At Frontline Solutions, Melissa DeShields is CEO & Partner, Micah Gilmer is Co-Founder and Senior Partner, and Marcus Littles is Founder and Senior Partner.
You’re like the Black McKinsey.
People say this to us all the time. For the most part, they mean it as a compliment. But, underneath these words, we hear some inaccurate and even problematic assumptions.
Yes, our firm, Frontline Solutions, is Black-founded and Black-led. Yes, the majority of our team is BIPOC. And, yes, we offer a broad array of management consulting services. Our clients—ranging from some of the world’s largest foundations and universities to grassroots movement organizations and private enterprises—come to us for help innovating, learning, and transforming. We have deep experience leveraging data and learning as catalysts for positive social change. We know our way around PowerPoint and Google slides. Facilitating organizations through complex and transformational processes is our superpower.
But here’s the thing: Our ethos runs counter to the culture, norms, and standards of the management consulting sector. This is by design. It’s why we exist in the first place.
In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Frontline Solutions was founded by one of the authors of this article, Marcus Littles. A year later, Ryan Bowers and Micah Gilmer joined the team as co-founders.The firm’s initial purpose was to push for an equitable recovery in the Gulf Coast region, including aligning and directing billions of philanthropic dollars. Shortly thereafter, the firm helped launch a renewed national effort focused on Boys and Men of Color, with the release of the Ford Foundation’s report “Why We Can’t Wait: Opportunities for Improving Life Outcomes for African American Males.” At that time, building a consulting firm was the last thing on our minds. We simply saw an urgent need that we had the vision, skills, and authentic relationships to fill.
For too long, we’d heard people in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors say there was a “pipeline problem.” They couldn’t find Black talent—researchers, data geeks, strategists, specialists, creatives, etc. That was their explanation for why they kept bringing in the usual suspects: large and predominantly white-led firms.
But we knew otherwise. We were already deeply connected to the professionals everyone claimed they couldn’t find. For years, over coffee, at conferences or during happy hour, we heard talented and thoughtful folx of color lament the lack of opportunities to create real impact, and how their progress was stymied by the limitations of many traditional institutions.
But as we built the firm, we were energized by our vision and the opportunities coming our way—and also worried that embracing the label of consulting firm would require conformity to standards of practice that were white-centered and ultimately toxic, such as valuing production over people. We knew these practices would hinder us in pursuit of our goal: Liberation.
At the firm we’ve always been mindful—even vigilant—about our vulnerability to simply recreate the toxic spaces that many of us escaped, just barely. Even now, 16 years in, it still requires discipline and daily practices of reflection and accountability to ensure that this does not happen.
We’re committed to that work, though, and we’re often hired to help our clients to live their values more fully. Not just in terms of what they do, but also how they do it. How do they make time for reflection? How do they engage in healthy conflict? How do they ensure that all staff feel included and valued? How are they working to identify and address their biases and gaps in understanding? How are they supporting their teams to navigate change?
These sorts of questions are particularly acute when it comes to clients wanting to deepen their commitments and practices of diversity, equity, and inclusion. With the rise of Black Lives Matter and the national reckoning with racism in 2020, many consulting firms scrambled to create a DEI line of business when it increasingly became a priority for all sorts of organizations. But this work—of centering the folx who are the most impacted in the dialogue, process, and decision-making—has always been the core of who we are.
Beyond making a profit, most consulting firms don’t have broader ideological goals. And those that do are generally not dedicated to advancing freedom and justice for Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. That’s our north star. And it’s part of why we aren’t—and don’t want to be—the Black McKinsey.
McKinsey & Company have been around since 1926. Along with Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Company, they’re known as one of the “Big Three” management consultancies—the world’s largest, by revenue. People often hold the “Big Three” up as a gold standard against which to assess us and other smaller firms. They’re doing just fine, and likely won’t mind hearing that we don’t aspire to be like them. They’re clearly good at what they do; it’s just not what we want to do. And, anyway, this article is not about them. This is about us and other Black and BIPOC-led firms.
We’re responding to this comparison to McKinsey only to make this point: Telling us we’re like the Black McKinsey, whether people mean to or not, is centering whiteness. It’s looking at us as a Black-founded and led firm and implying that our success hinges on our ability to embody and perpetuate a white-centered business model and the ideals that underlie it. We fundamentally reject that construct.
We reject it because our philosophy and approaches differ dramatically from those that dominate our sector. For instance, we don’t believe that nonprofits necessarily perform better if they function more like for-profits—which is a core belief of most management consultants. Our list of experts diverge from most because we have different definitions of expertise. Our team and the content experts we partner with have plenty of PhDs and impressive resumés. But, to us, their lived experiences are equally important.
