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How are companies succeeding at diversity and inclusion? It starts with introspection and reflection

A young man pushes a cart around office cubicles.
AO Photography LLC
Saint Martin de Porres
Students in the internship program at Saint Martin de Porres High School on Cleveland's East Side work at a company or organization one day a week, earning money that goes towards their tuition and gaining work experience and skills.

While attending Saint Martin de Porres High School in Cleveland, Chris Barnes completed a work-study internship at a financial advisory firm called MAI Capital Management. He continued to intern at MAI throughout college, and after graduating from Denison University in 2014, he landed a full-time job there.

“I consider myself as a testimony to the [internship] program, because I show that the program works,” said Barnes, who is Black. “It’s like a trampoline for [students] to jump start their career. And that’s what we need – more opportunities like that.”

Students in the program work at a company or organization one day a week, earning money that goes towards their tuition and gaining real-life work experience and skills, said Saint Martin de Porres president Chaz Napoli. This year, 385 students are enrolled in the program, working at about 125 partner organizations in various sectors such as health care, legal services, financial services, and manufacturing, Napoli said.

The program is critical to creating more opportunities for young people of color, something Cleveland needs, Napoli said. The majority of the student body at Saint Martin de Porres — more than 85% — is Black, according to figuresfrom the National Center for Education Statistics.

“You have to start early,” he said. “If you want to build a diversity pipeline, you can’t just wait for the young adults coming out of undergrad or graduate school or wait for them to finish years of experience somewhere else.”

The program is a “win-win” situation for both students and partner companies, Napoli said. The students get experience and contacts and the employer lands an employee who is eager to learn. Plus, companies show their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

The stakes are high for students like those at Saint Martin de Porres. The median income for white residents in the Cleveland metropolitan area is more than two times that of Black residents, according to a 2019 study by the Center for Community Solutions (CCS). White workers are disproportionately represented in higher-wage occupations like management and engineering, while Black workers are disproportionately represented in lower-wage occupations like health care support and food service.

The reasons are complex and long-standing, according to CCS: unconscious bias, historic disinvestment in Black communities and public policies that advantage white people have all contributed to the racial wealth gap that persists in Cleveland.

Still a long way to go to achieve equity in NE Ohio

Economic racial disparities are the result of decades of systemic racism, said Brian Hall, former senior vice president and executive director of equity and inclusion at the Greater Cleveland Partnership. Systemic racism is deeply embedded in the laws and regulations of society. Rather than individuals mistreating each other, the system makes it harder for certain people to succeed and easier for others.

Although many American companies are embracing racial inclusion as a business imperative, there’s still a long way to go to advance equity in the Northeast Ohio region, Hall said. But convincing employers to invest in cultivating a diverse workforce has sometimes been a tough sell.

For more than 20 years, the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP) has offered its Equity & Inclusion Organizational Assessment to the roughly 15,400 chamber of commerce members in Cleveland, Akron and Canton.

Interest peaked in 2020, the year that George Floyd was killed: 158 companies participated in the assessment that year. In the first quarter or 2022 there were more than 62,000 business establishments in Cuyahoga, Stark and Summit counties, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The assessment is a voluntary tool and getting companies to use it has been a challenge, said Gina Cheverine, a managing vice president at the chamber. In addition to GCP’s member companies, members of the Greater Akron Chamber and Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce also have access to the assessment.

While many agree that effective DEI programs can help racial minorities, there is debate about whether a diverse workforce improves a company's bottom line. In 2020, a well-publicized studyclaimed companies with greater racial, ethnic and gender diversity in leadership tended to perform better financially. But additional academic research was more cautious about making the business case for diversity, according to an article in Quartz.

But some point to other benefits beyond profits. Diverse workplaces that are representative of the communities they serve can improve the quality of service that companies provide to their customers, said companies who participated in the assessment. And with diverse people come diverse ideas, said Dalithia Smith, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at the plumbing company Oatey.

“From an innovation standpoint, it can assist with sales and revenue generation, new product development, understanding the different markets that we serve,” said Smith.

GCP’s equity assessment is part of a cultural change within Northeast Ohio’s business community, said Bethia Burke, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, a Northeast Ohio nonprofit that aims to foster equitable economic growth in the region.

“The stated agenda of our region's largest chamber of commerce, as well as other chambers of commerce throughout the region, includes economic equity,” Burke said. “That's a big deal. It wasn't seen as a business imperative some number of years ago. So I think that's the kind of shift that we're seeing, and then it's the push around, ‘How does that change in perspective actually change outcomes?’”

Who is measuring progress and why?

The investment in diversity, equity and inclusion starts with introspection and reflection. The companies that use GCP’s Equity & Inclusion Organizational Assessment are asked to report the racial and gender makeup of their workforce and include their board and supplier diversity demographics, as well as their existing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Participant companies said they use the chamber’s assessment to compare their company to other companies in the region on whether or not they follow best practices in their hiring, retention and workplace culture, among other things. The companies reflect on whether they hire women and people of color, if those employees stick around, get promoted or leave, and whether they feel welcome, accepted and heard at work, the companies said. Then participating companies receive a scorecard with their results and an opportunity to follow up with the chamber in a 30-minute consultation.

