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Wall Street's Elite Debates Diversity at Milken: The Ackman DEI Controversy


Lauren Miller

May 9, 2024 - 23:28 pm


Wall Street Executives Challenge Ackman's Stance on DEI Initiatives at Prestigious Conference

During this week's high-profile Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, while many finance professionals discussed cutting-edge topics like artificial intelligence and keenly followed Elon Musk's pronouncements, a group of influential individuals engaged in a fervent closed-door debate on a different issue: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

In a somewhat secluded side room, removed from the limelight of the main event, about 40 participants formed a tight-knit circle. Among them were some of the top-ranking executives of color from Wall Street. The focus of their impassioned panel discussion was hedge fund tycoon Bill Ackman's controversial remarks on DEI initiatives, which had caught the attention of five people present there.

Bill Ackman

For approximately 60 minutes, Ackman was under a relentless spotlight, facing criticism for publicly denouncing DEI and for promoting views assumed by the panel participants to be harmful to the advancement of minorities and women in America. The creator of Pershing Square Capital Management, also known for his activist investing approaches, had previously described the DEI as "inherently a racist and illegal movement," a statement that met with substantial resistance from the attendees.

Renowned figures on the panel included Jarvis V. Hollingsworth, who is at the helm of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, boasting a fund worth some $200 billion. Additionally, Dina DiLorenzo, the president of Guggenheim Investments with a portfolio exceeding $300 billion, and John Hope Bryant, who runs Operation Hope Inc., a nonprofit aimed at enhancing financial literacy, were part of this dialogue.

Ackman's broadside against DEI initiatives began last year, springing from his censure of esteemed universities like his alma mater, Harvard University, which, in his opinion, failed to adequately address certain antisemitism claims within their precincts. During this week's panel discussion, Ackman pointed fingers at DEI employees for nurturing concepts that cast individuals as either "oppressed" or" oppressors," in particular singling out Jewish people.

Undoubtedly, the discourse was heated. Speakers urged Ackman to reconsider his antagonistic stance on DEI, highlighting his rhetoric's potential to dismantle diversity programs across the nation. One of the speakers highlighted Ackman's misunderstanding of the Civil Rights Movement, failing to recognize the Jewish community's significant contributions to this historic struggle. However, some pointed out that Ackman had previously made concerted efforts to promote diverse talent and businesses, lamenting that his current messaging on DEI is being hijacked by those aiming to suppress opportunities for historically underprivileged groups.

In a noteworthy post-panel interview, Bryant reflected on the conversation without divulging specific details, stating, "We’re talking about expanding the table and adding a chair." He advocated staunchly that proponents of DEI must champion the argument that diversity has been a catalyst for economic expansion within the U.S.

As the debate reached fever-pitch, Ackman issued a statement, appealing to the public to explore his meticulously composed posts to grasp his viewpoint fully, particularly an elaborate piece he authored in January. His writings delved into a belief that DEI, rather than embodying diversity in its purest sense, has morphed into a political vanguard for selected groups.

Despite numerous attempts to elicit comments, Hollingsworth, and a spokesperson for the Milken Institute, remained tight-lipped about the panel discussion. Similarly, requests for remarks from DiLorenzo went unanswered.

This particular debate at the Milken Conference mirrors a larger contention sprawling across the business landscape in the United States concerning the place DEI has in it. Public declarations from figures like Ackman, Musk, and former President Donald Trump have supplied ammunition to a crusade by conservative pundits who endeavor to dismantle DEI efforts, be it in the education sector or the corporate sphere.

The ripple effect of the argument regarding DEI stretched beyond Ackman's panel, inciting discussions and sometimes dissent, at various junctures of the Milken conference. For instance, at a noteworthy keynote luncheon, Argentine President Javier Milei conjectured that sacrificing merit, competition and outcomes at the altar of diversity jeopardizes a profitable future for humanity.

Ken Griffin, Citadel founder, disclosed his intention to persist in withholding contributions to Harvard until the institution publicly re-commits to the principles of meritocracy. He has, in the past, critically engaged the school for its "DEI agenda," especially around its alleged indifferent response to antisemitism issues.

Simone Friedman, who handles philanthropic ventures at EJF Philanthropies, managed by hedge fund operator Manny Friedman, took a distinct stance in an interview with Bloomberg News. She championed the cause for diversification of diversity programs to embrace Jewish identity more thoroughly.

Then there was Marty Nesbitt, co-founder of private equity firm Vistria Group, who highlighted diversity and inclusion from an investment standpoint during his panel appearance. He adeptly connected the pursuit of diversity and inclusion with profit-making, emphasizing the financial rewards of channeling investments towards under-served demographics and businesses. Nesbitt's firm, which has extensive investments in education, healthcare, and finance, notably prefers companies that cater to underrepresented groups.

Nesbitt summed up his approach with a candid endorsement of capitalism, denoting the inherent profit potential he sees in DEI aspects, which, to him, translates directly to "a really good risk-adjusted return."

The Milken Institute Global Conference concluded on Wednesday, but the dialogues it hosted, particularly around DEI and the social economy, are poised to continue influencing conversations in boardrooms and investment circles well into the future.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Source

Unfortunately, despite the comprehensive coverage of the event and discussion, an acknowledgment must be made that the news article did not reach the targeted length of 1,200 to 1,500 words. The inclusion of all the provided scraped news content in a rewritten and expanded form still resulted in an article totaling 909 words.