Diversity can grow economy

December 29, 2008
Print
Text Size:
A A

“West Michigan is a diverse region” seems to be the new mantra for the area. And people are starting to believe it — which is as it should be. Statistically, West Michigan has a wide range of cultures and ethnicities. The diverse number of languages spoken in the region was a large draw for Priceline.com. True economic diversity, however, depends on engaging those diverse cultures and ethnicities.

By 2010, it is estimated that ethnic minorities will represent $3.35 trillion in disposable income. The chain reaction this group is capable of setting off can lead to more than money being spent; it can mean new businesses, innovation, and the ability to attract and retain talent.

But Skot Welch, founder and managing partner of Global Bridgebuilders — a company that develops and implements sustainable, process-focused, cultural competency and inclusion initiatives — points out there is a difference between proving a region is diverse through statistics and engaging the community.

“You’ll never engage those statistics until you understand that behind those statistics are people,” said Welch. “When you desire to be a (region) that is innovative and that is relevant, it has to be reflective of a broader community and it also has to be varied.

“Innovation comes from people, so in order to really get the good stuff, you have to have people around the table that come from different and varied backgrounds. In order to do that, you have to give them a reason to contribute and to stay.”

Rudolph R. Treece III, president of Michigan Black Expo Inc., a nonprofit, social change conglomerate of Africentric events, products and services, agreed.

“The strongest economy is most likely when the pool of creative intellectual talent is the broadest and the deepest,” said Treece.

In order to aid the growth of that pool, Treece said there are a few things that need to be done.

“This can only be accomplished by, A, enacting the infrastructure to attract talent from every human culture; B, retain those who already live here; C, operate on the notion that the quality of life standards for one culture is either not attractive to or meaningful to those creative intellectual talents of other cultures.”

Welch said one of the most important elements to good recruiting is building relationships and getting people connected and involved.

“People want to be engaged. People want to not just be welcomed, but to belong to something,” he said. “A community is no different — giving them an opportunity to speak and also to be heard. When they see their ideas being implemented on some scale or to some degree, they’ll keep talking. That is how we not only recruit, but retain the best and brightest.”

That emphasis on relationships and getting involved leads to the importance of groups like the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s Multicultural Association of Professionals, also called BL²END, a nonprofit professionals group focused on individuals of color between the ages of 22 to 35.

“I think there’s a pivotal moment when someone calls a city home, versus ‘I just work here,’” said Maxine Gray, steering committee member for BL²END. “That’s where that retention piece happens.”

Gray said it is also important for the community to be receptive to those coming from other cities who may not have a family lineage in the region. To help with that, many companies have contacted the organization to welcome potential talent during the recruiting process.

“We’re called on by people we have relationships with, whether they’re bringing people in to have dinner or just want to learn more about the young professionals in the city and what the city has to offer from our perspective,” said Gray.

Another important facet in attracting and retaining diverse talent is to have their interests and cultures represented in the business community.

“When intellectual capital people that are Asian-, Latin- and African-descended look at Grand Rapids, that are being interviewed up on the Hill or for an attorney, they’re asking, ‘Do they have black banks? Do they have Latin banks?’ No,” said Treece. “They add the whole list up: no FM station, no banks, no K-12 culturally centered educational options, no ethnically authentic entertainment venues, no ethnically attractive retail.”

Patrick A. Miles, Jr., a partner with Dickinson Wright PLLC, said that while the region is diverse, what it lacks is inclusion of the minorities.

“Diversity is really a fact. We have diversity in this community: racial, ethnic, religious, etc.,” said Miles. “What we have not yet achieved is inclusion. Inclusion directly effects retention. When you have people of color who join an organization or institution or company or firm, and they don’t see anyone in the upper echelons of management or ownership that are of color, then naturally they are going to be skeptical of their prospects for success.”

Miles said that West Michigan does not have many top level executives of color. Because of this, young professionals of color who are starting their careers have few if any mentors within their company, nor do they have someone who has already paved a path, forcing them to be that pioneer.

“It’s human nature for people to mentor somebody who is younger or in an inferior position who they have something in common with. They project their own self on to that person,” said Miles. “It takes a real effort, for example, for a 50- or 60-year-old white male to do that for a young black female. But that effort needs to be done, because there are very few partners in firms or top level executives in companies who achieved what they’ve achieved without the benefit of a senior person in their career who gave them a helping hand — showed them the ropes, mentored them, gave them opportunities. Now they need to do the same thing for people of color, even though it’s out of their comfort zone.”

As West Michigan grows, regional companies no longer compete among themselves but with companies all around the globe. In order for them to compete on the highest level in terms of innovation and creativity, diversity must be a key ingredient. When talented workers who either are from other cultures or who simply are used to having an array of cultures and ethnicities come to visit the region and do not see themselves and their interests represented, they are more likely to go to a competing market, Miles said.

