Cultivating Companies and Communities

A forum where small businesses can tune in to find out the answers to their concerns, gather insight from experts, and discuss how the current environment impacts our communities. Brought to you by the SBDC at LCCC in association with the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce.

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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and What It Means For You

Lisa and Tony lead us through an engaging conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what that means for your small business. We are speaking with Renee Ligon and Anthony Richardson about their experiences and their expertise on how to change the face of your business.


In the spirit of this episode, be sure to take a look I.C.Stars, a workforce and leadership development program for under-resourced and under-served adults located right here in Columbus, OH. https://www.icstars.org/

To learn more about the SBDC visit https://www.lorainccc.edu/business/sbdc/

And The Lorain Country Chamber of Commerce at http://www.loraincountychamber.com/

Tony Gallo:
Diversity, equity and inclusion, also known as DEI, are popular topics surrounding businesses these days.

Lisa Hutson:
But what does inclusion actually mean? And what can we do to make our workplace more diverse?

Tony Gallo:
How can minorities enter into industries that aren't typically diverse?

Lisa Hutson:
And does it really benefit small business owners to hire minorities?

Tony Gallo:
We'll answer these questions and more in this episode of Business Fluent.

Lisa Hutson:
Today, we are talking with Renee Ligon of Team NEO.

Renee Ligon:
I ended up being a diverse applicant that led to a career path that put me on a trajectory.

Lisa Hutson:
And Tony Richardson from the Nord Family Foundation.

Tony Richardson:
I tend to think of it, diversity as a sort of being invited to a party and inclusion being asked to dance.

Tony Gallo:
Hey, this is Tony Gallo, president Lorain County Chamber of Commerce. I'm here with Lisa Hutson from the SBDC at Lorain County Community College. And we are here with Business Fluent. Today we're going to be talking about diversity and inclusion. And as our guests, we have Renee Ligon from Team NEO.

Renee Ligon:
Hi Renee Ligon. I am the director of partnerships and engagement with Team NEO, where our mission is to create equitable, fair wage paying jobs by driving business retention and expansion efforts here into the market. And we believe in doing that. We're going to demand the talent for this region, which we'll talk about today.

Tony Gallo:
And we have Tony Richardson from the Nord Family Foundation.

Tony Richardson:
Good morning. My name is Tony Richardson, executive director of the Nord Family Foundation based in Lorain County. Half of our dollars annually stay in Lorain County and the other half of our dollars are distributed in other areas of selected family interests. Our organization endeavors to build community, through support of projects that bring opportunity to the under resourced, strengthen the bond of families and improve the quality of people's lives.

Lisa Hutson:
Awesome. Thank you both for being here. And this is a subject that I think 2020 has highlighted and brought a lot of attention to so when you hear the words, diversity and inclusion, I think that maybe brings up different visuals to different people. When we say those words, what does it really mean? And is there a difference between diversity and inclusion and equity and all those kind of buzzwords that are flying around the business world today?

Renee Ligon:
Yeah, so Lisa, that is a really, really good question. And I think it's a definition that has evolved over time. We have often tried to mix the three words together, diversity, equity inclusion and come to one meaning. But when you extrapolate those three words, diversity means one thing. Diversity is I could look across an organization and I can see a peppering or a sprinkling of the representation of people in places, but it does not mean that where they sit is equitable or inclusive.

Renee Ligon:
And so when you then look at inclusivity, where they are sitting within the organization, do they feel a part of the organization? Feel a part of the decision making? Feeling a part of the process, the people and the culture? Or is there a penalty for being not a part of a certain culture that exists within our organization so thereby you don't feel included?

Renee Ligon:
Equity, which is also critical. We always have to consider equity. And I keep this definition for myself when I'm looking at equity, because I believe it is very important in driving the entire circle of diversity, equity, inclusion. Equity is a process which drives the outcomes of equality. And if equity is done right, it will inherently disrupt structures and systems that drive inequity based on individual and group differences. It has to be done systematically and done right so that internally the culture is driving a place that is inclusive, diverse and equitable. Tony, what are your thoughts on that?

Tony Richardson:
Yeah, I'll just add a few. I think you covered it really eloquently and direct. And so at a more superficial level, I tend to think of it, diversity as a sort of being invited to a party and inclusion being asked to dance. In a lot of our current discussions around the diversity, equity, inclusion is often centered around race and ethnicity as it should. But I think it's also important at this time and moment, we're not dismissive or forgetting other marginalized or traditional marginalized groups, such as women and individuals with disabilities or people discriminated against based upon their age and in language. We don't even talk about language being an issue and a barrier for access. And then sexual orientation. And so, there are a lot of different pieces that I think are very important around identity when we talk about creating these inclusive or diverse or equitable environments.

