I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but after living in southern Georgia briefly and spending five years in Las Vegas, I eventually landed in Utah. Coming from ethnically diverse cities, I had my own presumptions about Utah and I wasn’t alone.
Brian Perrin, a 54-year-old Utah-raised member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints described the outside “perception” of Utah best when he said: “The bulk of national [Church] news involves Amish-looking fundamentalists, and that seems to be a pervasive image of what ‘Utah’ means, and particularly what ‘very white Utah’ means for blacks.”
Mr. Perrin is an aspiring author who is working on a different kind of diversity book for members of the Church and their friends. He contends that by appreciating and addressing the controversy hiding in plain sight, relations can be radically improved without anyone having to change or compromise their own convictions.
Mr. Perrin believes diversity in Utah correlates with how the “Utah religion” is perceived and how its members perceive others. His favorite classic example is a story from his friend Cameron Williams, who I happened to interview for this article.
The Reality Of Diversity In Utah
Cameron Williams, a black man from Chicago, is the director of diversity and principal sales architect at Domo. When I asked if he had initial hesitations about moving to Utah, he said: “I was unfamiliar with Utah, so my family and I Googled it. From what we read, some [members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] believed that black people were cursed because of their darker skin color. So, my initial thought was that Utah was all white, and black people were not truly welcome there.” His original plan was to come to Utah for 18 months and then move to Dallas―that was seven years ago.
“Have you seen the movie Get Out?” he asked me. Get Out is an Oscar-winning horror film about a black man visiting his girlfriend in an all white neighborhood. The movie’s tagline is “just because you’re invited, doesn’t mean you’re welcome.” “Outside of the fantastical things that happen in the movie, that [film] is a common perception of Utah: that black people are a rare sighting.”
Mr. Williams recently hosted a Domo-sponsored dinner, celebrating the National Association of Black Accountants’ first national meeting in Utah. There he asked the attendees who had seen the movie Get Out. Almost everyone raised their hands, and to relieve the room he said, “That is not Utah. Everyone laughed, because that’s what they were all thinking. That is the black perspective of Utah outside of the state,” he says.
Mr. Williams, who hopes to one day get married and start a family in the state, says there’s a lot more that needs to happen before he’s comfortable doing so. “I want things to change because I love Utah. This is where I want to be. But right now, I fear that my future children might lose black culture here in Utah, rather than find places that celebrate it like I had in Chicago. But I believe together, with a little hard work, we can change that story for the better.”
How Companies Are Trying To Change That
Domo is trying to change the perception of Utah as an undiverse and intolerant state through bold and untraditional advocacy for diversity. Their goal is to create an inclusive environment for their employees and the community as a whole.. “When you walk in our doors you should feel included regardless of any level of diversity, seen or unseen,” says Mr. Williams.
The company aims to accomplish that by bringing education and resources to their employees, partnering with diversity focused leaders and organizations, and updating their recruiting strategies to reach a more diverse talent pool. “It’s time we think outside the box. That’s why you see support for the LGBTQ+ community on Domo billboards, or us working with minority coalitions to bring them to the Silicon Slopes Summit. We’re trying to be open, honest, and very candid about the situation in Utah and how to make the most of it,” says Mr. Williams.
As Domo believes: “If you want the product to reach the masses, put the masses in your product. All perspectives matter.”
Anita Grantham, the chief people officer at Pluralsight, agrees. She says diversity is important in an organization because it’s the right thing to do. “It’s the 21st century and our place in the world should mirror the world around us,” she says.
One of the ways Pluralsight has chosen to prioritize diversity, is through their participation in the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion and the ParityPledge. Both organizations work closely with Utah CEOs―including Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard and Domo CEO Josh James―to change the way organizations hire and compensate diverse talent throughout the state.
Pluralsight’s inclusion efforts even extend beyond the company’s walls through Pluralsight One, a corporate advised fund that is part of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Their mission is to “create freedom, equality, and opportunity around the globe.” They’re able to do so through their partnerships with organizations such as Code.org, a nonprofit focused on expanding computer science in schools and increasing participation by minorities and women.
“The only way to understand the day-to-day struggles is to educate people. That’s what has happened and it’s a magical thing,” – Michael Beedie
Other companies, like Discover, work to foster inclusion among their own employees. The company has created several ethnic groups and clubs that foster community between their employees. “These [groups] host various internal and external events, volunteer activities, and community outreach programs throughout the year to help build a thriving culture that celebrates service and diversity,” says Saroyan Hill, a black woman from Cincinnati who is also an area manager at the company.
