“We truly believe that every individual regardless of race, regardless of color, regardless of their sexual orientation, deserves equal right to be successful in the business community based on their performance and their potential,” said Hampton Roads Chamber President & CEO, Bryan K. Stephens as he welcomed the audience to the Chamber’s 2nd Annual Diversity in Business Forum on February 21, 2019. “We have written diversity and inclusion into our culture as a Chamber and we’re very proud of that.”
Speaking to a ballroom full of men and women eager to listen, learn, and find solutions, Congressman Bobby Scott addressed the audience, “We have the responsibility to ensure that no one gets left behind.” He added, “Congress can pass laws, but nothing is really going to happen until the business community steps up.”
The forum was moderated by Kurt Williams of WTKR News 3, a leading news anchor in the Hampton Roads community for nearly 30 years. He led a vibrant panel with prominent business leaders who each brought their unique perspectives and opinions to the conversation. Williams opened up the discussion by asking each panelist what diversity meant to them.
Jim Bibbs of The Port of Virginia and the Hampton Roads Chamber Vice Chair for Diversity said, “Diversity is inclusion of all people, all ideas, and all thoughts. People have a tendency to just see it as a black and white issue, but it’s race, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, and disabilities - that is diversity.”
Dr. Deborah Fontaine of Norfolk State University said, “Diversity is not just about race, but it’s about women, young people, people from different geographic areas, the multiplicity of ideas, and how to problem solve together. Norfolk State University has worked to represent the community it serves. Eliminate your own personal bias and just go for it.”
Dr. Johnny Garcia of SimIS, Inc. and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said, “61% of our population is a diverse population but representation in Washington, D.C. is 82% white. Dr. Garcia stated that by 2040, the majority of the U.S. population would be Hispanic.”
Recent developments involving Virginia’s top leaders have sparked national outrage, instilling uncertainty in the minds of many. The uproar has seen leaders of all industries pledging to create a more diverse, inclusive work environment. Williams asked the panelists how the Commonwealth and business community can grow from this turmoil.
Bibbs answered, “We can’t run away from what’s happening. This is something that happens in the communities that we live and serve in.” He continued, “What happens in the business community is masked. Until organizations, until communities, until politicians are willing to address this issue head-on, it’s going to continue being an issue. We can’t be afraid to have open, honest dialogue.”
Dr. Fontaine agreed, “We have to be honest about our history and we can’t shy away from it.” She is hopeful that something good will come from this situation and that it will serve as a catalyst to open up conversations with future generations. “It’s not just about race, it’s not just about gender, it’s about youth.”
Bringing in a different perspective, Dr. Garcia said, “I believe our problem is strictly in education.” He stressed that the issue not only lies in educating our young men and women, but in educating the parents as well.
Susan Ayala-West of Hampton Roads Pride joined the panel and shared her thoughts. “We need to acknowledge the fact that those times have existed and those tolerances are old. We need to move forward from them.”
The discussion continued with Williams asking the panelists how diversity can be “baked” into a job description.
The panelists agreed it all begins at the top and trickles down. “If your CEO isn’t driving it, it’s not going to happen in any organization no matter what kind of job description you write,” said Bibbs. People want to work for places where there are people who look like them. “When people are looking for jobs, they look at places where they think they can fit in and where they can thrive.”
Dr. Fontaine called on leaders to step up, “Once you bring people in, you have to create opportunities for them. Ultimately, the leader has to be committed to attacking these issues.”
On hand to introduce the day’s keynote speaker and represent the event’s Series Presenting Sponsor was Cox Communications’s Senior Vice President, J.D. Myers, II. “Diversity without inclusion only solves half the problem.” As one of Forbes Best Employers for Diversity, Cox Communications has played an important voice in the business case for diversity. Its mission, goals, and culture reflect an environment where people of diverse backgrounds are welcomed and valued. “Diversity is what you have; inclusion is what you do. Inclusion matters,” Myers, II emphasized to the audience.
After a rousing introduction, Carla Williams of University of Virginia took to the stage to deliver her keynote address. As the first female African-American athletics director at a Power Five conference institution, Williams knows the obstacles and challenges that face minorities in the workplace. “There is pressure in being the only one,” Williams said.
“If we agree that diversity matters, then what are we willing to do for the sake of diversity?” Leaders must take the helm and start leading with diversity and inclusion. To the business executives in the audience, Williams tells them to not just talk about it - teach someone with a diverse background to do your job. While Williams was pursuing her college athletics careers, she did not have anyone who looked similar to her to admire. But she had mentors - those who looked different from her. Those are the people who took her in and showed her the ropes. “Leaders in hiring decisions must be a part of the solution if diversity matters.”
The Hampton Roads Chamber is proud to host this event that supports its commitment to champion diversity and build inclusion across the business community. The Chamber recognizes that the case for diversity goes beyond our legislators; the success of our community relies on our ability to recruit, retain, and nurture top talent of various backgrounds and experiences. We will continue the conversation on diversity and inclusion in business until our systematic bias have been eliminated.
Thank you to our sponsors: Series Presenting Sponsor, Cox Communications; Series Gold Sponsor, The Port of Virginia; Series Silver Sponsors, ADP and Clark Nexsen; Series Bronze Sponsor, WTKR News 3; AV Sponsor, Productive AV; and Table Sponsors, Chesapeake Regional Healthcare, Norfolk State University, and University of Virginia Athletics Department.