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Northwest Arkansas Businesses Focusing on InclusionLock Icon

5 min read

Northwest Arkansas business executives and academic leaders say there is no longer any question that the area’s population is growing more diverse.

What’s important now is how northwest Arkansas’ corporate and academic institutions turn that diversity into actual, functioning inclusion, they say. The Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit organization that works with business and community leaders on economic and educational interests, held its annual winter meeting Tuesday at the Jones Center in Springdale with the theme of diversity and inclusion.

“We want to make sure we enable [everyone] to reach their unique potential,” said Mary Oleksiuk, the chief human resources officer at Tyson Foods Inc. in Springdale. “Someone told me that inviting everyone to dinner is diversity, but asking them what they like for dinner is inclusion.”

The council hosted a panel discussion, moderated by Kyle Kellams of public radio station KUAF in Fayetteville, in which area executives discussed the importance of turning the growing diversity into true inclusiveness. Regardless of the reasons for the diversity explosion, driven by an influx of Hispanic residents, leaders now face the question of how to take advantage of it, speakers said.

For companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville and Tyson, they said, inclusion isn’t a public relations ploy, but a legitimate economic driver. Ben Hasan, a panelist at the event, is Wal-Mart’s chief officer for culture, diversity and inclusion. A year ago, a member of his team attended a conference and heard a neuroscientist speak on the effects of inclusion on people’s brains. Wal-Mart invited the speaker, Steve Robbins, to its campus, where he met with CEO Doug McMillon and other executives.

“We think of inclusion very simply as creating an environment where people feel welcomed, comfortable and safe,” Hasan said. “We’ve done some work with neuroscientists who have identified this notion that people who feel included actually perform better work. The same neurons that fire off in your brain when you’re not included are the same neurons that fire off when you’re in pain.

“For us, as a business, our business is not a business of diversity inclusion, but we also know if we get inclusion right, it is a lever for us to run a better business. What you wouldn’t want is a group of people who work for you every day walking around in pain. That’s what happens when people come to work every day and don’t feel included.”

‘Sense of Belonging’
Hasan said Walmart has expanded its inclusion efforts, with Robbins teaching sessions with management groups during the last year. Walmart also made a training video so leaders can watch it with their teams and have discussions.

Panelist Yvette Murphy-Erby, the vice provost for diversity and inclusion at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said it’s important that leaders focus on inclusion of all different kinds of groups. It’s not just about including women or blacks or immigrants but also people of different religions, different abilities and different social identities.

“There is even diversity within diversity,” Murphy-Erby said. “Inclusion for us is that sense of belonging. You can have diversity that represents different identities, different perspectives and different groups, but if you don’t have the sense of inclusion, then diversity tends to not last.”

Murphy-Erby said the university wants to be a resource for small businesses and others around the state that need help with inclusion efforts.

Oleksiuk said sometimes it may be easier for larger companies to handle inclusion because of greater resources and personnel, but smaller businesses have the advantage of agility. It may be easier for smaller workforces to adjust, she suggested.

Diversity is a fact and inclusion is not only the right thing to do; it’s the profitable thing to do, many economists agree, which is one reason the council decided to focus on inclusion goals and programs.

Inclusion helps raise the quality of life of the region and it helps companies attract the “best and brightest” to their workforces, said Council President and CEO Nelson Peacock.

The new diversity of northwest Arkansas reflects one of the many ways the area has changed substantially, Peacock said. “Our goal is to ensure that everyone who chooses to live here has the opportunity to reach their full potential.”

Diversity to Grow
One thing is clear, Peacock said: Northwest Arkansas will continue to grow more diverse.

In 1990, the region was almost all white, at nearly 96 percent of the area’s population of 239,000. Since then, the demographics have changed drastically.

In 2017, the area’s white population was 73.3 percent, while the percentage of Hispanics was 16.5 percent, up from 1.3 percent in 1990. By 2022, the council predicts, the white population will have dropped to 69.45 percent.

Between 1990 and 2022, the council projects, nearly 168,000 minority residents will have moved to the region, compared with 174,000 whites.

“It is really remarkable how much the region has changed in a pretty short time,” Peacock said. “By 2022, nearly one-third of the residents of northwest Arkansas will be from a minority group. This trend of increasing diversity is happening across the U.S., and many of the most dynamic economies are experiencing this change at a much higher pace than we are. What’s clear, though, is our region will continue to be enriched culturally by these changes.”

Total population and demographic percentages of northwest Arkansas

  Total Population White Hispanic Asian Black
1990 239,464 229,466 (95.8%) 3,117   (1.3%) 1,476 (0.6%) 1,807 (0.7%)
2017 525,032 384,866 (73.3%) 86,597 (16.5%) 16,920 (3.2%) 12,920 (2.5%)
2022* 581,621 403,930 (69.5%) 104,042 (17.9%) 22,435 (3.9%) 16,690 (2.9%)

Source: Northwest Arkansas Council

Joseph Steinmetz, chancellor of the UA-Fayetteville, said finding a way to assimilate the growing diversity of the region is critical to the area’s future growth. That’s why the council has decided to focus on inclusion efforts, said Steinmetz, the presiding co-chair of the council.

“We want to talk about the work going on toward making northwest Arkansas feel like home to people, who literally come from every other state and countries to live, work, study and play in northwest Arkansas,” Steinmetz said. “People from elsewhere is part of what makes northwest Arkansas great economically.”

Hasan and Oleksiuk said it’s important for businesses to continue to innovate to be competitive, and new voices and different viewpoints are critical to that process. But Hasan said a diverse group that isn’t inclusive and open is worse than a homogenous group that is.

“How do we continue to focus on this notion of inclusion, because it is already a diverse area?” Hasan asked. “It is going to continue to become more and more diverse, and our ability to turn it into the inclusion capital of the United States is going to be our biggest challenge. I think the sky’s the limit if we are able to figure that out.”

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