We’re also deeply suspicious of commonly held notions about professionalism, which we view largely as a random set of standards devised to amp up perfectionism and foster exclusion. For example, recently a client commented on our team’s attire during a virtual training session, remarking, “What are these people in sweatshirts going to teach me about equity?” Well, the fact is that what we wear has nothing to do with our expertise. In fact, we deliver high-quality, impactful and transformational engagements—sometimes in sweats, and sometimes in suits.
Leading with our values means that we don’t function like most other firms. Being human-centered is our top priority. We don’t believe in the 60-hour-plus work week. We don’t tie performance or productivity to worth or value. We refuse to run our staff into the ground for profit. And the high quality of our work demonstrates that prioritizing our team’s well-being does not mean compromising our results. We function, day in and day out, as to demonstrate that our people are our most precious, most important, asset.
These and so many other values and practices are what so dramatically set us apart from many other consulting firms.
There are other reasons why we bristle at the “Black McKinsey” comparison, which are more complicated—and perhaps riskier to raise. Another fact is: Some of the same people who call us that don’t pay us like they do McKinsey, and they don’t afford us the same respect they do their consultants.
Unlike many white-founded and led firms, we didn’t have a multi million-dollar runway, or any financial runway. We weren’t granted a line of credit until our seventh year. Nobody has ever offered us a retainer. We’ve built our business project by project, hour by hour, and especially early on, many of our contracts were relatively small. This was, in part, because we were often brought into foundations and large nonprofits by a person of color—most often a Black woman—who had used considerable political capital to get us hired. Rarely was it a CEO’s idea to work with us, and, typically, the largest contracts are tied to the priorities of the most senior leadership.
Still today, it can often feel like we’re being brought in the back door. We sometimes get the sense that some leaders reserve big, exciting projects that involve deep thinking, creativity, and strategy for white-led firms. And, unlike many white-founded and led firms, when we’re invited in, we’re routinely asked to defend our rates and expertise.
Large foundations we know pay white firms much higher rates than ours, and have often asked us, “What’s your lowest nonprofit rate?” Then they turn around and ask us this other (dreaded) question: “Do you really have the capacity to do the job?” The reality is that if we don’t have the balance sheets of the white firms they’re used to working with, it’s in part because we’ve often been underpaid—for delivering the same kind and quality of work.
That word—capacity—is loaded. It’s often used as an excuse for not hiring firms run by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color: And, it’s used to dismiss or undermine our work, especially related to DEI, where experience has shown us that a client’s move to question our capacity is to deflect hearing difficult feedback about their own organizational culture, leadership, operations, etc.
Many organizations like to hire a Black-led, diverse, firm like ours for the optics. But, if they don’t want to face the biases and inequities we expose that are baked into their programs, policies ,and operations, they balk. All too often this means questioning our expertise, data, findings, and analysis. It turns out that many organizations like our commercial, but not the demands that truth-telling places on them when they hire a Black firm. And instead they question our capacity.
The irony is that, at the same time they’re questioning our capacity, we’re often simultaneously doing unpaid work of a kind that many white firms don’t take on, in part because they don’t have the expertise to do it.
For example, sometimes, when we’re brought into an organization, regardless of the focus of our contract, BIPOC staff—desperate to be heard—want to confide in us about the racism they’re experiencing. They want us to hold leadership accountable in ways that are far outside the scope of what we’ve been hired to do. We understand why these dynamics exist, and we stand firmly with the people who are doing important antiracist organizing within institutions. But, like all labor, this emotional labor takes time and energy. It requires unique, hard-won expertise that we have because we lead with a focus on culture. We should be compensated fairly for it.
We doubt that clients ask white-led and founded firms—including those that just recently started a DEI practice—about their capacity for the work. Is their expertise questioned as ours is?
So, if an organization is serious in its commitment to racial justice, it might stop holding a Black firm like ours to standards to which we don’t aspire. This often would include doing the work to develop the self-awareness to see that this bias is built into many of the ways in which they think, work, and lead.
We want our prospective clients of all kinds to recognize that we’re building something that’s radically different. They could give us a grant to build our infrastructure, or provide a retainer so we can focus on our growth—without having to chase every billable dollar. They might invest in and hire other dope Black firms—like Converge for Change, KHA & Associates, Future Good, The Moriah Group, ThirdSpace Action Lab, and Build Up Advisory Group. They’re not our competition; they’re part of the movement we believe in. And, just as critical is that foundations and other organizations take a long, hard look at themselves, and ask how their policies and practices privilege large white institutions and perpetuate inequities.
We are confident that we have the capacity to do great, impactful work at a larger scale. Over our seventeen-year history—and by building an extensive, impressive client list—our team has proven that we have the expertise, skills, talents, multifaceted perspectives, and lived experiences to engage at a high level with organizations in a journey toward their boldest, most expansive visions. We’re not trying to be like anyone else. We do things the Frontline way.