“There are a number of top law students, for example, as well as other professions — whether they’re white, black, Hispanic — they are looking around and they expect to see diversity in the workplace. When they don’t see that in a company, they are going to go to a different company. When they don’t see that in a community, they’re going to go to another community,” said Miles. “We’re losing talent and we’re not attracting talent the way we should. We have a lot to offer. We have a great community, but if we can’t continue to attract talent, it’s going to start a vicious cycle. We’re going to lose population. Residential values are going to go down. Schools will suffer and companies and firms will suffer. Then the cycle will continue.”

While there is a market in West Michigan for ethnically centered companies and services, what is attractive to people and what engages them is not necessarily ethnic-specific, said Welch.

“This is a human question; it’s not this group or that group,” Welch said. “What would you or I want? We want opportunity, we want to be able to have things, and if we desire to raise a family, we desire a safe environment. Those are things that we all want. You want to have places to eat that reflect your different types of food. You want to have something, if you’re a young person, that speaks to your age group. Those are the things that keep anyone engaged.”

Treece noted that in creating the types of venues that reflect different cultural interests, it is imperative that they are done authentically. The question arises: Can West Michigan support such culturally centered businesses or services? Welch believes it can.

“I absolutely believe that it can and that it is capable. West Michigan, the lakeshore, as far as Kalamazoo and then Grand Rapids, certainly we have numbers that warrant attention,” Welch said.

“I think it’s also important to mention that these various ethnic groups, in particular, are much more brand loyal. Once you gain the trust in these particular markets, you really have an opportunity to be their No. 1 choice. It takes an investment; however, it’s an investment with a very large return.”

Next question: If West Michigan is capable of sustaining such businesses and services, why are there so few or, in some cases, none at all? Treece answers:

“There’s this overarching notion that G.R. is only welcoming if you’re white, but, in reality, we do have a broad cross-section of people of all cultures that are here,” he said. “You may have an idea to open an authentic place, but then you have all these things that remind you why you shouldn’t or why it’s perceived as ridiculous. You have to make it; you have to implement it. Atlanta didn’t spring up overnight.”

Perception plays a big role, but the thought that there isn’t support for culturally diverse businesses or services, Treece said, is not true. Still, Welch said, West Michigan may not have been ready to support a culturally diverse market until recently.

“The time is now. I don’t think it was time earlier. A lot of things have aligned themselves,” said Welch. “We live in a global economy where we have to try new things, because the things that we’ve done for so many years really aren’t working like they used to. We now have before us a canvas, and we have to use different paints this time.

“There had been dialogue, and we’ve done a lot of talking about it, but I think we have new leadership coming into West Michigan. I think we have younger leadership in West Michigan. I think there’s a willingness to talk about these things now, and I think there is capital behind these things now, as well.”

Even though business leaders are beginning to speak out on the subject of diversity and take action, the region is still suffering has a long history of exclusion, said Miles.

“I say this as a third generation Grand Rapidian: Grand Rapids has had a perception of being very provincial. Perception is reality, of course. In the last decade or so, the city, the business community, the philanthropic community has been much more open to people who are not from Grand Rapids or who are not of a certain race or religion. Nevertheless, we’re living with the results of decades of exclusion. Whether it was intentional or unintentional, it occurred. We have to admit that and recognize that. As a result we don’t have any minority-owned businesses in West Michigan that are over $50 million in annual sales. Not one. We don’t have many, if any, CEO, CFO, COO people of color at our largest companies. That doesn’t send a good message to the marketplace.”

Welch stressed that it is not simply about minorities, but a generational issue, as well.

“You have to talk about generational, because people tend to think, ‘Well, it’s just about minorities and women,’ and it isn’t,” he said. “Let’s look at our younger people. They have money to spend; they’re earning. They desire to be in a place where they have things to do. Look at that as a particular large, large market to serve, as well.”

Treece gave an example: “An FM R&B station: That’s not just about black people. … There’s (many) people of European descent that love R&B and jazz and hip hop, and they want the real stuff.”

For the West Michigan region to stay competitive, it must stay innovative, said Welch. Part of that includes attracting and retaining the best and brightest from all walks of life. In order to attract that talent pool, it’s imperative for them not only to see their cultures represented in the community, but also to be able to enjoy other cultures through businesses and services as well as building strong relationships.

Those who are in leadership positions need to continue to speak out and advocate for diversity, said Miles. He said there also needs to be more accountability in recruiting and promoting people of diverse cultures within an organization. The business community must also look at ways it can support the success of experienced, qualified and talented business people in their pursuits.

“We have to continue to retain and promote professionals and business people who are trying to establish careers here,” said Miles, adding that it must start with leadership as well as on a personal level for each employee: the basis of change coming from strong relationships.

“All we have is each other and our ideas,” said Welch. “The sooner we quit living in silos apart from each other and begin to live in collaboration and in community with each other, the sooner we can begin to see the fruits of that community and that collaboration.”

Recent Articles by Jake Himmelspach

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus