NWA Conference Told Inclusion Makes Companies Stronger

Kuma Roberts said sometimes she feels like the only black woman in Tulsa because she is asked to serve on so many boards and commissions.

Roberts is the executive director of Mosaic, the diversity council of the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce. Roberts was a featured speaker at the Arkansas Economic Developers & Chamber Executive annual conference Aug. 27 at the Chancellor Hotel in downtown Fayetteville.

Roberts spoke to a room full of mostly white people about the importance of businesses and communities opening up to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“The challenge is mainstreaming the work,” Roberts said. “It can be really hard when the change we are seeking isn’t available. In Tulsa, the African-American population is just 10 percent. There are times where I feel I am the only one who is black and female.”

Diversity and inclusion are subjects of growing importance to leaders in northwest Arkansas. The Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit coalition of business, community and educational leaders, recently released its five-year strategy plan for EngageNWA, its project to promote diversity and inclusion in the region’s growing economy.

“We want to be able to attract and retain people and their companies no matter where they’re coming from, no matter what they look like or what they believe in,” said Margot Lemaster, the executive director of EngageNWA.

“We want everyone to feel welcomed and included when they move to northwest Arkansas, or if they already are here and are trying to start a business. We want them to feel right at home and they have the support they need to be successful.”

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In her presentation, Roberts defused any unspoken concern some might have about inclusion projects by saying that white men are still needed in the business world, which drew a hearty laugh from the audience.

“Let’s be honest, while boardrooms, city governments and other institutions are filled with mostly white men, [which] is completely understandable here in the Midwest, rarely is it beneficial,” Roberts said. “I’m not saying white men are no longer needed for businesses to succeed. I’m saying that inclusion of others does not mean less inclusion for white, particularly male, allies. Diversity, equity and inclusion is not pie. There is enough to go around. Diversity is our advantage.”

Community Diversification
Roberts said conclusive evidence from studies and reports shows that businesses that are diverse and inclusive make more money.

What’s also conclusive is that, especially in northwest Arkansas, diversity isn’t a temporary fad. A region that was almost all white in 1990 has undergone a sea change in the past 28 years. In 2017 the region was 73.3 percent white; meanwhile, the Hispanic population had grown from 3,117 in 1990 to more than 86,000 in 2017, 16.5 percent of the region.

“It’s the makeup of the country,” said Mike Preston, the executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. “Minority- and women-owned [businesses] make up such a big part of our country, it should be reflected in our business organizations as well. We certainly look for those opportunities. A lot of them are very successful. We strive to make sure we have that diversity in Arkansas as well.”

A year ago, the AEDC expanded its minority business program to include those owned by women, and 31 have been accredited since September 2017. Pat Brown, the director of the division, said recent legislative changes require a certain percentage of state expenditures for construction, goods and services to be paid to certain groups: 8 percent to minority-owned businesses, 5 percent to women-owned and 2 percent to those owned by service-disabled veterans.

Brown said the AEDC also works with budding businesses to help them get accredited and support them with networking contacts, as well as offering a loan guarantee program to help qualified businesses get off the ground. The AEDC is holding a matchmaking event for more than 300 minority- and women-owned businesses Sept. 13 in Little Rock.

RELATED: Women Get Foot in AEDC's Minority-Business Door

Preston said the state is constantly trying to attract new businesses to Arkansas, but organic growth and economic development are a high priority as well. The state wants to help entrepreneurs become the next Sam Walton, Preston said.

“That all falls within the wheelhouse of what we are trying to do,” Preston said. “If there is a project involving a minority-owned business, we want to bring more to the state. There is a lot of room for growth.

“There is more opportunity to bring in more minority- and women-owned businesses in Arkansas. What I really want to see is more homegrown within the state. Obviously we will continue to recruit from out of state, but we’ve got a lot of smart people here in Arkansas. They are looking for that opportunity. They have an idea, and they want to translate it and turn it into a business. Those are the ones we’re looking for.”

Roberts didn’t shy away from the awkwardness of the topic but said it was important that leaders became “comfortable being uncomfortable.”

An experiment by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology compared a homogeneous team against a diverse team, and while the diverse team won the competition, the members were miserable during the process.

“Accepting that achieving diversity isn’t easy is important,” Roberts said. “Somehow there is this perception that doing this work is real simple, just a flip of a switch and everything is going to be kumbaya. You have to embrace the hardness because the outcome is going to be so much better.”

Lemaster said the chambers of commerce in northwest Arkansas are committed to the diversity and inclusion initiatives. She said EngageNWA wants to promote the positive steps taken by companies or new businesses so that publicity will help generate more momentum.

“Providing a more structured regular meeting that is focused specifically on these goals will help really gain traction,” Lemaster said. “Many of them are doing great work already. If we come together and share what has worked well for me and what might work well for you, it will help raise awareness about best practices and opportunities.”

Lemaster said diversity efforts have to be intentional, something Roberts also stressed. People have to actively search out different mindsets or people who don’t think or look like they do.

Roberts said the notion of being “color blind” may be well meaning but she wants people to see her color. It is part of the acknowledgement of her individual needs.

“At the end of the day treat everyone like your family and embrace and respect individual strengths and create a collaborative safe place for all,” she said. “This will lead to a culture of belonging. Most importantly, it will make your community win.”

Studies have shown that gender-diverse companies have 15 percent better results and ethnically diverse companies have 35 percent better results. Roberts said a culture of acceptance of differences also helps with employee morale and retention.

“Diversity is like bacon,” Roberts said. “It makes everything better. We have a mandate. We must mandate diversity and cultivate inclusion. It’s no longer just the right thing to do. It’s no longer just the smart thing to do. It’s the profitable thing to do.”

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