Civil discourse: Four community leaders reflect on building an inclusive workplace

A civil discourse: Four community leaders reflect on building an inclusive workplace

By Introduction by Teresa Kenney

This past spring, Minnesota Business magazine received a phone call from an individual who complained that the magazine “only featured protected groups” on its covers. At that time, we were also reading through an article on diversity in the workplace submitted by Borrowed Interest podcast host Shareina Chandler. Both the article and the phone call cued a series of discussions among our editorial team. We not only felt that we should be part of the conversation on inclusivity in business, we felt that we needed to be part of it. So we invited others in the community to share their perspectives on diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. Their views are presented here, edited only for flow. You may agree with some and disagree with others. But we hope their stories will encourage you to start talking.  

Kate Mortenson: The Cultivation of Talent
In April of 2019, Minnesota will play host to the NCAA Final Four, one of the biggest events in all of sports. In addition to the pure joy of college hoops, this signature NCAA event will bring many other benefits to our region and state. On Final Four Friday, everyone can enjoy free access to U.S. Bank Stadium to watch an All-Star Game and shoot-arounds with all four Final Four teams. The four-day Final Four Fan Fest, live music and “The Dribble” (a kids’ basketball parade) round out a weekend of excitement that includes something for everyone. A pre-event study predicts that 94,000 visitors will come to Minnesota for the Final Four, generating $142 million in economic impact for the state. Yes, it’s a BIG DEAL.

Although we receive a lot of guidance to assist us in developing a great event, building the local operation was on us to sort out. In this area, the only instruction was straightforward: Hire the best people. In addition to needing top talent for our local organizing-committee staff, we also had to open an office, establish business operations, and begin identifying qualified vendors and service providers to ensure our number one priority: deliver all of the Final Four events and programs with excellence. 

Our region does not have an ongoing organization that executes large events of the kind we’ve seen in recent years, so to bring an A-team together, we needed to tap into some high-powered talent networks. With this in mind, the Impact Advisory Council (IAC) was formed.

The group began meeting in August of 2016, six months before we opened our office or hired our first employee. In fact, our first meeting was in a coffee shop. We meet quarterly, and our huddles are always on a Saturday morning — the only timeslot open on the calendars of this high-performing group. In their day jobs, IAC members are local leaders from business, philanthropy, government and non-profit sectors. On these Saturdays, they are a shaping force behind a successful event that engages the whole community, region and state. 

What they bring to the local organizing committee is high-caliber thinking and incredible talent networks to help us recruit the highly qualified people we need across our organization — staff, vendors, and volunteers alike — to help us be successful.

Kate Mortenson Networking is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups or institutions; specifically, the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.” Hal Lancaster of The Wall Street Journal has said, “networking remains the No. 1 cause of job attainment.” The IAC provides our organization with access to professional networks that help match top talent to the myriad opportunities we have.

Volunteering is not unique for Minnesotans, but this volunteer IAC group is unique in that it is a diverse group of top professionals, so the resulting talent and candidate pools accessed from diverse networks are much richer in diversity than my own network alone could ever produce. This approach, of tapping into talent networks different from my own, has helped us to hire a team that is also quite diverse. Our core team is more than 50% people of color and more than 60% female.

To establish our office presence and business operations, we had needs for quite a few professional services and vendors, including bookkeeping and accounting services, internet technology, and human resources support. While still many months out from the Final Four, we also needed event-related help to unveil our logo, announce our statewide reading program and roll out the “Fan Jam,” a mobile Final Four experience to engage basketball-loving communities around the state. In these areas, where options exist, more than 60% of our vendor and professional service contracts are with diverse-owned businesses. I’m grateful for the efforts, expertise and pure heart of the IAC. The group’s networking support and advice are helping to shape an inclusive event for everyone to enjoy and participate in.

If I could leave you with one thought, it’s that talent is everywhere. It’s in our LGBT, veteran, differently abled, woman-owned and people of color communities with the same distribution as in majority populations.

When we are intentional in seeking talent outside of our traditional networks, we will find it. We’ll get a better result in our work and in our lives, too, as these new relationships are formed.

In April 2019, along with the pure joy of college athletics, we’ll get to demonstrate the excellence that diverse teams produce, practice inclusion and celebrate the changing face of “The North.”  Everyone is welcome, and there’s room for everybody to get in the game.

Shareina Chandler: A Frank Discussion
Two ad women, one black, one white, walk into a bar...

At 7:30 a.m., because they serve a really good breakfast. My colleague/friend Lauren Buckley and I are here to talk about the article you’re reading right now. The advertising world is a pale and male; only 8% of advertisers are people of color and women account for only 30% of all leadership positions.

Them’s the facts, but I’m not interested in expounding on grim statistics or standing on a figurative soapbox outlining the business sense behind hiring more people of color. Instead, I’m talking to Lauren, in hopes that we come up with a new way of discussing this tired problem. I have to say, considering our personalities and the state of the industry being what it is, I knew we were in for a lively discussion, but even I couldn’t have anticipated where our conversation would go.

