First Person: Commentary by Michelle Neal, regional director of INROADS Inc.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Michelle Neal Get real with diversity

A true commitment to corporate diversity is rare in Oregon. It shouldn’t be.

By Michelle Neal

Being the only one can be frustrating at times. You become the spokesperson, the center of attention, the token, the go-to girl for all sorts of questions.

Too often, this is what it’s like to be a professional woman of color in Portland’s corporations. You are the only one of your kind representing your ethnic group. I know this fact because I’ve experienced it many times throughout my professional career. At one point, I was the only professional person of color in a division of 250 employees with an organization that had a total employee headcount of more than 2,500. Not only was that frustrating, it was lonely. Unfortunately, since I left that organization there has not been an improvement to its diversity.

When pressed, I can identify fewer than 10 people of color who are in high-ranking corporate positions in the Portland metro region. Outside of those who own their own businesses, I am not aware of any corporate leader who is a person of color in Oregon. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine these numbers would grow much if a statewide survey were conducted.

Many companies pride themselves in having a diverse workforce or some commitment to diversity. However, when you really research you discover that what appears to be a diverse workforce lacks any people of color at the top.

Companies complain that they have difficulty obtaining and retaining professional people of color. However, I question how much of an effort they are putting into this endeavor. To me, diversity is a term that is liberally used in the corporate realm but rarely implemented. There have been articles written on a lack of qualified minorities for professional positions. These articles discuss demographics, percentages and statistics regarding minorities in Oregon. But none of them discusses whether there is a true commitment to recruiting and developing people of color for high-level professional positions.

I assist talented students of color in obtaining professional internships that will eventually lead them into full-time professional or managerial jobs. Part of my job is to ask businesses and organizations to sponsor an intern in their ranks. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the following statements: “We have enough diversity,” or “We are diverse ­— we have women.” When asked how many people of color they have in professional positions, they respond with silence. Rather than cultivating a truly diverse workforce, companies give lip service, hoping that the issue will eventually go away.

most every corporation in Oregon has some type of diversity initiative. Some have it in their mission statement, some in their vision statement, some as one of their goals and objectives. What do these words mean if there is no representation of diversity in the top echelon of a company? All this says is that we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

Minorities are formidable consumers, and the recruitment of professional minorities is one of the best investments a company can make — it will contribute to the bottom line. The national buying power of blacks increased from $456 million in 1990 to $938 million in 2002; Latino buying power increased from $945 million to $3.9 billion. Hiring minorities attracts these consumers as customers, provides well-rounded customer service and greatly increases other fair practices.

What I suggest to companies is for them to be realistic in their diversity initiatives. If you are truly committed to diversity, then it should be a holistic commitment. Don’t be satisfied with having all of your people of color in lower-ranked positions. That’s not a diverse workforce. Become proactive and obtain professionals.

I know it can be difficult to recruit and retain people of color in Oregon, but here are a few things that might help you in your efforts. Commit to including professional people of color in the hierarchy. Don’t have just one person be the spokesperson for diversity. Be culturally competent and understand the difference between diversity and inclusion — inclusion will retain employees. Cultivate a young person of color for their management potential. And if you live in Portland, attend a “Say Hey! NW” event — you’ll meet talented, educated people of color.

Diversity is a touchy topic. It’s not a subject that you casually converse about. However, in business this topic can no longer be avoided. Corporate heads need to understand that diversity provides a return on investment. More discussions need to take place, and if one person at a time addresses it, maybe things will turn around. I have to believe that things eventually will change. They must.

Michelle Neal is the Portland-based regional director for INROADS Inc.-Pacific Northwest Region.


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