Lisa Hutson:
We hear a lot of the larger corporations talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and have programs and policies in place. But a lot of our listeners are going to be from smaller organizations that really maybe live and work in a pretty homogenous kind of world. Their circle of influence is pretty homogenous. We hear things like, "I don't get any diverse applicants. My industry doesn't have any women or minorities." How do you think those smaller businesses can start to look at this issue in a broader way and start implementing some of those things to strengthen their organizations?

Tony Richardson:
I think that this is a very nuanced issue. We think about communities and how diverse they are. There are places in rural America where it is pretty homogenous. And for those people who are interested, entrepreneurs that are interested or businesses that are interested in diversifying its talent, it won't come to you. Have to get on offense, so to speak and go out and get it. And I think sometimes that's different than what traditional companies are used to doing. It's like we have an application, we have a process, we put it out and people apply. Or to your point, Lisa, we know somebody that knows somebody and they're in our network and so we just train. We can train that talent to be what it needs to be for this company but we don't know what it looks like to go out and recruit.

Tony Richardson:
I'm going to place that reality in its real context and situated as such but when I think about larger companies that may be situated in more heterogeneous environments reaching out to the community colleges, non-traditional mediums, such as radio, culturally themed publications, hosting college campus interviews at historically Black colleges and universities. And again, it's stepping outside of your traditional process or ways of recruitment and to be more culturally aware of other platforms that exist in your community that you can leverage to attract talent.

Renee Ligon:
When you look at talent and the recruitment of diverse talent from a DEI perspective, it has to be intentional, but it is difficult work. This is not easy work. It requires an intentional and focused effort where you've got to reach out to networks that aren't so exactly obvious. I'll give you an example. I recall when I was in college, I was one of the few minorities, but I walked into my advisor's office and said, "I need a job for the summer." And she immediately looked at her Rolodex because she had companies that were calling her saying, "What talent do you have that's available that can come and work for me for the summer?" And thereby I ended up being a diverse applicant that led to a career path that put me on a trajectory. Oftentimes companies can do the very simple thing by creating these partnerships with universities who are working with students who have access to the future pipeline, where they can drive opportunities for diverse talent and not to mention, I've got partnerships with the United Negro College Fund.

Renee Ligon:
They have a presence here locally, even though we don't have a large presence of historically Black colleges and universities. There are opportunities to forge partnerships at that level, as well as even at the high school levels, because our superintendents are looking at where are opportunities for our students to align with a future pipeline of opportunities that are coming here into the market? Internships, connectivity for the future, training and workforce programs that exist. Team NEO very much align with promoting talent and workforce development, with workforce programs because we're looking at students who are in our high schools and then looking at the future talent pipeline as to where the equitable fair wage paying jobs will exist. We have to be ready to make that match. And so our companies, there is an opportunity to create a strong alignment with that for the future, but it has to be intentional and making ourselves vulnerable, getting outside of what feels comfortable to us all the time.

Tony Gallo:
Wow. That's great. So much of what we talk about and Renee, you kind of set up our next kind of question or where we were sort of heading with this, which is workforce and workforce development is something that the Chamber and the SBDC has worked together on and our partners have focused on so much over the last five years, if not longer. And it's funny, with these businesses, whether they're large or small, do you pull a page out of the NFL's playbook and request them to consider the Rooney Rule where they have to interview some people of color before they just automatically go to that person that they know or that person that they're comfortable with and almost set it up where we request or they take a pledge of some sort to make sure that they do interview some people of color before providing these jobs?

Tony Gallo:
And I guess on top of that, how do we make sure that the applicants and people of color realize that the career paths are like you had just said, Renee, you go through this door and your entire life changes just by making that commitment. By, hey, I need a job. And that job leads to this, which leads to that. And then all of a sudden, you come out to where you are. I know what I said is a whole lot right there, but hopefully you can talk a little bit more about what that diversity in the upcoming workforce means here and now.

Renee Ligon:
Yeah. Tony, I'm on the fence with putting in a rule.

Tony Gallo:
I know.

Renee Ligon:
To drive diversity, equity and inclusion. Because you know what happens? We end up with diversity but we don't end up with equity. And many times we don't even end up with inclusion. We end up with the presence of people who are sitting in positions that give the appearance of something being equitable or inclusive. There are many organizations that do that today. DEI starts inside, not outside. This begins with looking at what are our own vulnerabilities? What prohibits us from making the decision to naturally open the door? Not because someone has put a rule or a demand because I am not diverse enough. We have to start with changing the mindset because the mindset is what changes the culture to help drive natural instances of diversity, equity, inclusion.

