The Business Case for Equity and Diversity

To be honest, when the Greater Portland 2020 plan began to focus on improving diversity and equity in our region, I had serious concerns.  Not because diversity and equity are not laudable goals, but for an economic developer, these things are often seen as added bonuses that fall more appropriately into the arena of social services.  In an increasingly competitive global market, what could be the business case for diversity and equity?

I've now spent over a decade representing the business (and now the broader economic development) community.  Most, if not all, of the business leaders I work with are dedicated to their community and genuinely care about making our region an even more amazing place to live, work, and play.  That said, they are also constantly responding to crisis, balancing risk, and fighting against internal and external threats to the vitality of their livelihood and that of their employees.  Many community efforts centered around business participation fail because they approach companies with the public good, rather than the business case for their cause. As much as businesses would like to help, there is simply not the space for this approach.  That doesn't mean that a public good can't be dramatically enhanced by business participation. 

The first business case potential I saw for diversity was in the realm of international trade and foreign direct investment.  A community with diverse leadership, in theory, may appear more welcoming to business leaders and have a better cultural awareness that would ultimately lead to more investment and community participation by foreign firms.  Seems to make sense, right?  There are two problems with this approach.  

First, businesses that are targeting trade partners can generally solve this issue by hiring native sales people from their target countries or hire consultants in those countries to bridge the gap.  Second, there is also a potential issue with alignment.  A community's underrepresented communities don't necessarily reflect its greatest potential trade partners.  There are an estimated 30,000 residents of Slavic descent in Clark County, for example, but that doesn't necessarily translate to Ukraine being our best trade ally.  A more global outward face for a community, by itself, doesn't justify the time and effort needed to become a more diverse and equitable economy. 

A capable workforce is the number one issue facing our businesses today and moving forward.  The demand for 21st century skills is intense and increasing.  By 2017, an estimated 45,000 STEM jobs will go unfilled in Washington State.  While our area continues to be a top location for talent attraction, we simply will not be able to import our way out of this problem in the long run.  Responsible leaders must focus on up-skilling our existing population to meet this demand.  To close the skills gap, it will take ALL of our communities working together to train and up-skill our incoming and existing workforce.  This is where the business case for equity and diversity comes in. 

Between 1990 and 2010, the Hispanic population grew from 3 to 10 percent in the Portland region.  Median Household Income for this population is significantly less than White and Asian groups.  If this trend continues, the region risks having greater numbers of people with lower paying skill sets competing for increasingly technical jobs.  It is therefore in every local employer's interest to support the training and education of traditionally underrepresented communities in our region.  This will not happen overnight and we certainly can't expect employers to achieve this goal on their own.  

The key will be to constantly put focus and effort into breaking down silos between employers and underrepresented communities to ensure that these individuals have the access needed to understand the pathways and resources available to attain competitive skills that have historically been out of reach.  The Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce provides excellent resources for small businesses and individuals looking to improve their training and education.  Many other groups are making a similar impact.  The key to our region's business competitiveness will depend on these groups working together to bring the effort to scale.

The result of an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse workforce (from the top down) will be a steady supply of quality resumes for our employers and a better place for businesses to stay and thrive in the long run.  I look forward to working with you on getting us there!