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Utah Business

Evidence is mounting that diversity is not a by-product but a key driver of economic progress.

Our Companies Need Diversity

Back in January, I attended the Salt Lake Chamber’s Economic Outlook and Public Policy Summit. It is the state’s premier economic forecasting and public policy event and there were more than 800 attendees comprised of business, economic, and academic thought leaders from across the state.

This is the third year I had the privilege of attending the Summit and every year, I’ve gained valuable knowledge. I get excited about the direction Utah is moving, and the Summit allows me to build, and strengthen relationships with many of the influential leaders in our state. However, there was just one thing that bothered me about the Summit: out of the 800 attendees, only a handful were of a diverse background.

I was one of only two Black people, and the other was there with the press. Although there were several female speakers, all of the speakers were white. And yet, some of the topics that were discussed heavily impact Utah’s diversity, including healthcare and education.

As we face contentious debate over immigration, prejudices against the LGBTQ+ community, and challenges of religious freedom, we’re experiencing a time that resembles the racial divides during the civil rights movement. Because of this, diversity and inclusion have become some of the hottest topics discussed in the community, government, and the corporate world.

You see it in marketing. Companies are advertising using diversity and promoting that they are inclusive of everyone. New companies recently relocating to Utah have a heavy emphasis on recruiting diverse talent. But why all the buzz regarding diversity? Why is it important for companies to market to diverse populations as well as to recruit diverse talent?

Research shows that companies with a diverse workforce perform better financially. Companies in the top quartile of gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians; on average, they are in the top 30 percent. Research also shows that for every 10 percent increase in ethnic and racial diversity on the senior executive team, earnings rise almost one percent.

Utah Is Becoming More Diverse

Since the 2010 Census, Utah’s minority population has grown over 30 percent. As of last year, it’s been reported that the LGBTQ+ population has risen to nearly 5 percent, meaning that Utah has the seventh largest percentage of LGBTQ+ residents in the country. As a result, more than one out of five Utahns are of a diverse background, and the numbers continue to grow each year.

There’s no stopping the rapid growth of diversity. We’ve already seen proof of that in areas like West Valley City and the schools within the Granite School District, where more than half of those populations are of a minority background. As Utah’s population gets younger, the more diverse it becomes. Refugees, immigration, and interracial marriages mean minorities will become the majority within the next 20 years.

Utah’s strong labor force is also contributing to the increase in diversity. However, research shows―especially within companies that have strong numbers of diverse talent― that the numbers of diverse talent coming in are also going out.

At last year’s Silicon Slopes Summit, Omar Johnson, a Black man who is the former CMO of Beats by Dre, shared on stage that he would come back to the Summit again, but emphasized that he would like to see more diversity in attendance. Those at Silicon Slopes took note of that, and this year’s festival included more breakout speakers (and attendees) of women and people of color. Diversity was even a popular topic on stage.

A few years ago, tech companies also came together to form the Parity Pledge―a commitment to interview at least one qualified woman for every open position that is at the vice presidential level or above. According to the web site,, around 300 companies from various industries have already signed, with a future goal to have 1,000 companies sign the pledge.

Diversity Affects Job Growth

In 2017, the executives of a large global financial services company that has offices in Salt Lake City approached the city’s economic development department with concerns in retaining and growing its diverse talent. This company is one of the most diverse companies in the state, but it was also experiencing high turnover of its diverse employees.

Through exit interviews and other insight, they were able to determine that Utah’s high attrition rate was due to the lack of diversity in Utah. This made it difficult for diverse communities to make Utah their home, and they often left soon after their arrival. In an attempt to address this issue, these executives asked if the Salt Lake City Department of Economic Development could assist in the creation of some sort of diversity guide that would provide their employees with access to diverse resources throughout the state.

After meeting with a few of the community organizations, the Utah Black Chamber of was commissioned to take on the project. The Living Color Utah website was launched in the fall of 2018 in collaboration with the other diverse chambers of commerce and organizations serving Utah’s diverse community. It delivers an online guide of the businesses, events, and organizations that serve diverse communities in Utah as well as a one-page information flyer company acquisition teams can give to their employees at an orientation.

Just recently, I attended a recruiting open house for a global company who opened an office in Salt Lake City. Like most companies, they want to build a culture that attracts and embraces diversity. When speaking with the president of the company and its recruiting director, they were surprised at the data I provided them about Utah’s current and growing diversity.

“That’s not what we saw when we did our research. Salt Lake looked so white,” said the president. They were concerned about future growth opportunities due to the lack of diversity their research showed them. The insight I provided gave them hope and they wanted to know more about raising their visibility in the diverse community.

Last August, Black real estate developers from the East Coast were visiting Utah to determine whether there were any investment opportunities here. Coincidentally, the Utah Black Chamber was hosting its annual community BBQ at the Gallivan Center that same week, and Lara Fritts, the director of economic development, brought the developers to the event to introduce them to leaders of the African-American community.

They were impressed by the diverse attendance of the 2,000 plus person crowd. I answered their questions and addressed concerns regarding Utah’s diversity. We had a productive conversation and they left fans of Salt Lake City, satisfied with what they heard. They are currently exploring the opportunity to develop affordable housing in Salt Lake City.

According to Ms. Fritts, “developers and companies come to Salt Lake City to determine if they want to develop, expand, or relocate, and the perceptions of Utah’s diversity continue to challenge our recruitment efforts. The Living Color guide is an outstanding tool to share the story of the beautiful diversity that is Salt Lake City.” 

In a recent conversation with Michael Flynn, COO at the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, he shared that Utah has recently lost projects to more ethnically diverse communities, like Atlanta, in part due to those markets having a more diverse labor pool. In EDCUtah’s Site Selector Perception Study for 2018, site selectors were asked to report on the importance of specific social issues on corporate recruitment decisions. The most significant social issue noted, at 18.5 percent, was the diversity of the labor pool.

EDCUtah is looking at developing better collateral on Utah’s diversity picture by working with Utah’s diverse organizations.

The Importance Of Diversity In Leadership

Diversity brings a diversity of culture, beliefs, as well as thoughts, and ideas. When a company has views from different perspectives, it provides more opportunities to grow and be competitive in its industry.

Utah has one of the fastest growing economies in the country. To keep this momentum, diversity will be a critical element for companies, because of all of the reasons shared above. Especially, since the minority population is steadily growing, and it would be a competitive edge to be proactive in establishing a culture of a diverse workforce now rather than later.

As leadership speaker and author, John Maxwell shares, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” The attendees of the Salt Lake Chamber’s Policy & Economic Outlook Summit are a poor representation of Utah’s demographics. However, this is the perception possessed by those who live outside of Utah, and it’s not until they arrive and reside do they see the growing diverse population.

For the perception to change, diversity in leadership needs to be increased and become more visible. More companies are opening a diversity and inclusion officer role, who will raise awareness of diversity in the organization and provide strategic support for programs and initiatives designed to create and maintain a fully diverse and inclusive workforce. Through the process, an organization will develop a culture that attracts diversity, and leadership will become more diverse. And when the leadership becomes more diverse and visible, it will help change the perception of Utah being so homogenous.

Utah has a growing diverse population that is a key contributor to our growing economy. Hopefully, in the next couple of years, the Summit’s attendance and guest speakers will look a lot different.

James Jackson, III is the founder of the Utah Black Chamber and the assistant vice president of community development at Zions Bank.

James Jackson is the supplier diversity program manager of Zions Bancorporation’s supply chain management and founder of the Utah Black Chamber.