A conversation between Michael Chui and JP Julien

Two colleagues discuss their latest research on Black Americans’ participation in the US economy
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JP JULIEN: I have a question for Michael.

MICHAEL CHUI: Please, yeah.

JP JULIEN: What has it been like doing this research during a pandemic, as well as during the time in which we're doing it, right? There's been a lot happening. Just interested to get your perspective on what it's felt like to do particularly this work in this moment.

MICHAEL CHUI: I mean, first of all, I am looking forward to the day when I can meet you in person. (LAUGH) I mean, we've been working together for months, right? Your family had a baby while we were working on this.

JP JULIEN: Whole new human, yes.

MICHAEL CHUI: We might have been in the same room together at some point in our lives, but maybe not. We certainly didn't know each other, right? So number one, it's been so amazing that we've been able to do this work remotely.

Our team has been in different places, and I look forward to the day when we can all get together as human beings. I really do. And our families hopefully will meet at some point.

At the same time, I certainly have, and I think you did too, been used to spending a lot of time on airplanes and traveling. One of the good things has been being able to spend time at home with our young daughter, and my partner, my wife.

At the same time, it's also hard quite honestly, right? Parents who are out there know that. To a certain extent I feel lucky that my daughter's not school age yet.

When I talk to my colleagues and friends who are trying to deal with that over the past year, it's been, just been really, really hard. And then honestly the reason we're doing some of this work is because some of the real challenges, which have always existed but really have come to the fore, whether it's George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery. A lot of events in the world, which again, it's not the first time these things have happened have brought racial equity to the forefront. JP, when I think about the world I want my daughter to grow up in, I want it to be more just. I want for her to have those opportunities. So it's meaningful to me. What about you? How have things been?

JP JULIEN: A lot of similar themes, especially having a new child. My wife and I had a son in December, Davis, who's been a joy in this pandemic. And to your point, Michael, he's not even walking yet, let alone talking. So I'm on the lower end of what it looks like to be a working parent.

And it's been an interesting adjustment. In a lot of ways, it's been helpful to have a place professionally over the past year to just really engage in some of these topics. I think oftentimes at McKinsey, I've been on studies where things have happened in the world and it wasn't related to my core study.

And so I had to shut that part of my brain down, focus on the thing at hand. And I think what I've appreciated about the team and working with you has been just a real spacethat things happen in real-time, and let's make space for it. Let's actually get under why some of these outcomes that we're seeing are so disparate.

I do think having a son has brought some new meaning to that. You know, I've navigated 32-odd years of knowing the challengeseven when I get pulled over now, I still get nervous. But I'm an adult and so I've adjusted and compartmentalized and tried to shape the world in that way.

And I think having a son who's gonna be a Black man at some point has really altered that reality for me. Particularly the transition. At one point my my wife asked me: "At what point does he stop being a cute kid to being seen as a man?"

And the distinction there, especially as a Black man living in Nashville, Tennessee, which has a lot of challenges along dimensions of race. It's just been a real source of renewal to be able to spend time with the team doing this work and this research, and to do it in the context of McKinsey, which is not always the case.

MICHAEL CHUI: I feel lucky being able to work with the team that we have as well. We're described as leaders of the team and all those sorts of things. But the truth is, I learn every day from our diverse team. That's a privilege. Can I ask a question? How did the McKinsey Institute of Black Economic Mobility come about as one of the 10 Actions?

JP JULIEN: Oh, great question. The institute's been in the making for a while. I would say we have a lot of thanks to give to former colleague Jason Wright as well as our current colleague Shelly Stewart, who along with a bunch of other McKinsey Black Network colleagues and leadership have been behind the scenes really pushing for how we institutionalize this research.

When I was an associate, I was doing this nights and weekends in advance of the Black Economic Forum. In a lot of ways it's part of what's kept me at the Firm, right?

Finding both a community of folks that care about this topic, leveraging McKinsey's unique platform to speak about some of the challenges facing Black America. And it dovetails really well with what I want to do in economic development and how we bring that to clients.

But I think it was a lot of pushing, I'd say, from MBN colleagues and leadership to say, "This is something that we both have a ton of unique perspectives to bring that would be helpful, and this is a topic that McKinsey should be talking about."

It's largely a lot of leaders that came before me that have been able to pave the way for myself and folks like Duwain Pinder and others to even be a part of what we're doing now, not just in research but in how we're serving clients on this topic.

A lot of hard work went into this, and I'm excited that the firm really leaned forward into doing something different. I think the Firm had a moment last year like others did of, "Is this gonna be something we just say we are committed to, racial equity? Or really make material investments in? And I'd say the leadership of Bob (Sternfels) and others have really leaned forward in that respect. And it's been awesome to see that come to fruition.

MICHAEL CHUI: It is interesting, right? Like, our firm is a microcosm of broader society, right, and you talk about pushing. In order to make progress, people have to want change. I think one of the things that's good about being the firm that we are is that we do change. That there's actually a response to the things that are important. And that's a good thing. I'm thankful for that.

JP JULIEN: I'll be honest, when I joined McKinsey, I could not envision us leaning forward as much as we have on racial equity. And the fact that we have an Institute, even if I think back to January of 2020, I didn't think at the end of the year we'd have an Institute focused on these topics.

And that we'd be doing this research with you all over the course of several months and making the kind of investments in Black Leadership Academy or the place-based investments work that we're doing. And so in a lot of ways I do think the firm has been changing in a lot of really positive ways and leaning forward in ways historically it has not. That's been encouraging to see.