Lisa Hutson:
Renee, that sounds great. What would you say to the business owner sitting out there that says, "Yeah, that all sounds great, but I'm wearing a 1,000 hats and I have a zillion fires I need to put out. I'd love some D, E and I in my business, but I got to worry about the bottom line." How can we talk to those business owners to make them see that by having a diverse and inclusive business, it's going to affect that bottom line in a positive way?

Tony Gallo:
Their return on investment.

Renee Ligon:
It can start by saying, "Let me meet with," if you've got two employees and one is running one part of the business and one is running one part of the other, "a simple email." Tell me where you think diversity, equity, inclusion might impact this line of business? Just give me or start with one question. Where my D, E and I impact this line of business. Where can we think differently about it? Just ask. Just to start the conversation.

Lisa Hutson:
That's a great point.

Renee Ligon:
Yeah. Just simple ways. We think that D, E and I has got to be some huge project and sometimes it just starts with simple conversations and making simple tweaks and in some cases you might find you are already impacting D, E and I in some of your work and you're not even paying attention to it. Why? Because you have blind spots, but someone who is diverse can see it.

Lisa Hutson:
I think that's true. I think maybe that's the starting point. Looking for some of those biases that you might not be aware of. And especially if your target audience is a more diverse community, we can talk about diversity and inclusion. And are we going to make some headway and into business and industry? Maybe, but in 2020, there were only six African American CEOs in Fortune 500 companies and 37 women and zero women of color in the CEO positions in those Fortune 500 companies. We have to get a way that I see companies a lot of times, okay, we have a woman at our table, we have an African-American at our table so they're going through the check marks.

Lisa Hutson:
But beyond the seat at the table, people would be shocked if someone had three women at the table. We may never get there unless we're the people who own the businesses and make the decisions, because there is a part of our society that's never going to allow those historically underserved populations to move into those decision making roles and so we have to create them for ourselves. And I think maybe to quit thinking about our kids, who am I going to work for? It's what business am I going to create? And who am I going to hire?

Tony Gallo:
What did Toni Morrison say? What's her quote? If you can't find the book you want to read, write it yourself.

Lisa Hutson:
Write it.

Tony Gallo:
Because that's what it's going to take.

Renee Ligon:
That's exactly right. And one thing about Ohio, we are entrepreneurial rich. We have many businesses that are started in our state and in our region. And many, many businesses that are of color, women, disabled, veteran, LGBTQ. And for many reasons that you have noted, Lisa, by which I get chills, just thinking about the fact. Every time I read that stat or hear it about the number and representation, it is to me, it should be unheard of in our country today, that that is the reality. It should be. But the reality is it isn't. We are living in a time where we are trying to make adjustments for the ills of our country, for the ills of our past, because we haven't quite found a way to make an equitable footing or to make a process or a culture or an environment that drives equity by natural way of the way the gears are shifting.

Renee Ligon:
It's almost like we've got to legislate equity. We've had to create rules just because we cannot do it on our own. But I don't think that it's that we can't. We have to be intentional, which means we have to be able to look internally and realize, look, there are blind spots. There are things that I am not paying attention to by which I'm trying, I am really not addressing the equity equation. When I look at what is diverse, equitable and what's coming down in terms of the supply demand, education has to occur in terms of look, maybe I should not opt for the what is it going to cost for me to start up that lifestyle business? Versus what is it going to cost for me to buy one machine that's going to produce X number of widgets and the federal government wants to contract with me, for that widget? That is a difference of education and mindset.

Renee Ligon:
And that then turns into tying into the supply demand of where our economy is driving for the future. The lifestyle businesses will be there, they'll be needed, but we have an imbalance in entrepreneurship. And part of that is that we have a duty to educate that you are going to save more money, more time and make more money by buying a piece of used manufacturing equipment that will turn a 50,000 widgets and someone's going to pay you 98,000 or a 120,000 with a contract. There's an education that has to take place and someone can train you on that machine. And so you put the machine in your garage and you turn widgets all day. The overhead is what? Your house.

Lisa Hutson:
But don't you think sometimes it's because young people don't see anyone. They see the person doing hair, they see the person running a daycare center. They see that's where, when you look at some of the social media pages that highlight people that look different from the traditional middle aged white guy, doing something, it's very inspiring because all of a sudden, a young girl, a young person of color can say, "Oh, people like me do that kind of work." And I think historically, we have not had those connections.

