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Building community for minority professionals

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013


05.21.13 Blog MinorityImagine being a person of color, raised in a diverse community and then moving to the Portland region only to find out that it is the whitest major city in the country, according to the U.S Census. How would you feel?

Then, imagine being the employer who recruits me, but then I leave because I cannot find my ethnic community.

Being a minority professional in Oregon is a challenge. I was recruited here 13 years ago to work for a major corporation in this area. I assumed that Portland, being a major west coast city, would have similar diversity percentages. As I settled down in my new surroundings, it was evident that I was a rare breed.  There were not too many who looked like me sitting around the table and my company did not see that as an issue.

I was plopped down at my desk and that was it. They did not know or think about how they could have helped me assimilate into this area by helping me find the Asian/Japanese American community nor did they ask what my needs as a minority employee would be.  They did not think that by possibly helping me get more involved in my ethnic community this would help support and retain me in their company.

It is unfortunate that employers have spent time and money to recruit professionals of color to this region and then lose them because they were not supported.  One of my board members talks about losing one of their newly recruited minority employees because she could not find a hairdresser. Those simple things a new person of color would want to know,  such as where is the best ethnic food, ethnic neighborhoods and churches, ethnic community organizations is or where can I find a hair dresser who works on my kind of hair, are very important for someone to  becoming a part of our community. 

I was also not only in search of a good hair dresser but also where the Japanese American community was. I knew there had to be one but where were they? It was because of my own perseverance that I found my community.  No one at work knew since none of them were involved in my community so it was about a year and a half before I found a way to connect to my community.   

While my struggle mirrors that of other minority professionals. I feel efforts have been made to improve our experiences but we have a ways to go.There are ways to recruit and retain in a more thoughtful way that not only retains professionals of color but builds community.

In 2005, several regional CEOs came together to talk about the changing demographics in our state. They could see the train coming and they needed to get prepared.  They created a business case and diversity action plan which they would take back to their companies and implement.  This was also the conduit that created the non-profit, Partners In Diversity, where I currently serve as the Executive Director.  Our mission is to partner with Oregon and SW Washington member employers to attract and retain professionals of color who move to Oregon/SW Washington.

To that end, we offer several opportunities for employers to learn how to support their professionals of color. Our biggest event is Say Hey, a quarterly event that honors new professionals of color who moved to Oregon/SW Washington. Say Hey brings the multicultural community to meet these new professionals, welcomes them to our region and helps them to find that hairdresser, community organization, church or restaurant that could connect them to their ethnic community.

Another program, Breakfast for Champions, focuses on the hot topics of recruitment, retention and support. Speakers address issues our members want to learn more about plus our members create a network among themselves they can call upon so share ideas and best practices.   

Through these and other efforts, I am seeing more real conversations being held about diversity now than in the past. More employers are seeking guidance in their efforts be become a more diverse organization that supports their minority professionals. I believe that whoever sits at the top level of any employer must believe, not just support, that a diverse workforce is a benefit to their business. They need to invest in their workforce in ways that fosters a connection between the employee, the company and the community in order to retain that talent and support it as the employee grows and takes on greater responsibility and leadership roles within the company.

Looking back on my career, I wish I had this kind of support when I moved here. I don’t think it would have taken me 18 months to find one Asian community organization if Partners in Diversity was around back then. While progress is being made, including at my former employer, there is more to do. Keep having the conversation about how your company can do more to support the minority professionals in your organization, because the more Oregon feels like home to your new recruit, the greater the  likelihood it will become home and that is good for your company and our region.

Mari Watanabe is the executive director of Partners in Diversity and the director of Leadership Portland at the Portland Business Alliance.

Editor's Note:  Oregon Business accepts opinion pieces on topics relevant to the state's business community. See Op-Ed submission guidelines here.



+2 #1 Corporate Partnerships ManagerGuest 2013-05-21 18:57:33
Very pertinent story, Mari! Thanks

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