Embracing diversity in the workforce creates a bridge to a diverse consumer base

Learn how to foster a more diverse and inclusive workplace at OIA Rendezvous breakout session.
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This is part of a series of stories previewing Rendezvous, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) annual leadership forum, which will be held Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort in San Diego, Calif. This year's line-up will feature three tracks to help attendees tackle their business challenges: Innovative Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion and The Consumer Revolution. Register for the event here. Attendees must register by Sept. 6, to secure discounted lodging.

The demographics of this country aren’t changing — they’ve already changed.

Diversity

Groups tagged as minorities have become the majority in four states: Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii and most recently California. Non-white toddlers are the majority in 13 states.

“Everybody is slowly but surely realizing the importance of diversity to their workforce,” said Risha Grant, CEO of the award-winning diversity communications firm Xposure, Inc., and speaker at the upcoming Outdoor Industry Association Rendezvous leadership forum in San Diego.

If there were more people of color working in the industry and depicted in advertising and marketing materials, visible to the outside in general, then the industry will have started on the road to creating an environment that looks more appealing to non-whites – both to work and recreate in, she said.

But the outdoor industry is lagging on this front, putting its future at stake.

Grant will share tips on creating that inclusive, intriguing environment. It will take money, work, CEO support and mind-opening training and practices.

Appealing to non-whites
Victoria Faubion, an ambassador to Outdoor Nation, was lucky to have attended Outdoor Retailer Summer Market last month, she said, but was blown away to walk onto the show floor and see just two or three people of varied ethnic backgrounds.

“The first thought that came to my mind was that there wasn’t a lot of diversity,” Faubion said. The one thing that would make her feel more welcome as an ethnic minority, she said, would be to see more people who looked like her in advertisements. One company she said doing a good job with this is REI.

Zeal Optics is another brand that’s starting to include diversity as part of its marketing practices. John Sanchez, Zeal Optics president, said it wasn’t intentional that the past catalogues the company produced didn’t have any minorities in them, but it was intentional that this upcoming catalogue has plenty. Other companies and consumer outdoor publications should to follow suit, he said.

“We have these wonderful magazines that continue to print and publish the same people,” Sanchez pointed out. He added that if you take advertising from different brands, stripped away the logos and wording, you’d see the same type of person over and over again. “It’s the same image targeting the same consumer. There needs to be a mix.”

Show me the money, support
Grant doesn’t sugar coat it for her clients, and won’t at Rendezvous either: Lack of diversity in the workforce and lack of diversity training is a financial issue and changes must be made.

Implementing changes starts at the top. When Grant takes on a new client she won’t proceed with the consulting process if the company has no CEO support. In fact, CEO support is one of the requirements to be considered for a spot on Diversity Inc.’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity list (on which there hasn’t been an outdoor company).

Deanne Buck, executive director for the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition agrees. “We found that one of the key components to being successful in diversity efforts is that they’re embraced by the CEO as a priority and business imperative,” she said.

Grant said she generally has to feel out how people in the company feel about diversity. She comes in and interviews 30 percent of a company’s employees and then develops an action and training plan based on her findings. “A lot of consultants do a cookie-cutter approach to diversity,” Grant said, but that doesn’t work because different people have different biases and beliefs and those have to be understood and addressed.

Open your mind, recruit outside the box
John Sanchez at Zeal Optics said he’s fond of a saying that goes, “The mind is like a parachute — it doesn’t work properly if it’s not open.”

A lot of job descriptions on job boards for industry openings have the line, “Must have passion for the outdoor industry.” The request has little flexibility. Hiring managers might have biases about the perfect, outdoorsy candidate: Someone who climbs, hikes, fishes and participates in Iron Man triathlons. But perhaps that bias is eliminating a large part of the candidate pool, especially ethnically diverse candidates who might bring a different point of view and valuable skills to the table.

Alienating a large part of the workforce isn't right on a social level and it's bad for business, the Fast Company reports. Companies with the highest levels of racial diversity made more than 15 times in sales revenue than companies with the lowest levels of racial diversity, according to an article written by Cedric Herring in an April 2009 issues of the American Sociological Review.

Lori Herrera, chief operating officer and executive vice president for the Outdoor Industry Association, said hiring only those "passionate about the industry" is creating a barrier to having more diversity and inclusion within our workforce.

“Even some well-meaning industry veterans that see the challenges of the lack of diversity and are actively working towards solutions will note that passion for the industry is a job requirement,” Herrera said. “I disagree strongly. We must be inviting and inclusive and we must invite outsiders — pun intended — into this industry.”

Grant said companies interested in hiring more diverse workforces need to recruit at places where there is wealth of diverse students like historically black colleges or organizations on campus like multicultural Greek organizations or business fraternities. These are practices at some of the companies on Diversity Inc.’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity list, such as General Mills and Coca-Cola, practice, she said.

“If your leadership team can reflect the customer base you’re trying to attract, it more naturally falls into place,” OIWC’s Buck said.

Value varied opinions
Grant defines an inclusive workplace as everybody feeling valued and as though his or her opinions and thoughts matter. “Everybody needs to feel like they have a stake in what’s going on,” she said.

That inclusive environment at Zeal not only includes heavy mentoring by Sanchez, he said, but also mentoring to him from his employees, where all opinions are valued.

“When we talk, we do so in a forum and activate ideas,” Sanchez said, adding his team doesn’t shoot one another’s ideas down. “You allow them to speak and take something from one person and combine it with an idea from the next person and present a package that speaks to the group. Everybody has to be in an environment where they can be successful.”

According to the Fast Company, employees of different cultural backgrounds have a lot to offer when it comes to innovation and varied business perspectives but if they're facing uncomfortable work environments they won't be productive and they'll eventually leave. After recruiting workers of color companies should want to keep them on board, as diverse workforces have proven fruitful for several companies like Microsoft, General Mills, The Walt Disney Company and Kaiser Permanente. Outdoor companies ought to follow their lead, Grant said.

“Companies that don’t embrace diversity and inclusion,” Grant said, “tomorrow will be obsolete.”

Stay tuned to SNEWS on Monday for a preview of a breakout session by REI's Laura Swapp, director of diversity and inclusion, which will address why outdoor enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds aren't shopping at REI and other specialty outdoor retailers and how the retail giant is addressing the problem. 

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