Tony Gallo:
That goes back to what Renee was talking about earlier was our talent pipeline. And how do we keep these young kids here in Northeast Ohio and in our area? They may graduate from high school and college, but then if they don't see the opportunities here locally, they're going to go to Chicago, Atlanta, New York, wherever else, wherever they think is the hot spot right now, where they can make it because they don't see people who look like them in charge or they don't see people who look like them who own their own business. It's so much of, we got to make sure we tell the story. We got to make sure that we show that there is the ability to do that here so that talent pipeline does stay here because like Renee said, we don't want to be dead last in what is here. Because there is so much possible here in Northeast Ohio, we want to make sure that that stays possible for the next couple of decades here.

Lisa Hutson:
And I think for our younger people, diversity and inclusion and equity is a really important issue. When I was growing up, a child of the eighties, we didn't hear those words. We did what we did. And I remember when I was young, my goal was to be the first woman on the Supreme Court. And I can tell you that I'm really excited that someone beat me to it because it shows that progress happened. But I think, for employers wanting to attract those younger generations, they look at diversity and inclusion. I read somewhere that where a person like a baby boomer would walk into a room and be surprised by diversity. A younger person walks into a room and is surprised by the lack of diversity. And so I think as talent becomes a bigger battle for these employers, that diversity piece becomes more important to attract the best young talent.

Renee Ligon:
Well, there's no doubt about that. And there's a number of projects and opportunities that are currently taking place in our region that are addressing that. That are trying to get in front of that because if we don't want to be dead last, that means we have to be able to cultivate the talent that we have here existing. And then also recruit talent from other places into our region that is diverse. But if we're going to do that, they have to be able to see the cultivating or the existence of an environment that supports that, what they're looking for. They can go to other happening cities, where the lifestyle is very supportive of what's happening. It's diverse, it's culturally inclusive and it has that feel and movement. Our region has to do the same if we're going to recruit and retain and develop homegrown what exists here.

Renee Ligon:
If you think about, there's a current project with Baiju Shaw and the Cleveland Innovation Project, focusing on the recruitment of diverse talent, particularly in the tech space. Why is tech important? Because that is one of the core drivers of our economy here. And it happens, just so happens, to be an area where we have a very huge supply demand gap. But yet we have students right here who are playing with that same technology and have the intellectual capacity to break open that technology and be creative entrepreneurs to create something great that becomes the next big thing. We have to cultivate that talent now. We have to create platforms where they're introduced to those opportunities, where it's made known that these opportunities are real to them and that it is a possible career path. It doesn't have to be you painting the nail, you could be creating the nail.

Tony Richardson:
I'm going to go back to your, and that's a great point you made earlier, Renee, about the mindset. And not just the mindset of the individual, but the mindsets of the people in the environment in which the individual, whether goes to work or goes to school, lives, their community, how are we shifting mindsets around who? Who is capable? Who has the talent? Who should get access? And then, so going back to this notion of, I can't find the talent, it doesn't exist. Even when we talk about the indicators that constitute talent or success or who deserves to be in that, there's a whole dominant culture around, like I say, language about ideas. What we think about people who's capable or incapable. There's a cultural aspect to all this.

Tony Richardson:
And I think it's so important that we have to drive and really think about how do we unknit that weave? Because it's obvious in a lot of situations that depending on where you live, where you're situated, where you are, how the powers that be or people in leadership roles see you in your community, that's what they think of you. And that's why we see these huge gaps in representation across the private sector, the public sector. You name it. It's because of it's the perceptions of what people think people are and who they are and what they're capable of doing. As we made a great point, Lisa, earlier about how do we create our own table? It's going to take that. And that's a piece of the pie, because you need that. You need to still educate people. You need cultural awareness, you need workforce development. You need entrepreneurs. There's an ecosystem here. But I think until we are honest about the perceptions of who underrepresented people and groups are change, we're going to continue to be having the same conversations, decades and centuries from now.

Renee Ligon:
And I think we also need to come together, as we realize, as agencies form to address the issue that we don't do it in silos. That we do it together. And we're supportive of the work together because the more we fragment trying to solve the problem, the less we can collaborate and collectively come to the solution and really drive impactful outcomes that address diversity, equity and inclusion. It's like the hamster on the wheel. We just keep doing the same thing over and over again and nothing ever changes. At some point we have to get off the wheel and start talking.

Tony Richardson:
And there's been this big attack on, I'm just going to name it. It's the white male dominant culture. But if we don't bring white men to the table to have these conversations, then again, we're just as guilty. It's like, how do you have an inclusive environment, inclusive table that we can have these conversations and not do it in silos. I know there's groups that are meeting and having conversations and in order to be invited to those meetings, you have to really own and name your biases, but then also be open to working with all people. Because we're just in a room talking about white men, how do you expect white men or the white male dominant culture to ever change if they're not in the room to hear those discrepancies. I think that's important as well.