MICHAEL CHUI: I'm grateful for that. And t's because of the work that folks do: It's the work that you're doing and a lot of colleagues do. That is a great thing.

JP JULIEN: What are your pearls of wisdom for parents at McKinsey, particularly those of us that are earlier on the journey? 

MICHAEL CHUI: I don't have pearls of wisdom. I've got sandy grit that is trying to come up with something. Number one, we're lucky to be fathers, and this is something I've learned on a personal level that we certainly see it in the data as well.

Those of us who have female partners know they share a disproportionate burden. It's a burden of love, but it's a real burden of childcare. To throw in the research, you could argue that a generation's worth of progress in women in the workforce has been erased by the pandemic. That's a real challenge. What can we can do to support women? 

I wish I had a pearl about that. Because I know you work hard, we all work hard at our day jobs, which can also an evening, night, and morning job as well. We're working on hard problems. This is a hard problem, among other things. We only work on hard stuff, but we have our families and our children. That's a lot. 

I don't have something, like balance. What? How does that work? (LAUGH) I don't know, I'm working on it, but it's hard. What about you? You come up with something? You're smarter than I am, come on. 

JP JULIEN: Not wisdom. But I think the thing that I've appreciated more so in the past several months is the idea of the partnership between you and your partner. And truly, to your point, this actually isn't balanced at all times.

There are times when I am working late until the evening, and she's doing both school work because she's getting a PhD, but also then taking care of Davis and doing bedtime. All the things that I also would like to be doing. But there's the moment where there's something pressing you got to do.

This past weekend actually, she had a wedding to go to. And I was, like, "You know what? I can carve out the entire weekend and watch Davis." So this idea of really giving what is required and really being involved together in a way is different when there's a human that you're also responsible for.

I was thinking of the idea of really leaning into what that partnership looks like for a marriage. It's been cool to see, and we are learning a lot. But no pearls. Just, to your point, sandy grit and trying to figure it out. 

MICHAEL CHUI: Your comments remind me of something that our colleague, Ralph Johnson said at one point: "Give yourself grace." Now he was talking about racial challenges, but I think we should make room to give ourselves grace on those things as well, whether it's our fatigue, whether it's our anger, whether it's when we make our own mistakes. That seems true in a lot of contexts. Ralph is a wise person.

JP JULIEN: That's wisdom all parents should have. And hope that your kids do the same, right?

MICHAEL CHUI: Let me ask another question. We are recording this before launching this report [on Black Americans' economic prosperity] out in the world. And we're looking forward to that with great anticipation, and hoping that it will positively influence the dialogue. But we will release it, and then what would you like to do next?

JP JULIEN: In terms of the report, I would love to really see this not just inform people in a new way, but actually get them to do things differently. And that is from our private sector clients all the way to honestly the work that I do with state and local governments, which is, "How do I think about the role of safety net programs and the implications of what that means for not just Black Americans but all the residents of my state and what it means to be healthy and productive citizens?"

I'm really excited to bring forth not just the research but actually make it real for folks so they can do things differently. It's also going to be a fundamental piece of research for the institute.

I'm also so excited to dive deeper across some of these things. One of the things we touched on was affordable housing and the importance of housing affordability, especially in our current moment the eviction tsunami that's likely brewing.

I would love to understand what it looks like to do that topic new and in different ways and really bring in racial equity into that space. It's something I'm really personally passionate about, and I'm so excited to continue doing that kind of research.

Then seeing how we can embed this just across what we do as a firm: How do we bring racial equity into all the work that we're doing? We advise some of the largest clients and governments in the world, and all of them have very demographically diverse populations that unfortunately challenges abound for. How do we allow and enable our colleagues to really see themselves in this work and bring it to their clients is something I'm really excited about potentially manifesting. What about you?

MICHAEL CHUI: I'm hoping that you'll still have me as a collaborator.

JP JULIEN: Always.

MICHAEL CHUI: You know, as the Institute continues, I learn every day. I didn't come to this an expert by any means. And I'm not gonna leave a deep expert, but I learn every day, and I hope that I can continue to be involved and help advance things.

I love this idea of embedding the research findings. We've tried to do this a lot of times with MGI as wellall the time actually with MGI, right? We want to embed the research, the findings into the work that we're doing as McKinsey, but also into the work that everyone else is doing in society and business and government.

Embedding those findings so it's not just something that sits on a shelf, but something that changes the way people make decisions. And then I think we have other opportunities too in solidarity.

As we can tell, I'm an Asian person. I'm privileged to be a leader of Asians at McKinsey, and we've talked with our Hispanic/Latino colleagues about what we can do there to help.

MGI actually has a longstanding, multi-year program around gender equity. So what are the intersectional types of things that we can help to push forward? One of the other things that we found in our research is that moving towards equity doesn't only help the people in those groups that we're talking about. It raises the productivity. It raises the living standards of everybody. Making progress here means making progress for the economy, and the welfare of everybody. That's why we do what we do. 

JP JULIEN: Can I make one final statement? I did want to take time, Michael, to just publicly thank you for just the way you come to this work. I know we haven't met in person, but the level of thoughtfulness and introspection and space that you made for me, and the coaching you've given me and the space you made for our team I think has made our team environment one that is able to produce this kind of research. Really grateful to have the opportunity to work with you on this.

MICHAEL CHUI: Thank you JP. I learn every day from you. You know, the circumstances under which this work commenced were challenging. Challenging for this country, challenging for our people, challenging particularly for Black people. And being able to help and having people like yourselves being open to having someone like me help is really appreciated. Thank you. You've been a terrific leader. You've been a terrific collaborator. And thank you.