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Growing Our Own

By: Jonathan Long | December 14, 2015

This post originally appeared in the Fall Edition of the KLC Journal

In Wichita, where I live, leaders are grappling with how to reignite the area’s economy. Regionalism, entrepreneurship and the recruitment of young talent dominate – if not drive – local discussions. While a focus on these ideas is smart, another even more perceptive solution continues to be overlooked: diversity and inclusion.

Beyond compliance, checkboxes and quotas, consider the following business case for diversity and inclusion as a primary business objective: Companies that compete globally already leverage strategies to capture a diverse clientele, or they structure operationsJonathan Long to generate increased productivity with a diverse workforce. Not only are these companies learning how to maneuver in multicultural markets to increase their productivity and bottom line, they’re also benefiting from the innovation that can be spurred by diversity and inclusion. As an example, in 2011 Forbes surveyed 321 global enterprises with at least $500 million in annual revenue. Of those surveyed, 85 percent agreed that diversity is crucial to cultivating an atmosphere of innovation in the workplace. Innovation – introducing new ideas, workflows, products, services and processes – is a key in today’s competitive marketplace. We have great examples locally in Koch Industries, Spirit AeroSystems and Westar Energy, which all have made dynamic strides in focusing on how diversity and inclusion can help drive their core business values.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to be done in the business community as a whole in terms of diversity and inclusion. For the past two years, I’ve been spearheading Wichita Urban Professionals, which aims to develop a network of rising leaders. We have three key focus areas: community development, professional/personal development and economic development. Our efforts have generated enthusiasm and created a buzz in the community, but there have been occasions where the opportunity to elevate diversity and inclusion as core community values still gets missed. It is vital that we avoid these types of misses because the metro markets around us, such as Oklahoma City, tend also to be ones that are making conscious, visible and strategic efforts to recruit, develop and recognize minority business talent.

Making inclusion a staple in all facets of community growth, especially economic development, could bring with it additional benefits to Wichita and other Kansas communities.

The act of exporting also has been tossed around as an innovation that further acts as a key differentiator for companies of any size that are looking to generate staying power in this competitive market.

In July 2014, Jeremy Hill, the director of the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research, and several other business leaders produced a 10-county export market assessment report. That report concluded that to improve economic performance, there would need to be more efforts to promote exporting and to support current exporters.

Helping more diverse entrepreneurs export is a strategy worth noting, especially considering, as The Journal has reported previously, that minority firms are more likely to export goods than nonminority-owned companies, even more so if the firm has $1 million or more in sales.

For more firms to adopt exporting as a growth strategy, we need a business environment that cultivates the growth and scaling of such firms. Roughly 8 percent of businesses are minority owned, even though Hispanics and nonwhites account for 23 percent of the state’s population. However, according to a Kauffman Foundation report summarizing recent U.S. Census Bureau findings from its survey of business owners, women of color are more likely to own businesses than women overall, and business ownership by women of color is increasing at a higher rate than that of their male counterparts.

Having a strong handle on demographic shifts can assist from a consumer angle, as well. Consider that African Americans are the second-largest minority market in the country with an estimated buying power reaching $1.1 trillion by the end of 2015. Likewise, the purchasing power of the Hispanic market – the nation’s largest and fastest growing population – has grown 155 percent since 2000. For comparison purposes, non-Hispanic buying power grew just 71 percent in that same time period.

These are only a few examples in a growing narrative of the power play that can be made by economic developers willing to include diversity and inclusion among their strategies. Kansas has a great opportunity to rebuild its economic base by strategically capitalizing on the same demographics that are causing the racial/ethnic shifts in our state.

Changing the economic landscape using diversity and inclusion to impact our entrepreneurial and business ecosystems can be done. The question is: Are we perceptive enough to see this strategy – and the economic benefits it would provide us – and put it into play?

Jonathan Long serves as the president of Wichita Urban Professionals (ICT-UP), an auxiliary of the Urban League of Kansas.