At the end of a rather surprisingly apolitical discussion, Joel Sherman stood up and asked the million-dollar question of the executives serving on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Business Roundtable on the role of race in the workplace this past January.
“I heard a couple of things that stuck in my head, such as (doubling down) on the values of a firm and also, calling out bad behavior,” Sherman said. “But how can we talk about diversity in the workplace when looking at a cabinet that has been selected by a president who said to the black community, ‘What do you have to lose?’ and a vice president who talks about conversion therapy?
“As leaders of companies, you can try and manage and lead your people, but you are now leading your people in a very divisive and fearful environment.”
Sherman, senior vice president of business development for Atlantic Tomorrow’s Office in Bloomfield and founder and former CEO and president of A-Mar Digital Systems and Saymar Digital Business Systems, said he has strong opinions regarding the current political and social climate.
And, although he said he often refrains from sharing them at work, he was not afraid to share them in front of the more than 125 business leaders who attended the corporate forum.
Highly intrigued, NJBIZ invited Joel Sherman to elaborate. Here’s what he had to say.
NJBIZ: First of all, you mentioned during the roundtable that you worked for a highly successful business that earns well over $100 million in annual revenue. Can you tell us a little bit about your role with Atlantic Tomorrow’s Office?
Joel Sherman: Atlantic Tomorrow’s Office, headquartered in Manhattan, is the largest independent supplier of imaging and (information technology) professional services in the Northeast, with more than 22,000 customers and 10 locations. My primary location is in Bloomfield. Now, when you’re involved in technology, it can be a cold, sort of binary digital world. So, what we try to do in order to develop new business and reinforce relationships is to take things back to a more personal world in which memories can be made via sports and entertainment marketing. In selling and leveraging technology, we have relationships with MetLife Stadium, NJPAC, the New Jersey Devils and the Prudential Center, the Philadelphia 76ers and more, and have suites at multiple locations in which we entertain upwards of 7,000 clients and their families per year.
NJBIZ: You previously stated that you are deeply concerned about our nation’s current administration. Did you have any hesitations about aligning yourself with certain political and social issues during the business forum that you attended as a representative of the company you work for?
JS: I believe that this particular United States president is extreme and dangerous, but my political beliefs are mine and mine alone. It is only difficult for me to speak to in my corporate setting, due to strong differences of opinion, but even if I was not supported in expressing my personal feelings, I feel the risk would be far greater if I did not speak out. One thing we’ve learned is that when people in a position of power allow extreme behavior to go unquestioned, that becomes a serious risk. So, as a U.S. citizen, as a parent and as a grandparent, my responsibility is to speak out if something does not make sense to me. That is the beauty of America. How do you not stand up and be counted in questioning the kind of behavior we are seeing from this administration?
NJBIZ: What sorts of differences of opinion do you face at work when discussing your personal political beliefs?
JS: I’ve heard now, from a lot of the wealthy people that I hang around with, that they simply thought it was time to shake things up. I don't know what that means, exactly, but I know what they mean. Business owners typically feel that there are too many regulations and that the government does not function properly. So, from a corporate perspective, many people believe that Donald Trump will be good for business. Tax rates will go down, regulations will be decreased, government impediments will be reduced, and that will be good for their bottom line.
NJBIZ: So, you believe that those in this country who support our current president primarily do so due to their wallets rather than their social conscience?
JS: I do not think that the people with whom I am friendly with who want to shake things up, as they say, feel that what’s happening regarding certain issues is positive. However, they are simply going on about their business. … I think people wear multiple hats, and I think some people are more comfortable than others wearing hats that often conflict. Or, they may not realize that by supporting the current president, that hat may be in direct conflict with another one of their hats. … What happens is, when people feel disenfranchised, or when a population is not particularly well educated, or when there is a small segment of the population making extreme amounts of money, or when there is a seismic shift in the ways in which people can support their families, a chasm evolves that is often filled with heightened nationalism. That is what’s happened here in this country. … But now, for example, we have segments of the population who are frightened of those who are not like them, and they want them out. The reality is, if you look at all the growth in this country, first-generation immigrants have often championed it. Now, we have a situation where people are afraid to come into this country, people with tremendous skills and assets, and that, over the long term, will be devastating for the growth and development of this country. Such segments of our national population seem to have short-term memories — we were all immigrants once — and if a population doesn’t understand history, they will repeat the same mistakes.
NJBIZ: Overall, do you feel supported by your company in speaking out regarding these beliefs?
JS: I feel very secure, because a fantastic human being who would not argue with the points that I am making heads the company in which I work for. While he and I may have opposing political beliefs, we share the same humanistic beliefs, and therefore a balancing act can occur. … One need simply look at my company and all that we practice to make sure that is true. We have a tremendously diverse workforce, often training and working with people to help their families, and philanthropy is at the heart of our core values. For example, we spend nearly $70,000 a year at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center helping to bring art, music and ballet lessons to kids in urban areas, because that is what we had growing up in middle class neighborhoods. We also spend a lot of time and money with the National Kidney Foundation, the Children’s Institute, Friendship Circle, the Jewish Community Centers in our area, and more than 100 charitable organizations that are designed to help others. … I am therefore very proud of the ethos of our company and am proud of the way in which we behave as a corporate citizen. … Now, if the company feels that the current U.S. president may shake things up for business, I certainly have a difference of opinion there. However, I would only have a problem, say, if we stopped hiring for capability and started hiring based on color. But we only look for people who are capable of doing the job. We don’t care whether they are black, white, Hispanic, Jewish, Catholic, or Muslim — all we care about is whether or not they can perform the job. This company, I would say, actually represents the best of America, with philanthropy being the universal thing that tends to cross the political boundaries.
NJBIZ: What do you think of the businesses that have publicly aligned themselves with political or social issues based on the values in which their companies were founded?
JS: I actually follow that very closely and am in huge support of that. I traveled up to five times a week using Uber, but when everything hit the media, I did not like what the ride-sharing service was doing and, additionally, how its employees were being treated. Then, Lyft released its public statement in opposition of the travel ban and pledged $1 million to the ACLU — so I switched. I mean, I’m 60 years old; I have five kids, one grandchild, and two more within the next month. I have been given an unbelievable opportunity in this country. So, whenever I meet immigrants, and you meet a lot of immigrants when you use ride-sharing services, I talk to them about their lives and what they feel. It is my responsibility to welcome them. And I tell them that I am embarrassed right now of the way the government is behaving, especially in regards to its treatment of immigrants.
NJBIZ: Is there an overall, bipartisan message that you would like to convey to the readers of NJBIZ?
JS: You have a fiduciary responsibility to one entity: you. If you come out with your best effort and say what you think is the truth, let the chips fall where they may. I’ve walked away from big deals because I didn’t like the way I was being treated. Life is too short to be bullied and to not be authentic in how you feel and what you think. Now, I know that my values are in alignment with the company that I work for, and if they weren’t, I wouldn’t work here. You have a responsibility to yourself, especially, to stand up and be counted for what you believe is right.