a statement to HuffPost. “They do not reflect the culture of ReD where we value diversity of thought and experience.”
These kinds of views seeped into the firm’s work, when one partner became obsessed with “The Bell Curve,” the widely discredited 1994 book that tries to link IQ and race, and pushed to research inherited intelligence for a prospective pitch to the Lego Foundation. (The research never made it to the company.)
Rhetoric vs. Reality
Red’s story is not unusual: Corporate America likes to broadcast its commitment to diversity, but isn’t exactly known as welcoming for people of color. A minuscule percentage of corporate leaders are Black. In a 2018 survey, 58% of workers of color said they’re always or often on guard against racist comments and behaviors. Outright racist comments, microaggressions and mistreatment are not uncommon, and little is done about it. The federal agency handling race discrimination complaints gets at least 100,000 each year, but most go nowhere.
As nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism swept the country this summer, companies around the world doubled down on promises to diversify their offices. Red Associates was no different. The firm posted on LinkedIn, declaring “Black Lives Matter” and decrying systemic racism.
Current and former employees were stunned at the hypocrisy. The post prompted Sangodeyi to reach out to HuffPost.
Red told HuffPost that it cares “deeply about racial justice” and employs people with diverse backgrounds. “[W]e are continually striving to build an ever more diverse collective of thinkers, in particular through the addition of more Black voices,” the firm said.
Most of the leaders listed on the firm’s website are white.
In recent years, Red has hired people of color at the entry level, particularly as some clients and junior staff complained about the lack of diversity. But those new hires have mostly left, and many felt beaten down, isolated and repelled by the culture. At least 13 people of color, including all of the firm’s Black female employees, have either quit or say they were pushed out over the past two years.
Some close to the firm wonder if it could ever truly diversify.
“The people who ran the company had a very narrow understanding of what it means to be elite, valuable and successful, and that was always being a white man,” said Luke Johnson, 26, who worked as a consultant at the firm from 2017 to 2018.
Eliot Brown, a partner at the firm who describes himself as “mixed black Trinidadian and British,” said he was surprised to hear that others weren’t comfortable at Red. He has worked there since 2008.
“I believe that these people experienced what they claimed to experience, but it’s a long way away from what I and many other people of color I’ve known at Red have experienced,” he told HuffPost. “The whole thing is really upsetting to me because of that. I feel like a place that should at least be given a break for trying and possibly even celebrated for getting it right is being depicted as a place that intentionally got it so wrong. It feels unfair.”
The firm’s current managing partner, Millie Arora, is not white, and she told HuffPost that she realizes the firm can do better at diversity.
“As an Indian American woman, as managing partner, it is one of my key priorities. It’s something we continuously want to do better at,” she said. “Recent events have prompted a lot more introspection.”
‘A Notorious Elitist’
Former employees and others close to the firm said its culture is exemplified by co-founder Christian Madsbjerg, a Danish man who has lived in New York City for years. He teaches at the New School and has written for the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and Quartz.
Johnson called Madsbjerg “a notorious elitist” who is very much against what he perceives as political correctness, an attitude that prevails at the firm.
Johnson laid out why he was leaving Red in a 2018 email pointing to remarks Madsbjerg made that he believed were troubling.
In the email reviewed by HuffPost, Johnson said he’d just heard Madsbjerg make “a seemingly off-hand, seemingly joking remark about how France and Germany are the only places ‘where there’s any civilization left.’”
Madsbjerg made the remark to a female partner at the firm and a new hire, a woman of color, as well as to Johnson, he wrote.
He said they laughed awkwardly. “Oh just ignore the crazy old Dane,” the “clearly uncomfortable” partner told the new consultant, according to Johnson’s email.
“But Christian persisted,” he wrote, “insisting that it wasn’t just a joke―that he did indeed believe that there’s a small triangular region situated, of course, in Europe, where ‘the only real valuable cultural and historical progress has happened.’” As an “afterthought,” Madsbjerg said Japan is included in this group, Johnson wrote.
He also wrote that he’d heard Madsbjerg say of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, “Nobody would have complained about Weinstein if he were attractive.” (Weinstein was convicted of rape in 2020.)
In the email, Johnson said comments like these were part of the reason he was leaving the company earlier than planned to go to graduate school. Those kinds of remarks made Red a “hostile place” for people who are not straight white men and could also turn off prospective clients, he wrote.
