The conversation around equity is shifting. In the past several months, you can almost feel it in the air. This is not just about George Floyd. There have been too many George Floyds. And too many people who have been unseen talent and victims of disparities for far too long.
In our role as leaders in our own organizations, and as board members of the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, we have been immersed in this work at the chamber for the last three years. Chambers of commerce at their core are about connecting, advocating, and supporting a vibrant business community. And we can tell you, C-suite leader to C-suite leader, tackling diversity, equity and inclusion head-on is critical to keeping our business community strong. There is a personal imperative, a social imperative, and a market imperative. Personal, organizational, and systemic change is being mandated by the marketplace. The companies that understand this and work for solutions will thrive. The ones that don’t may not have much of a future.
The good thing, the terrible but true silver lining, if you will, is that leaders – with formal leadership titles or without – are no longer looking at disparities and saying, “somebody should fix that.” There is an impatience and an expectation for meaningful action. Our employees are no longer looking just to us to make change in our organizations. Formal and informal leaders at all levels are feeling ownership and committing to doing something. They are looking in the mirror and committing to personally being part of the solutions. Which makes our responsibility to participate in the work with them, and do our own work, all the more important.
But what does “doing something” look like? Businesses have been wading into the diversity, equity and inclusion space for the last decade. Some find success, some have failed. Part of taking this journey we have identified is that having a DEI taskforce, program or coordinator cannot solve a problem in a vacuum. Without C-suite leadership and the infrastructure and a company ecosystem that support meaningful change, we set ourselves and our companies up to fail.
What does action look like? The Saint Paul Area Chamber is convening our third annual Equity Summit this week, where we will discuss concrete examples of approaches and the work that companies are doing to actually reduce disparities. We will talk about the critical role of leadership, and hear from leaders taking action in their organizations. We will give examples of actions you can implement at your companies that will make a measurable impact NOW, while the ongoing work of culture change continues.
We know that DEI work starts with personal introspection. This is complicated work. It is life-changing work. Especially for those leaders who have accumulated education and experience and now need to admit that they don’t know what they don’t know. So many servant leaders have already come to the table and said, “I need to start from square one.” This is one of those problems you can’t really solve if you’re not all in. No longer do you get to take your one-hour diversity training and then “go back” to your job. This isn’t a meeting. It IS the job.
With the Summit we have intentionally created a safe space for leaders to learn with peers and help each other with this personal journey. A space where questions can be asked and sources for our own biases can be examined without fear of retribution for getting it wrong.
Making a safe space for leaders where they can learn with and from peers is important. This work requires trust and vulnerability. The scale of this challenge requires leaders to engage differently in their businesses and their circle of influence. And we must acknowledge that feeling uncomfortable is not going to be something to work through, it may be something to get used to. Feeling uncomfortable can’t stop the progress. Leaders who want to create real change must be ok with their own vulnerability.
It is time for change, and change starts at the top. This is more than about just creating awareness, we must create meaningful action with lasting results. If you want to be a part of that action, join us at the Summit. We’re holding a seat at our table for you.
Ken Smith is President/CEO District Energy St. Paul and Ever-Green Energy, and chair of the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce board. Duchesne Drew is President of Minnesota Public Radio and vice chair of the chamber board. Bonnie Vogel is CEO of Vogel Mechanical, Inc., a chamber board member and chair of the chamber’s Equity Committee.
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