It started the way most of our conversations start, with a disagreement about how we define “whiteness.” I argued that in order for there to be real change in the advertising industry with regards to racial diversity, we need to have more honest conversations about whiteness. Real conversations about whiteness. What does it mean to be white in America in 2018? Society is really good at talking about blackness, racial disparities, feminism and womanhood. There is a wealth of books, essays and documentaries detailing the complexities of these identities.

A significant disparity exists when it comes to material around whiteness and maleness. To that point, Lauren told a story about the book, Waking up White: And Finding Myself in a Story of Race, by Debby Irving. A friend of hers was reading it on public transit, and a black gentleman asked, “They made a book for that?” His tone was equal parts genuine curiosity and disbelief. And the answer is, yes, yes they did. Which lead to a heady conversation about what being white means. It has to go beyond the binaries of privilege and supremacy. It’s imperative that the narratives we tell ourselves about whiteness get re-examined and rewritten with a more open mind.

Lauren agreed but questioned the plausibility and context of these conversations. In her opinion, when discussing whiteness, the most immediate roads lead to the shame of white supremacy or the burden of privilege. This creates a barrier to having real discussions about whiteness. When you start with these polarities, it’s a difficult conversation to have, because most white people will invariably become defensive. Especially those who accept things at the surface level and have no interest in really digging into these topics, let alone issues that require any amount of nuance.

Discussing the construct of whiteness and, more specifically, dissecting it as a singular concept, is impossible without mentioning nationalism, systemic oppression and what is going on in the world today. While these things are irrefutable parts of the white cultural narrative and are problematic on many levels especially in the United States, they aren’t the only defining factors when we talk about whiteness. Working in advertising is hard enough as it is without distilling whiteness and blackness, for that matter, into palatable stand-alone entities.

And she was right, dear reader, because we tried really hard to do exactly that and failed spectacularly. Our simple attempt at defining whiteness led us to a discussion about whether or not natives of Spain are white. We then got into the weeds about the difference between race and ethnicity, which ultimately led to a conversation about cultural constructs and a person’s physical attributes or how someone “presents.” That lead to a deeper dive into specific examples, such as the difference between a white Latino and Latinos born in a specific part of South America.

The grand conclusion to this conversation? Well, there wasn’t one. I believe whiteness is something we should talk about more. However, what we thought was going to be a provocative conversation, to be sure, just led us both to more questions and questioning things we thought we accepted as norms. When you work in advertising, which is a cultural industry, having more representative voices and conversations is important in order to make work that’s culturally relevant in all contexts.

It stinks that advertising is white and male-dominated, but I also believe this will change. Change is actually inevitable if more people who don’t share the same background, narrative, ethnicity, socioeconomic class or orientation can come together, at a bar that serves breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and talk about this stuff. We will get somewhere.

Until then, my advice: don’t get breakfast anywhere at 7:30 a.m. It’s way too early.

Kurt Schmidt: Lessons Around the Dinner Table
When I was growing up, the kitchen table was off limits every Saturday night. Once the sun went down, the placemats and butter dish were replaced by scribbled notes, worn books and an ancient typewriter. From my room, I could hear the rustling of papers and the pecking at the keys, as my father struggled to read his own handwriting. 

My father wasn’t a novelist. He was a minister. He spent those Saturday evenings compiling his notes and finalizing his Sunday-morning sermons for the New Hope Church of Christ. 

My father built his congregation from the ground up by actively seeking out parishioners — going where they were. He would talk with anyone who would give him the time of day. He joined clubs and attended picnics, other churches, and breakfasts at Perkins. Growth in the church wasn’t about how many people showed up. It also wasn’t about how much those individuals donated. To my father, growth was about the richness a diverse congregation provided. When I was 12 years old, my father invited the church’s first gay couple to join. The next day, a full third of the congregation left the church. Dad didn’t blink an eye. He told me it was for the best as he didn’t want a church built on hypocrisy. 

What I learned from my father was that if you wanted to truly grow as a human, you couldn’t do so by staying in the same place and surrounding yourself with the same people. 

What I have experienced in my professional career are some companies and organizations that are more comfortable staying in the same place. Why? Because diversity takes effort, and companies are afraid that making this effort could fail. If they try to build the diverse workforce they hope for and get caught failing, they assume the fallout will be worse than if they hadn’t tried as hard in the first place. They do not seem to grasp the true benefits of a diverse team. If you neglect the opportunity that diversity brings to your business now, then it will be much more difficult moving forward. 

CEOs, entrepreneurs and business owners need to stop being afraid of failing at creating a diverse culture within their organizations. Striving for a diverse team attracts a larger pool of talent to your company and helps you recruit top-notch talent by being a more welcoming place. Increased diversity means more diverse perspectives on your team, which will allow you to be more creative, innovative and more successful as a business. 