In a long statement to HuffPost, Madsbjerg insisted he was passionate about diversity. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that one day I would have to ward off allegations of bigotry,” he said, emphasizing that his wife is Muslim and that he converted to Islam. He also said he moved to the U.S. from Denmark to escape bigotry.
“I am perplexed and hurt by it,” he added. “It is just not who I am.”
‘The Bell Curve’ Controversy
In 2018, according to several former employees and others close to the firm, Madsbjerg became “obsessed” with “The Bell Curve,” a widely discredited 1994 book by Charles Murray about inherited intelligence that’s favored by those who subscribe to racial eugenics. Madsbjerg pushed for research into the work, according to Johnson and several other former employees.
At the height of the controversy, one consultant threw a copy of ‘The Bell Curve’ in the trash in front of his colleagues and poured ranch dressing over it, according to one former employee.
Madsbjerg assigned one of the firm’s entry-level consultants to write up a research proposal citing Murray’s work, former employees said. He was particularly interested in the notion that intelligence is inherited, the consultant wrote in notes titled “Quick overview of what Christian asked” that were shared with others at the firm at the time, and have since been obtained by HuffPost.
In another document, the consultant prepared more detailed notes and research about what he said he and Madsbjerg discussed.
“Task: write a 1 page memo to Lego Foundation convincing them to commit their time [and] money to promoting learning/development among the ‘stupid,’” state the notes, also obtained by HuffPost, in a section titled “Overview.”
In a list titled “Find information/figures Christian mentioned regarding,” the consultant included “The Bell Curve,” “Racial correlation” and “Coverup/repression (why it isn’t popular in society today).”
Deeper into the document, the consultant wrote: “Private note to Christian: we’re putting ourselves out on a limb here. It wouldn’t take much digging to find well-structured, empirically-reviewed studies that undermine the heritability of intelligence.” He then listed some citations.
Such a proposal is typically a first step in putting together a client pitch, and the consultant ultimately wrote a draft memo titled “Acknowledging Hard Truths To Discover New Solutions.” The memo, addressed to the CEO of the Lego Foundation and obtained by HuffPost, argues researchers have for years ignored the “inconvenient truth” that intelligence is passed down genetically and social factors are less significant. It proposed that the Lego Foundation needed to acknowledge this in order to truly help children.
Lego has long been a client of Red, but the Lego Foundation did not ask for the research, Red Associates told HuffPost in a statement. The Lego Foundation confirmed that it had never asked for this material nor seen the memo.
The consultant’s source materials delved into race and intelligence, but the draft memo HuffPost saw doesn’t explicitly mention race. Still, it’s the unavoidable subtext whenever the subject of heritable intelligence comes up, said Kathryn Paige Harden, a behavioral geneticist and a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Anyone who talks about ‘The Bell Curve’ without addressing race, it feels like a dog whistle to me,” said Harden, who reviewed the draft memo for HuffPost.
Younger staff members at Red and a number of people of color at the company, aware of the yearslong controversy surrounding Murray’s work, spoke out against the research. At the height of the controversy, one consultant threw a copy of “The Bell Curve” in the trash in front of his colleagues and poured ranch dressing over it, according to one former employee.
Sangodeyi said she recalled a conversation with Madsbjerg at the time in which she told him that “debates around IQ are racially charged in the U.S. and that the whole thing was extremely dicey to venture into.”
In a statement, Madsbjerg said that he had little to do with the research and that he’d never seen the memo until HuffPost asked about it.
As for “The Bell Curve,” he said in the statement, “I didn’t even know what it was until it was brought to my attention as part of general research conducted by a new consultant at ReD about how job automation and job loss might be predicted.”
“In Denmark, the debate about intelligence is not about race or ethnicity at all,” he said. “I find even the suggestion that there is any connection between race and intelligence repulsive, but also simply untrue.”
Red also blamed the consultant who was tasked with writing the memo.
“[T]his research was conducted by a staff person in an effort to understand the correlation between employment and IQ. After the research was complete and synthesized in a memo, it was dismissed as without merit,” the company said, emphasizing that the research was never shared outside the firm and that Red has never used it in any way.
But former employees said Madsbjerg initiated the research.
“I felt bad for the guy tasked with writing it,” said one former employee familiar with the project. “These were not his views at all. This was not a consultant gone rogue. Instructions came from higher up.”
Madsbjerg is no longer running the firm day to day, but he sits on its board and brings in business from prominent clients. He told HuffPost he takes “full responsibility” for the firm’s culture.
“From the beginning I wanted a global culture and I have tried to make sure that we transformed from a Danish to a global, generous culture the best we could,” he said. “This was important to me for business reasons, but also because it reflects my personal values.”
Madsbjerg is set to teach a course at the New School this fall called Human Observation. “True observation is the ability to look and listen without the interference of assumptions and prejudices,” reads the course description found online. Only white authors are listed in the description.
‘There’s Just Something Off’
Although no one HuffPost spoke to alleges that Madsbjerg made overtly racist statements to employees, other partners and managers have been heard making comments about Black people, as well as about their counterparts within Cognizant. That company, which bought a 49% stake in Red in 2016, has a big presence in India.
At a 2018 meeting, a top partner at Red described an Indian colleague at Cognizant as looking like Apu from “The Simpsons” and laughed to himself, according to contemporaneous notes a former employee shared with HuffPost.
It wasn’t unusual for partners to mock Indian accents, several former employees said, or to look down on Cognizant employees more generally. “There was a dismissiveness to the value of Cognizant’s math and science [expertise],” Sangodeyi said.
Partners at Red would say that they needed to teach their counterparts at Cognizant “how to think,” Johnson said.
They didn’t think of people of color as their equals or worthy enough to be accepted into the doors of Red.
a former employee
Brown was one of the people to put on an Indian accent. Some employees of color were offended by this, according to a former Red employee.
Brown said he meant it in fun. “I do all sorts of accents at work and in life. I do posh English people, Danish people, Trinidadian family, my London family and yeah, I do Indian accents. I’m quite good at accents,” he said. “I would’ve hoped that people would’ve realized that I meant no malice by it. India is one of my favorite countries on the planet. I lived there for six months. I get on well with my Indian colleagues at Cognizant and celebrate them sincerely. I’d hope all that considered, people would realize I meant not to belittle by doing an accent.”
Ethnic stereotyping wasn’t confined to Indian people. If a client was trying to understand the Chinese consumer, partners would at times fall back on certain “Orientalist cliches,” using words like “inscrutable” and characterizing Chinese people as mysterious, said one former employee.
Another former employee, a 29-year-old woman with an Indigenous background, recalled bringing Twining tea to the office. She said one of her male colleagues told her it was “proletariat” tea, as though the brand wasn’t fancy enough.
She said she never felt like she fit in at the firm.
“I don’t want to call them all racists, that’s not true,” she said. “But they didn’t think of people of color as their equals or worthy enough to be accepted into the doors of Red.”
Sangodeyi takes care to point out that there were a lot of good people at the firm, but said things could get uncomfortable with the most senior managers and partners. “I told the HR person when I left, ‘There’s just something off about this place,’” she said.
In 2015, after the incident in the south of France, Sangodeyi wanted to give the firm the benefit of the doubt. She was new to the company. “Perhaps the comment was coming from a place of ignorance, since the manager was from a more provincial part of Denmark,” she thought. Many partners and managers at Red, which was founded in Copenhagen, are Danish, including the man who made the remark. Denmark is relatively small and homogenous.
“Possibly a dynamic at play here is that Red is a global company founded on non-American, not exclusively American dynamics,” Brown said.
One of the challenges at Red will be “bridging the cultural divide,” said Mathew Yazzie, a San Francisco-based diversity consultant Red hired. Yazzie, who has worked on diversity issues at Google and for other Silicon Valley firms, said he didn’t think Red was that unusual. “I wasn’t surprised by a lot of it,” he said. “I’ve seen everything.” He plans to do a diversity audit in the coming weeks, looking at the firm’s processes such as hiring and performance reviews.
‘This Felt Different’
In a statement to HuffPost, Red Associates claimed that the man who exclaimed about Sangodeyi’s skin color “made an immediate and deeply sincere apology.”
Sangodeyi said that was absolutely not true — and that the man just walked away after she told him his remarks were bizarre.
She said she was mainly happy day-to-day working at the company, but that her time at Red Associates was marked by these kinds of off-putting moments.
There was the time she was at the daily communal lunch, where everyone stands and shares a meal around a tall white table in the company’s meeting room. Flowers are usually on display, too. Always white.
Sangodeyi was eating with a group of colleagues when a white female partner started talking about the term “Negro,” she said.
“It’s like, why are you talking about this?” she recalled thinking. She walked out.
Sangodeyi is a historian of science by training. She grew up in the suburbs, went to a private school, spent years at Harvard.
