Shining a light on diversity and inclusion in the business community

Shining a light on diversity and inclusion in the business community

          “We are opening the dialogue on diversity this year to help set the conditions for all in the business community to succeed. We are not going to change it all in one day, but we want to shine a light on diversity and inclusion issues within our business community,” said Hampton Roads Chamber President and CEO, Bryan K. Stephens addressing the audience as the Chamber held the inaugural Diversity in Business Forum in Norfolk on April 24, 2018.

            The Forum included remarks by three of the leading African American Politicians in Virginia. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is only the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia. Congressman Bobby Scott is the first African American elected to Congress from the Commonwealth since Reconstruction and Mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander is the first African American Mayor in Norfolk’s history.

           Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander welcomed the audience, “Diversity and equity are what drives are economy forward. Norfolk has always had a long history of a diverse and inclusive population, let’s find solutions in economic diversity.”

           Barbara Hamm Lee of Sharing Info was the moderator for the panel discussion and began by asking eachthe panelist what diversity in business meant to them. James White, the Vice Chair of Diversity for the Hampton Roads Chamber said, “Hampton Roads is one of the most diverse communities in the United States. A diverse business must look like the community it serves.”

           Dianne Greene of ADP said, “This topic is challenging for a lot of us and we want to be transparent. Only when we know where we are can we work towards improving a situation. We need to look at inclusion practices that go beyond ethnicity to gender, socio-economic circumstances and educational background. It is through different perspectives that you innovate and find solutions faster. You get what you get. Have you done anything to initiate change? We need to stretch a little further, find opposing thoughts, to innovate, create, and move faster.”

             Dr. Johnny Garcia of SimIS, with his background in the Information Technology and Simulation field stressed the importance of numbers. “For me, the numbers are very concerning. 6% of all jobs are coming from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field but only 5% of STEM jobs are held by minorities. 95% of all STEM jobs are held by white and Asian workers. Interest in STEM must start young and must start at home."

                Gilbert Bland of the Urban League of Hampton Roads reflected on the importance of diversity in business as “being a culture that becomes ingrained and practiced, not just talked about.”

                Hamm Lee asked the panelists whether they felt diversity was fairly represented in leadership roles in Hampton Roads and if not, what they would suggest for better representation.

                Greene stepped up first saying, “Since I’m new to the area, I can bring a fresh perspective. Those of us who are influential and in positions of hiring, must look back and lift others. You should rise as you climb. We sometimes don’t dig deep enough, speak up and challenge the status quo. In the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve gained the reputation of challenging that status quo. It’s good to take a different approach to leadership.”

                Bland brought a long term perspective on Hampton Roads saying, “I’ve been here for a while and 40% of the population is non-white, 33% of that percentage is African American. Hampton Roads is the 13th largest African American community in America and by 2040, it’s going to be a minority majority area with 52% of the population, however we don’t mirror that in leadership, the opportunity is here to do so.”

                Garcia agreed, “I sit on a lot of boards in the area and I am the one Hispanic on the board. I don’t believe the business community is in tune with what we are trying to do here. Only 2% of Fortune 500 companies have minority CEO’s. How do we make change? By being audacious as a minority group, it’s our audacity that can make a difference.

                White called on leaders to initiate the change. “As leaders in the business community, it’s our responsibility to identify and develop those that we see with strengths. To both bring those people into the pipeline and to go out and seek them. I have a responsibility to look for diverse candidates, otherwise I can’t say that I am for diversity if I’m not practicing that as a leader.”

                Garcia again referenced that inclusion is more than ethnicity. “Women work so much harder than men, because they have been told they need to prove themselves in a man’s world. What I have found is that female led tech companies are the ones that succeed. Women are working to change the world, men are working to make money. Women are also very focused on what they are doing and we need to encourage women in the STEM field and look first towards how we can help women start businesses.”

                At the helm of ADP’s Norfolk location Greene praised her organization’s diversity practices. “We have all 5 generations represented in our workforce and we continue to focus on who we are bringing in. You must inspect what you expect, so if you set up a culture of inclusion that starts from the very beginning you continue to strive for it. If I don’t get a diverse candidate slate that has women and minority candidates, I kick it back because there is more work to do.”

                Garcia believes it starts with education. “If we are not seeing qualified and diverse candidates, it’s because we have not started with how we are educating our minorities.”

                The panel discussion allowed for a question and answer session from the audience. Stephens acknowledged the Hampton Roads Chamber does not shy away from challenges and asked what he could do to make a difference.  Bland emphasized alignment with the Urban League of Hampton Roads, “Advocacy paired with mentorship and strategic support services is key.” Garcia, a Navy veteran said, “We can’t forget the importance of veterans and in this military rich community, we have to make hiring veterans a number one priority.” White said, “This is the first event of its kind here and we must continue to drive the conversation forward and bring diverse people to the table with further discussions.” Greene agreed, “We must continue to connect with each other so we can have these conversations.”

                As presenting sponsor for the event, Cox Communication’s J.D. Myers, shared his story of overcoming multiple odds and beating statistics to rise to his current position. “I have served on the National Diversity Inclusion Council for 9 years and we operate with a higher sense of purpose. Diversity and inclusion is more than just race. Cox intentionally creates a workforce where all are welcome.  Let’s join the conversation. We must become comfortable with being uncomfortable and we are getting the conversation going right here and right now.”

                The panelists and elected officials recognized the Chambers lead in this initiative. Congressman Bobby Scott said, “There is hope locally to end pervasive discrimination. The hope is with this event, that the Hampton Roads Chamber wants everyone involved in diversity to grow our economy.”

                Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax closed the forum with a keynote address. “Diversity drives growth in every capacity and we must unlock the talent that exists here. Diversity is the oxygen to opportunity and without it, the workforce will die. To those that say there are not enough seats at the table, I say we all need a bigger table.” Fairfax shared his own story of an upbringing that could have led him down an entirely different path. He is a small business owner and only the second African American in history to be elected to statewide office in Virginia. He spoke directly to the business community with his own experience. “The more small, women, and minority owned businesses we have, the more we can rise. We rise together. We all have to. It can’t be just one sector, gender or race; our destinies are tied together from the start and Virginia will be more successful because of that.”

                The event partner was Black Brand, formerly the Hampton Roads Black Regional Chamber of Commerce. Black Brand co-president Blair Durham said, “I ask you all to help hold Bryan and I accountable as we work in tandem to create more business opportunities for every kind of entrepreneur.”

                Each panel participant and guest speaker recognized this event as an initial step. “This is a first step in a long journey to level the playing field,” Stephens said. There is much work to do in Hampton Roads, but as an impactful advocate, and powerful economic partner, the Hampton Roads Chamber faces challenges head on and this diversity forum is the first step.

                Thank you to our sponsors: Presenting Sponsor, Cox Communications, Silver Sponsor, The Port of Virginia, Bronze Sponsor, BB&T, Moderator Sponsor, Sharing Info, Radio Sponsor, 95.7 R&B and Partner, Black Brand.

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