Corporate decision makers need to lead the fight for racial and gender equality in the US by making a conscious commitment to invest in minority and female-owned businesses according to Kerry Kennedy, the president of human rights action group Robert F Kennedy Human Rights and niece of former US president John F Kennedy.

Speaking to Conexus Financial chief executive Colin Tate as part of the Redefining Leadership series (see full video below), Kennedy said that major corporations needed to show “much more responsibility”.

Of the $70 trillion sitting in the US investment industry, Kennedy pointed out, less than two per cent are invested by women and minority-owned firms.

“Until we fix that problem and make sure there’s equality in whose making those investments and where these investments go, we won’t be able to fix the racial injustice and inequality in this country,” the lawyer and human rights activist said.

The investment world needs to place more emphasis on the ‘S’ in ESG, she said, imploring boards to take meaningful actions towards sustainability by eliminating processes and decisions that uphold racist policies, and by investing in businesses run by black people and women. “Not just the food suppliers and cleaners but the lawyers as well,” she added.

The Robert F Kennedy Human Rights group, Kennedy explained, is focused on holding governments responsible for human rights abuses through advocacy and litigation. She says the organisation generally has about 35 cases running at a time, and has never lost one.

To achieve their objectives, however, Kennedy said she needs to go through companies. 75 of the world’s top 100 economies are now corporations, not countries – up from 50 only a few short years ago, she revealed.

“You’ve got to work with the companies,” she said. “Companies have the power now, not countries.”

Shoelace equality

In the hour-long fireside chat with Tate, Kennedy mused on her high-profile upbringing and some of the events that led to her passion for human rights. After growing up with ten siblings – seven of them brothers – she said she grew up appreciating equality at a young age.

“Our house was always filled with people seeking racial justice, people in the civil rights movement,” she said. “When I learned to tie my shoes I made sure that if I put my left show on first I tied my right shoe first because I wanted equality there.”

Kennedy revealed that the assassination of her father, former US attorney general Robert F Kennedy, “shook” her world. “When you lose a father at such an early age it leaves the work of love undone,” she said.

On the fame that her family name and various roles brings, Kennedy refused to complain.