The goal of the assessment is to advance racial equity in the region by helping companies measure their equity and inclusion efforts and use their score as a basis for continuous improvement, GCP’s Cheverine said.

“We want them to use the score as a baseline,” she said.

MetroHealth realized it needed to be more proactive in its DEI efforts as a result of the assessment, said Arlene Anderson, senior manager of diversity solutions at the hospital system. Since taking the assessment, MetroHealth has started bias and cultural awareness training for its staff.

“That’s really really a huge step forward in going from evaluating where we are to actual action and trying to make a change,” Anderson said.

Participation in such efforts can be scary for some companies.

“For those of us, like our company, that had not ever done one of those before, there was a lot of hesitation – a lot of fear. You knew what the results were going to be,” said Jerry Schroer, CEO of The Schroer Group, which is the parent company of five family-owned healthcare and food distribution businesses. “So we did it … and we had a long way to go. So we developed a baseline.”

The Schroer Group is focusing on progress, especially in hiring, said Schroer.

“As long as we’re putting the effort in, and we’re seeing the progress on the trendline, I see that as progress,” he said.

Schroer, who is white, said after Floyd’s death and his experience with the assessment, he brought together other Stark County businesses to form Stark County Community Moving Forward, a group he leads with retired business leader George Lemon, who is Black. The group is committed to serving “as an intentional catalyst for diversity,” Lemon said, who chairs the group’s internship committee.

Moving Forward has several committees working on initiatives related to diversity, such as internship and mentorship programs, supplier diversity, capital programs for minority businesses, food distribution and vaccination programs, Lemon said. The internship committee provides local college students with job interview training and professional clothing. It is also preparing to launch an internship program in the spring and summer of 2023, he said.

Recruiting: developing talent and building diverse pipelines

Moving Forward isn’t the only organization looking to boost diversity with internships. FirstEnergy, the Akron-based electric utility, is going directly to university campuses to recruit, officials said. The company, which also used GCP’s DEI assessment tool, landed its most diverse classes of interns as a result.

FirstEnergy also relies on current employees to help attract future workers, said Terry Malone, project manager of FirstEnergy’s Ambassador Network. The network deploys about 430 current employees to organizations like colleges and universities, school districts and community groups to talk about their experiences at the company.

About 21% of the ambassadors are from racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds and 35% are female, according to a FirstEnergy spokesperson. About 10% of the company comes from racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds and 22% are female.

One of the best ways to attract diverse candidates is to spread the word through current employees who come from underrepresented backgrounds, Malone said.

“If we’re recruiting diverse talent, there’s no better person to hear that story from than someone who looks like you,” he said.

The program has seen some early positive results, Malone said. In the past few years, FirstEnergy has seen the most diverse classes of talent coming into its co-op and internship programs in its history. Malone attributes a lot of the company’s progress to its work in creating meaningful co-op and internship opportunities for students at local colleges and universities.

Oswald is working to build diverse talent pipelines. The company, which also used GCP’s DEI assessment, recently partnered with Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, a predominantly Black church on Cleveland’s East Side, to create the Workforce Cooperative, a six-month workforce development program to train adults to enter the insurance industry.
The insurance brokerage firm Oswald has partnered with Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, a predominantly Black church on Cleveland’s East Side, to create the Workforce Cooperative, a six-month workforce development program to train adults to enter the insurance industry.

Like FirstEnergy, Oswald, an insurance brokerage company, is also working to build diverse talent pipelines. The company, which also used GCP’s DEI assessment, recently partnered with Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, a predominantly Black church on Cleveland’s East Side. They partnered to create the Workforce Cooperative, a six-month workforce development program to train adults to enter the insurance industry. In September, five women became the first graduates of the program. Each received a job offer to work in insurance at Oswald.

The five participants attended classes three days a week and received training in technical insurance skills and job preparation.

Alexis Moss worked in banking and customer service before entering the program. She had previously looked into a career in insurance but didn’t have the training.

“When I saw this, I just took advantage of it and just went from there. It was definitely an avenue that was needed,” Moss said, noting that members of her church told her about the program.

The program provided her with a lot of support. Olivet lent her a computer when she didn’t have one because she’d just moved. The instructors also encouraged the participants, and participants pushed each other to keep going when they felt discouraged or faced challenges, Moss said.

Once companies recruit diverse workers, they need to focus on retention, said Kelli Scott, FirstEnergy’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“If we don’t make sure that we’re still focused on the health of our culture, we can recruit all day long, but if no one stays, then that doesn’t have much meaning,” she said.

Michael Indriolo contributed reporting to this story.