“If you want something you’ve never had before, you have to do something you’ve never done before. And my being here is evidence to that,” said Dr. Janice Underwood, Director of Diversity, Equity and, Inclusion for the Commonwealth of Virginia, during the Diversity and Inclusion in Business Forum. Dr. Underwood is the first-ever Director of Diversity in the Commonwealth and served as the keynote speaker for the Diversity Forum on October 22, 2019, at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott.
“We are continuing the dialogue on diversity this year to help set the conditions for all in the business community to succeed based on their performance and potential regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation,” said Bryan K. Stephens, President, and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber. Stephens delivered opening remarks focused on the continued discussion on the issues, challenges, and concerns of minorities throughout the Hampton Roads region.
“In the 18 months since we started this series, we have seen positive growth in the Commonwealth,” said Stephens. “We must ensure inclusive hiring practices and equal advancement opportunities to create workforce diversity throughout the region. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than just a business program, it is imperative, and that’s what I hope this discussion will be about today.”
Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell discussed Virginians for Reconciliation, a volunteer citizen group formed in 2018 to confront issues of racism and strengthen bridges of trust and understanding.
“The reason this year is important is because of what happened here 400 years ago,” began McDonnell. “The first African slave ship was brought to this country. Here we are 400 years later, and while massive progress has been made, we are not recognizing the founders' dream today in 2019.” The goal of Virginians for Reconciliation is to bring cultures together and create positive change in communities and throughout the nation.
“Business, faith, education, government, and leaders in arts and culture are the ones that make a difference in both heart and policy,” said McDonnell. He asked the audience what comes next and discussed the “implosion from within,” which causes division among nations. He encouraged attendees to look outside themselves, confront internal prejudices, and do better. “These are matters of the heart,” said McDonnell. “When the heart changes, the culture changes.”
Jim Bibbs, Chief Human Resource Officer, The Port of Virginia, moderated the panel on diversity and inclusion. Panelists were Dr. Faith Fitzgerald, Executive Director of Housing and Resident Life, Norfolk State University; Susan Jacobs, Vice President Human Resources and Administration, Newport News Shipbuilding; and J.D. Myers, Senior Vice President & Region Manager, Cox Communications.
The panel discussion began with a conversation about cities and regions in the U.S. with a diverse business atmosphere. “Washington, D.C., and Atlanta are two phenomenal cities that foster diversity and inclusion,” said Myers. He discussed the markets of D.C. and Atlanta and said women-owned businesses dominate their markets and focus on diversity.
Jacobs mentioned a study conducted by the Urban Institute, which ranked Virginia Beach and Hampton as two of the top 50 cities in the U.S. for regional and economic diversity. “In our own Hampton Roads area, we have a lot to be proud of,” said Jacobs. “This is an excellent place,” said Fitzgerald. “Hopefully, as we continue to work and grow together, we will continue to rise.” Bibbs also mentioned Charlotte, North Carolina, as a city on the rise, embracing diversity and inclusion efforts.
“You have to have a cultural change of accountability,” said Myers about igniting change in the workforce. Johnny Garcia, Founder and CEO of SimIS, and Hampton Roads Chamber 2019 Small Business of the Year award winner said, “What we’re doing in our business is attracting women leaders.” Garcia addressed how his company embraced diverse hiring practices and said, “Typically people hire people that look like them. As I changed the people I hired and brought in, it made my business more successful because we're operating as a cohesive group.” The panelists agreed with Garcia, and Bibbs said it’s critical to hire people who don’t think and act as you do.
Bibbs asked panelists to give an example of how they “bake” diversity into a job description. Fitzgerald discussed Norfolk State University campus and how they mirror the campus culture to reflect the current society so that students will be prepared for life after university. “It’s important that our campus reflects society and meets the needs of our students, said Fitzgerald. She went on to say, “Having demonstrated experience and working with diverse groups of people is very important, and so is putting it into a job description, but can the person demonstrate how they’ve done it.”
Myers disagreed with “baking” diversity into a job description and said, “Talent doesn’t discriminate and talent trumps everything.” Bibbs agreed with Myers and noted that it is essential to acknowledge all applicable talent when hiring, so you don’t weed out exceptional candidates.
“One of the keys for diversity and inclusion is to cater to your community,” said Myers about how businesses address the needs of minority communities. He mentioned Magic Johnson’s success as an entrepreneur, and Fitzgerald responded with the importance of meeting people where they are. “Getting to know your students or customers, figuring out what they need, and gaining their trust and loyalty is so important,” Fitzgerald said.
Dr. Janice Underwood focused her keynote address on how the business community can drive change through diversity and inclusion. Her vision is to tackle new issues focused on promoting D&I efforts for businesses in the region as well as increasing the diversity of the Virginia workforce. “Change happens now. I realize that this makes some uncomfortable, and guess what? I’m okay with that,” Underwood said.
Dr. Underwood left audience members with thought-provoking questions. She asked audience members, “First, how do you know that you’re making a difference within your spheres of influence? Second, how is success being measured? It’s all about the data.” Underwood asked, “How can we transform colonized manifestations of D&I work in our organizations and corporations that are only intended to make the status quo feel comfortable?” Underwood said neutral policies deepen divides between parties and people and encouraged audience members to think about how they engage with each other.
“We must transform the recruit and support our employees and executive leadership, and we must rethink how we interact with each other,” said Underwood. She expressed concern about how difficult it is to discuss diversity in the workplace and stressed the importance of businesses investing in diversity and inclusion efforts.
“I am a proud member of our Hampton Roads region because I believe that our region leads the Commonwealth in diversity and inclusion issues.” Underwood went on the say that businesses perform better when they invest in D&I, which results in increased profitability. “Further reports by Forbes and the Harvard Business Journal have all concluded that a diversified workforce drives greater innovation and business growth.”
In closing, Underwood stressed the importance of diversity and inclusion. “It is my great intention to work collaboratively with each of you and others to lay the important infrastructure so that this work can continue unlike ever before,” ended Underwood.
“This Hampton Roads Chamber is an inspiring ignitor. We are hopeful that today’s discussion will be a catalyst for change and will help find solutions to the issues, challenges, and concerns of minorities in business,” concluded Bryan. K. Stephens.
The Hampton Roads Chamber would like to thank the following sponsors: Cox (Series Presenting Sponsor), The Port of Virginia (Series Gold Sponsor), ADP, and Clark Nexsen (Series Silver Sponsors); and News 3 WTKR (Series Bronze Sponsor).