Lisa Hutson:
I think to show and help people understand that empowering somebody else does not take away your power. And I think that's the fear. Historically in the United States, it has been white men who have the power and so are they threatened when all of a sudden somebody is trying to take some of that power? It's shifting their mindset and helping them understand that no, that just helps make the power expand when you empower somebody else.

Tony Gallo:
I'm going to take it one step further, Lisa, because as a white man here who's talking, the only one that I see here on the video screen here is that I think it's important for the white man, like Tony said, to be at the table, but they also need to lead inclusively. Meaning just because they're doing things, doesn't mean that the rest of their workforce or the people below them are doing the same thing. We need to make sure that when they do include people of color or historically differentiated people into the workforce, that those people are treated the same way as anybody else, not just the white workers or not just those who are not of color, because there are stories that you have heard about, yes, these people have been hired or they're there or geez. I think it's important that the guy at the top, even if he is white and in charge, make sure that every aspect of his workforce has that same mindset or is aware of what that mindset is supposed to be in order to make a welcoming environment for everyone.

Tony Richardson:
When we have these discussions, I always like to anchor it or situated it in the context of a civil society. Because you're going to have hate, you're going to have ignorance, you're going to have bigotry, racism, sexism. That's of the world. When we're talking about, when we come into this civil society, when we're professionals or when people leave their homes and we're talking about laws and we're talking about just law and order, in that context, what are we doing to move the needle? Like I said, we're never going to end hate. We're never going to end jealousy. We're never going to envy. Those things are going to exist in the world. But when we come into our space, as professionals, as we come into the world, as individuals, whether I'm going to a grocery store or I'm going to my kid's afterschool activity, how am I showing up in that civil society? And that's what I think is important to name.

Renee Ligon:
I just want to piggyback off of Tony's point that when you're talking about the white male, who is in a position of power and authority in the organization, where the responsibility lies, they are the tone setters. They have to be in a place culturally themselves, where they're willing to say, "I will make myself vulnerable to the challenges or opportunities I have with addressing diversity, equity and inclusion." Don't ignore the obvious because those who are looking already see it. And so when you acknowledge what's obvious and then expose what you're trying to hide, it says to the external audience that is working for you in the organization, while that took courage, I too will be courageous. That's where you begin to open up for conversations that set the tone to guide culture at the next level that is inclusive and equitable.

Tony Gallo:
I was just going to say, change the conversation. They have that ability. I think that's probably a great way for us to even kind of wrap things up. Renee, Tony, I don't know if you guys want to maybe say a few words to just kind of hit it home one more time.

Tony Richardson:
I just want to thank you both for creating this platform for us to have this dynamic conversation and also Renee, she always brings it so I thank you for being on point as always. Thank you.

Renee Ligon:
Absolutely. I find it an honor. We have so much work to do. I love our region. I love our communities. I love diversity. I love equity. I love inclusion. And I love challenging that for the righteous road, because I believe we can be hopeful and achieve that. I bow to those on this call who have contributed to this courageous conversation. And hopefully it is not the last. Thank you, Lisa and Tony for your leadership. We need more of those who are willing to raise their hand and say, "I will take up the charge too and start these conversations that will hopefully lead to actionable impact." Tony, it was great to co-work with you on this one and hopefully this won't be the last one that we'll do together. Thank you all.

Lisa Hutson:
Awesome. And I think starting that conversation, sometimes people are afraid they're going to say the wrong words or put their foot in their mouth or hurt someone's feelings. And I think you've got to overcome that fear. And because I think when people recognize that you're starting the conversation out of a place of concern and interest and passion, they're going to forgive you if you say a wrong word but the dialogue has to start. If you're a business owner, if you're a person who is works with economic development, whatever your role, really this issue is not going to go away and let's start the conversation and continue it from here.

Tony Gallo:
Thanks guys.

Renee Ligon:
Thank you.

Tony Richardson:
Thank you.

Tony Gallo:
Coming up in the next few weeks, we'll be looking at topics such as human resources in our changing workforce, how to understand the numbers and what they mean for you and we'll have a conversation with a group of entrepreneurs.

Lisa Hutson:
Forget to subscribe so that you never miss an episode and let us know how we're doing by leaving us a rating and review. Business Fluent is a production of Evergreen Podcast in association with the SBDC at Lorain County Community College and the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce.

Tony Gallo:
Special thanks to our team at Evergreen for making this possible.

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