Here are some of the ideas my company is  researching, talking about and implementing:

  • Adopt the Rooney Rule and require at least two or three candidates from underrepresented groups in the final candidate pool for every leadership hire — that means managers, executives and board members. 
  • Set measurable diversity goals and metrics and incentivize your teams to meet those goals. In order to change the perspective of your current staff, you need to adjust their incentives to make diversity a priority. Offer bonuses for hitting those goals. If you incentivize your team around a goal, they will make it a priority.
  • Stop sponsoring and attending events and conferences that do not prioritize diversity as part of their catalogs. Attend meet-ups, events and conferences that promote diversity. Do not wait to be asked to attend a “women in tech” event. Go. Show your support and expand your network. The more diverse you craft your network, the better the chance you’ll have to build an organization focused on diversity and inclusion.
  • Lastly, increased diversity creates a more inclusive, welcoming and generally better work environment and company culture. A company that becomes dominated by a particular personality type is not a great place for people to grow and develop satisfying careers, so they enjoy coming to work every day.

You must turn away from where diversity is not and run toward where it is. You, your company and your employees will never grow by standing still.

Greg Cunningham: The Courage To Be Authentic
If I’m successful, I’ll have worked myself out of a job. 

In my role as head of diversity and inclusion at U.S. Bank, my challenge is to make sure that each of our 74,000 employees integrates diversity and inclusion into their roles every day. 

We’re not there yet — but we’ve come a long way over the past two years since I took on this role. In a way, I think my life experiences all led me to it. On April 4, 2018, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. For me, this day brought back extremely vivid and personal memories. On that day in 1968 when Dr. King was killed, unrest followed in cities across America including my hometown of Pittsburgh. My dad was a butcher. He owned his own shop, which was looted and burned in the days following Dr. King’s assassination. My dad passed away the following summer; I had not yet celebrated my sixth birthday.

My mom became a widowed mother of five children. Her hope for me, the youngest, was that education would be my ticket to prosperity. She sent me to a suburban private school where I was not only in the minority, but I was one of the first black kids to attend. On my very first day of elementary school — at the age of 6 — I was called a racial epithet. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that day and the many incidents that followed would have a lingering effect on my self-image and confidence.

Years later when I entered the working world, I faced moments of self-doubt. For years, I tried to replicate how my peers spoke and carried themselves. I’d spend Sunday nights thinking about how to best present a casual 30-second update during a weekly Monday-morning staff meeting. I’d attempt to mirror everyone else’s presentation style and content in hopes of fitting in. Ironically, all I felt was inadequate. Finally, one Monday morning, I recounted a movie I saw with my family over the weekend and mentioned an idea from the film that could relate to our business. It sparked conversation and ideas; it was then I learned that being myself and mustering the courage to bring my authentic self to work was essential.

The experience helped me recognize the same concept in my first few weeks in my current role at U.S. Bank. First things first: We set out to listen. Along with senior leadership, I embarked on a roadshow across the country to hear what employees had to say about diversity and inclusion. They told us that they want to be supported in their career journeys, that they want both balance and integration between work and home, and that they want to invest their time and talent in an inclusive workplace that draws strength in differences.

From there, we mapped out how to integrate diversity and inclusion into all we do. We weren’t starting from scratch, per se. A couple of years prior, we built a set of five core values based on employee input about what the company stood for, and one of them is “We draw strength from diversity.” This core value is truly a way of being for us — it wasn’t just a slogan. Our next step was to really bring that core value to life by establishing a deliberate approach to advancing diversity and inclusion at U.S. Bank. We focused on four areas: at work, in the community, through our suppliers and with our customers.

In the workplace, I’m most proud of how we engage employees through our network of business-resource groups (BRGs). More than 15,000 employees — one-fifth of all employees — belong to one of our 10 national, local and virtual BRGs: African American, Alumni, Asian Heritage, Development Network, Disability, Native American, Nosotros Latinos, Proud to Serve, Spectrum LGBTQ and U.S. Bank Women. We encourage all employees — including allies and supporters — to join.

In the community, we provide funding and volunteer support for projects and organizations that close the gaps between people and possibility through our Community Possible platform. Last year, for example, I had the opportunity to attend the grand opening of the Ferguson (Missouri) Empowerment Center. Built with funding from U.S. Bank on the site of a convenience store that burned down during the Ferguson unrest in 2014, the center will house multiple nonprofit organizations, providing employment assistance and training, financial education, counseling services and entrepreneurship training.

Through our supplier diversity program, we aim to foster small-business growth and economic development by doing business with women, minority and LGBTQ entrepreneurs. Last year, for example, we increased our spending with such suppliers by 21%, to $490 million.
With our customers, we aim to celebrate the diversity among the 18 million people who choose to bank with us. It’s all about delivering products and experiences that are culturally relevant. For example, last year we crowd-sourced LGBT community artwork to launch a Pride-inspired debit card, which more than 150,000 people have in their wallets today.

Earlier this year, an annual survey showed that diversity and inclusion is one of the top drivers of employee engagement at U.S. Bank. That’s critical because it’s the only way we’re able to serve our key stakeholders in a meaningful way. It needs to be and is becoming, part of who we are.

I’m proud to be able to bring my authentic self to work every day in this job — and I’m grateful that there is no daylight between who I am, my core values and beliefs, and what I do professionally. 


This story appears in our September/October issue. For a complimentary subscription, click here