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  • Jamie Harrell, MBA

Diversity in Business Forum 2016

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Diversity in Business Forum at the LGBT Institute of the Center for Civil and Human Rights. While my summary probably won’t do this event justice and the value of networking cannot be transferred in prose, I do hope I can convey what I consider the key learnings of the day. The overarching theme that businesses and governments alike must understand is that inclusion is a value driver for businesses and metropolitan economies.

Bob Witeck (President, Witeck Communications, Inc.) tells us that businesses mistrust what they can’t count and don’t understand. So the most effective way of communicating the value of LGBT inclusion is through the numbers; in 2015 the LGBT community represented $917 billion dollars in buying power. Bob tells us “there is no part of the economy that [LGBT people] don’t benefit.” When the HRC Corporate Equality Index started in 2002, there were just a few companies that achieved a 100% rating; today there are over 400 companies that rank 100% for having satisfied all of the criteria for the year to be recognized as one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality”.

To drive that point home, Sandy Mollet (SVP, Strategy & Programs at First Data) tells us that not only is it good business and that achieving a 100% HRC rating isn’t only helpful to attract and retain talent, but that it’s been proven that public companies that take diversity and inclusion seriously – those that walk the walk not just talk – do better in the stock market. She recommends getting certified by the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce for businesses to get your piece of that nearly $1 trillion dollars of LGBT buying power.

Bob tells us that millennials are “PFLAG’ers at heart” (PFLAG stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). According to Pamela Stewart (VP of National Retail Sales at The Coca-Cola Company), a full one third of millennials and Generation Z identify as LGBTQ. Two thirds of millennials are allies to the LGBT community, and Brian Robinson (Director of Georgia Prospers) tells us that we must “personalize not to demonize” the community, that this has been the most compelling force; the single most important indicator of those with positive views of LGBT people being that they personally know someone who is LGBT.

As a transgender woman, there were several highlights for me. Brian, who has spent a significant amount of time in republican politics both in Georgia and on Capitol Hill, tells us that not only are the religious discrimination and “bathroom bills” bad for business, it now turns out they are bad politics; it looks like North Carolina’s Governor McCrory will be ousted for rushing the discriminatory HB2 (the Bathroom Discrimination Bill) through the state legislature. McCrory is trailing the official vote count to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who refused to defend McCrory’s lawsuit against the US Department of Justice regarding HB2 and Title IX in federal court over the protections of transgender people. While the election has not yet been certified, it is widely expected that Cooper will maintain his lead over McCrory and become the next Governor of North Carolina.

Pamela became my heroine of the day when she forcefully but respectfully reminded Brian and all LGBT allies to be very aware of privilege – defined as (1) the ability to ignore or dismiss an issue because it doesn’t affect you; and (2) the access to opportunities because of a classification that you fall into. She tells us that as far as anti-LGBT bills go, bathroom discrimination bills are the big battlefront now. She called on LGB people and allies very forcefully, “Do not let [republican politicians] divide us. They’ll say ‘I’ll let you keep marriage equality in exchange for a bathroom discrimination bill.’” But that isn’t a trade it is a ploy to divide and conquer – we already HAVE marriage equality, and we cannot leave transgender people behind. (paraphrased)

Tom Cunningham (former Regional Executive at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank) rounded out the day by bringing the discussion back to economics. I could almost hear Kai Ryssdal say “Let’s Do the Numbers” as Tom counted off the “economic consequences of bad legislation”. These included both the one-off losses which are easy to value such as the loss of sporting events and cancelation of entertainers’ tours as has happened in North Carolina. But the long term consequences of significantly reduced compound growth patterns as a result of bad reputation can be hard to measure and thus quantify. It’s already affecting Charlotte, NC, where economic growth was solid and exceeding that of Atlanta, but has now stagnated and is less than that of Atlanta. Proponents of this bad legislation will say “Look, growth is still positive, it didn’t kill our economy!” But the effects of still positive but lower compound growth becomes more tangible when you compare Atlanta to Birmingham, which have had historically significantly different reputations with respect to civil rights. In the 1960’s, these were two similarly sized cities. Today, Atlanta Ranks #11 in size of the major metropolitan areas of the United States with over 6 million people, while Birmingham ranks #48 with under 1.5 million people. This is the power of compound growth, and the cumulative negative affect it can have when growth is stifled.

Between sporting events such as the Super bowl and multiple NCAA championships, conventions, businesses that would relocate from or NOT relocate to Atlanta, the film industry and even our thriving higher education industry that attracts and retains some of the best faculty, staff and students in the nation (insert shameless plug for Emory Goizueta Business School here!), Atlanta stands to lose nearly $7 billion dollars of economic well-being if we become perceived as negative on LGBT rights. But, Tom reminds us, we fight against these discriminatory bills not just because they’re bad for our economy, but because they’re just wrong.

To the rest of the amazing speakers including among others Judith Harrison (SVP Diversity and Inclusion at Weber Shandwick), Theresa Spralling (Corporate Lead Consultant, Diversity & Inclusion Human Resources at AT&T), and Joshua Lamont (Chief Mission Accomplice at JRL Strategies), I sincerely apologize for having not taken enough notes to directly quote your sessions or if I have attributed your words to another speaker. This was an extremely powerful and moving event, and any errors or omissions as such are mine alone.

My only regret of the day was the moment when I chose decorum over directness and didn’t take the opportunity to drive a point home during the open floor comments and questions period. Brian suggested (by asking) that “shouldn’t we take some small comfort” in the fact that Donald Trump posed as an ally with LGBT people for a photo opportunity? I responded aloud, “No.” Here’s what I didn’t say:

“No, your candidate’s virtual tip of the hat to LGBT people says nothing about his or the Republican establishment’s commitment to our rights; his casual remarks about Caitlyn Jenner being welcome to use restroom of her choice in any Trump building gives no credence to his alleged support. Because when challenged on his statement that bathroom discrimination is bad for business, he simply reverted back to the Republican Party Line that comes out when they don’t like the position of the emerging national majority: he proclaimed that this issue should be left to the states. No, Brian, it shouldn’t. Today we sit in a place – The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia – a place built as a testament to the evils that have happened right here in the United States, when civil rights, when human rights, are left in the hands of the states. Some will get it wrong, drastically wrong, and lives are literally on the line.

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