“I’m used to being in [white] spaces and not being bothered by microaggressions,” she said. “This felt different.”
Partners at the firm also called her “angry” or “difficult,” both to her face and to others within the firm, even after Sangodeyi pointed out to her managers that such characterizations were steeped in stereotypes. Former colleagues told HuffPost neither term applied even remotely to Sangodeyi.
Comments like these could help explain why women of color didn’t seem to advance at the company.
Women of color took nearly four times as long as white men to get promoted to manager, according to an analysis that was created by a consultant at Red in 2018. Some men led only one project or no projects before getting promoted, according to the spreadsheet obtained by HuffPost. Two white women were promoted after leading a single project. No women of color were.
Sangodeyi led five projects over her nearly four years at the company without being promoted. She left the firm two years ago, frustrated after watching less experienced, less credentialed male colleagues be promoted to manager while she was skipped over because she wasn’t “ready.”
Red Associates said it can’t comment on individual employees. But it did say Yazzie will develop a training program “to make sure everyone understands microaggressions, and why they are racist and harmful to their colleagues and to the overall culture of a workplace.”
‘It Seemed Tone Deaf’
In June, Red Associates declared on LinkedIn that “Black Lives Matter” and condemned systemic racism. “We want to see change and we need to move beyond social media statements. Inequity is only addressed through long term, sustained efforts at the root of the social and racial issues,” read the post.
The firm also seemed to acknowledge its own shortcomings. “[W]e also have much to interrogate, and so much we can and must do better,” said the post. “If you have thoughts or resources to share, experts you recommend we learn from, or partner with, please comment or email us …”
The fact that no one internally can act as a thought leader on these issues demonstrates the types of people who are valued internally.
a former consultant at Red in a since-deleted comment
Current and former employees were outraged.
“It seemed tone deaf, given the lack of diversity, to say we stand with this movement,” said one person who is close to the company and familiar with the recent turmoil, noting it also seemed like Red was soliciting free advice from people of color. “It should be something the company should be actively seeking out and paying for.”
Soon the firm hired Yazzie.
Leaders at Red should look inward, wrote Nelson Saldana, a former consultant who left the firm this spring, in a comment on the LinkedIn post: “The fact that no one internally can act as a thought leader on these issues demonstrates the types of people who are valued internally.” That comment has since been deleted, and Saldana did not respond to HuffPost’s request for further comment.
Inside the company, the LinkedIn post prompted consultants and partners to have an open conversation about diversity on a conference call. One consultant, a person of color who already had a foot out the door, talked about how they had always felt uncomfortable at Red and never felt OK speaking up, according to someone familiar with the call.
Arora, the managing partner, also sent out emails to staff in early June, acknowledging the firm needed to do more.
“We are a small company who values inclusion and diversity of ideas and perspective, yet we don’t have enough diversity on our team, have struggled to retain people of color and I worry that means our culture hasn’t felt as welcoming to all as it should,” she wrote.
It Affects Your Work
Sangodeyi left the firm in 2018, fed up with its “casual racism, implicit and explicit bias,” and with the inequities in promotion, she said. She founded her own consulting company last year.
About 13 people of color — including four Black women — have left the firm since then, according to those familiar with the firm’s numbers. Some quit; others were laid off after a recent bout of downsizing.
One of the Black women who left said working at Red Associates was a painful experience.
This woman, who was relatively new to the firm and young, said her manager called her “scary” during a 2018 meeting with a client at which she was presenting. She said she complained about this to him, and finally to another senior manager — but nothing happened. In fact, she said, her manager was promoted.
The remarks, the way the incident was handled, and the feelings of otherness wore her down.
“After a while, those things make you question your voice, your team, the trust of the people you work around,” she told HuffPost.
Red said these comments were “completely inappropriate and wrong.”
It’s not unusual for people of color working in the corporate world to wind up questioning themselves and those around them, said Dnika Travis, lead researcher at Catalyst, a nonprofit that advocates for diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace. Travis, who is Black, has been interviewing women and men of color about their experiences for years.
The “comments, the slights and insults” amount to what Travis calls an emotional tax. Women and men of color pay the tax with their very souls.
“The stories are harrowing and heartbreaking,” Travis said.
The Black employee who was called “scary” by her manager said she felt like she shut down after that. “That shutting down let me be less creative at work,” she said. “I’d stop speaking up as much in meetings. I’d stop speaking up as much in group sessions. I felt invalidated. Like I didn’t matter.”
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