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Equity issues: West Michigan businesses should measure progress

At a roundtable discussion, small business owners raised their concerns about equity issues in West Michigan. As we head into 2017, how is systemic bias perpetuated, even as our awareness of barriers grows? Part 2 of 4.
The Grand Rapids skyline from the Black Hills neighborhood

The Grand Rapids skyline from the Black Hills neighborhood /Steven Depolo

Readers reacted to a recent business article in the context of Grand Rapids history

Readers reacted to a recent business article in the context of Grand Rapids history /Amy Carpenter-Leugs

Faye Richardson-Green, Executive Director of Partners for a Racism Free Community, which offers tools for dismantling racism

Faye Richardson-Green, Executive Director of Partners for a Racism Free Community, which offers tools for dismantling racism /Amy Carpenter-Leugs

Part 2

During a recent roundtable discussion with local small business owners, hosted by MiBiz, the all-white panel brought up the large economic gap between people of color and white people in Grand Rapids. In Part 2, I talk with one of the roundtable participants about that conversation. In the spirit of continuing the discussion, I also present some specific, achievable strategies for small business owners who want to help dismantle systemic bias.

From the roundtable discussion

MiBiz: "What can West Michigan business owners do to address … racial and economic disparities?

Chris Reinbold of Six/Ten Ventures and The Funky Buddha Yoga Hothouse said, "To me, a lot of this is that the entrepreneurial community and the ones making things happen in the city are the ones that will lead the charge. And so if there are dynamic, interesting things happening, it will bring in dynamic, interesting people. … In a lot of ways, the people sitting here are the ones responsible for this."

Rob McCarty of The Image Shoppe, "This isn’t just a Grand Rapids issue, it’s a national issue. … The reality is that if all people looked at it, of course they’d (be more inclusive). But the connection between ‘I should do this’ and doing it, you don’t have anybody giving you any metric to tell if you’re really making a difference."

'Hot button topic'

McCarty, of The Image Shoppe, present at the roundtable and quoted above, is a founding member of Equity Drinks. He's also a longtime resident of the Baxter neighborhood, which has been predominantly African-American.

McCarty said he didn’t know who would be at the roundtable discussion when he attended, but based on his growing experience with bridge-building for equity work, he was already thinking about the need for diversity. However, he noted that though the article's headline mentioned diversity, it was not originally a topic of the roundtable, which was convened to discuss the upcoming year.

“I’ve never been involved in a discussion where a group -obviously lacking diversity- talks so much about equity and diversity as a hot button topic for business in 2017 and beyond,” said McCarty, noting the question itself was about the West Michigan climate for small business.

“I’d expect the conversation to be focused on taxes, politics, the economy ... but one of us stepped in and talked about racial diversity. This is a hard topic to engage. The conversation itself was wide-ranging and went on for two hours, with a few of us often coming back to touch on diversity and equity issues. I recognize that white men are still in control of business, that it’s hard for women of color, and hard not just for African-Americans, but for Latinos, Asian-Americans, Muslims, and others.”

McCarty is glad MiBiz published part of the equity discussion. “I’m happy that this discussion elevated the conversation about diversity and equity in business. Some of us think it’s a very important topic for the region. Hopefully next year we can have a more diverse group of owners as a next step.” McCarty also said that Mike Morin mentioned that Start Garden is starting to work specifically with GRABB (Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses). In fact, Start Garden will meet with several diversity organizations in a January Start-Up Weekend.

McCarty concluded there’s no magic wand to wave for fast change, and since the recent election, he's wondering how equity work will evolve. “The diversity issue is one that people need to put a lot of time and effort into. It’s going to take a lot of work, and small business owners like us aren’t going to change, say, all the hiring practices, the banking challenges, and things we frankly don’t even understand in the city -- not without a lot of help. We need to remember that people who have more money and power than we do are not all a part of this conversation right now. What we could do here was to raise the conversation and send a message upstream. We had the opportunity to express our opinions and let people know ‘this matters.'"

Opinion: This does matter

Most economists agree that when racial and gender-based disparities exist, the entire local economy is at risk. When there are entry barriers for the right person for a job, that company loses out, and the less qualified worker drags the company down with them. When an entrepreneur of color with the right business plan can’t get a loan and starts a business without sufficient capital, the job creation for the community suffers, as does the income and tax potential. Given that whites make up 64% of the city of Grand Rapids, our city cannot afford to leave 36 percent of the population behind. Including all professionals and entrepreneurs helps Grand Rapids become the world-class city it wants to be and it gives us insights we may not have otherwise.

Developing metrics toward equity

McCarty's point about the time and effort needed for true diversity and equity is well taken. His words during the roundtable point to the need for small business owners to develop measurable strategies (metrics). These metrics are available and with commitment, small businesses can tailor them to fit their organizations. 

Without metrics, it's too easy to fall back into comfortable ways of interacting and avoid difficult conversations about what barriers one's own employees or clients of color are facing. Because equity is a process that doesn't happen all at once, establishing signposts along the way is essential. The ideas here are adapted from the online Community Tool Box for creating cuturally competent organizations which are more welcoming to diverse employees and clients. They are meant as a starting point for any business who might want to move forward on equity issues.

  1. Assess intercultural competence: This is always a useful first step, and one assisted locally by Partners for a Racism-Free Community (PRFC). In particular, if an organization is clear on their committment, the Intercultural Development Inventory offers both individual and group assessment. The ICARE Assessment is a tool built on best practices within organizations for eliminating racism. Small businesses must be committed to the time and work that these processes will require. If they do so, they will find they can save money -by reducing employee turnover- and increase profits by expanding to diverse clients.
  2. Workshops: PRFC and others offer workshops for the community-at-large. PRFC also hosts free community conversations. Small business owners can attend with their employees and get the conversation started.
  3. Create a team: Even if it's just two or three people, a cultural competence team can develop a mission statement and plan actionable goals that fit that small business. A committee also allows for employee engagement, which is important to keep the conversations going.
  4. Reach out: Some companies in Grand Rapids have made greater strides in diversity than others. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, the cultural competence team can reach out to those companies and discern which strategies might work for them.
  5. Use community resources: The Grand Rapids Urban League and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce may both offer networking opportunities to find employees and mentors.
  6. Consider business spending: Minority-owned financial consulting firms, legal services, marketing and web design-all are available in Grand Rapids. If a small business owner is taking clients or employees out for lunch, they might choose a minority-owned restaurant. If the business needs lawn care or cleaning services, consider a minority-owned provider. Not only will the business build more networks and relationships, it will be putting its money where its mouth is-into supporting a business owner of color. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and GRABB both have directories for finding these businesses.

If West Michigan business is going to deal with its systemic bias problem, it needs strategies for the long term at all levels of the economy. Entrepreneurs like McCarty may discover that their businesses can play a meaningful role in dismantling systemic bias.

The rest of the series:

Part 1: explores journalism's role in perpetuating systemic bias.

Part 3: uncovers a common theme in the journey to equity: mentoring.

Part 4: entrepreneur Adriane Johnson speaks out

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