“I’ll admit I had a preconceived notion of what life here would be like,” she says. “But I’ve been pleasantly surprised… [Discover’s] events have helped me connect with some pretty incredible people and events. Utah is a beautiful state with so much to offer. There’s a great job market here and an endless list of things to do and see.”
Michael Beedie had a similar experience upon moving to Utah. Born in Africa, he moved to Utah in 2002 and joined eBay as their site lead for black employees in 2009. “eBay is a company that flourishes, supports, and understands the importance of diversity,” he says. “Different groups of inclusions is important to eBay’s success.”
Last year, the group celebrated Black History Month by having African dancers come to the campus. They featured various jazz musicians, and invited France A. Davis, a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church to speak about diversity. They even rented a movie theatre so more than 300 of their employees could attend the Black Panther premier.
There are 180 active members in Black Employees at eBay (BEE), and over 80 percent are non-blacks who support the cause. “The only way to understand the day-to-day struggles is to educate people. That’s what has happened and it’s a magical thing,” says Mr. Beedie.
Building Better Companies Means Hiring More Diverse Teams
Bruce Hancey is the talent acquisition manager at L3 Technologies, a defense contractor in Salt Lake City. “The unemployment rate is really low, so we definitely go outside Utah to find talent. That could be East Coast to the West Coast to everything in between,” he says.
“We have looked at studies that strongly support having a diverse workforce and how that affects your business. Not only internally, but also your relationship with your customers. If you have diverse customers, employing a diverse workforce has its relationship advantages,” says Mr. Hancey.
L3 Technologies is involved in the Grace Hopper Celebration, an organization that supports the growth and development of female technologists; the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, which empowers the Hispanic community to enroll in STEM careers; and the USBLN, a national B2B organization that focuses on sharing proven strategies for hiring people with disabilities.
“Culturally, we promote and foster a culture of diversity and inclusion. We built a pathway for employees of diverse backgrounds―that includes ethnicity and gender, people with disabilities, and vehicles for those employees to have a voice in our business. But they also have a voice socially with some of the resources we have in place,” says Mr. Hancey.
Mr. Hancey, a Utah-native who spent time in New York City saw the need to invest more time in the diversity community of Salt Lake City. “I was fortunate enough to meet Emma Houston [at the Salt Lake Mayor’s Office]. She introduced me to a vast network, including the African American Chamber of Commerce, the Asian Chamber, and the Hispanic Chamber.”
After meeting with James Jackson, III, the assistant vice president of community development at Zions Bank as well as the founder and executive director of the Utah-African American Chamber of Commerce for lunch, I learned that the pair created an event to support diversity in Salt Lake City, and they brought in the three chambers to help.
“We had so much interest from businesses in Utah. At least 40 companies wanted to participate in the fair and have a booth. We actually had to turn people away,” Mr. Jackson says.
This year’s Diversity Center Fair will be held on April 30, 2019 at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. Companies like L3, Zions Bank, Wells Fargo, O.C. Tanner, Progressive Insurance, and Refugee Services Center will be there. Needless to say, there are a lot of partners. “It’s an exciting event, a lot of fun, and it’s important for our community,” he says.
Why Diverse Populations Should Move To Utah
Emma Houston, director of diversity & inclusion at the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office as well as chair of the Utah MLK Human Rights Commission, is a black woman born and raised in Dallas. She explained that whenever she travels outside of Utah and tells colleagues she’s from Salt Lake City, there’s usually a pause in the room and she’ll hear, “I didn’t know there was a black population in Utah.”
When visitors come to Utah, they’re surprised how active the diverse population is, she says. “We have 130 languages spoken throughout state. When you look at the demographics, that’s 1.29 million people from diverse backgrounds. Utah is a progressive state. The industries and cultures we have here are multi-faceted and the perception that it’s not diverse is not true. You need to visit Utah to get a feel what our populations offer. We are a welcoming and inclusive state. You have to experience Salt Lake City to appreciate the diversity that is here.
“When you think about Salt Lake City being the capital of Utah, we have the same things as a more diverse community like Atlanta. We have the sports teams, the education. Fifty percent of Westminster College students are out of state but when they graduate, 80 percent stay. When you graduate, you’re more likely to stay because there are more opportunities here. Because of the small number of demographics.”
Since coming to Utah in 1986, Ms. Houston says her experience has been a positive one, but mostly because she made it so. “I have challenged the status quo that we are much more than the outside world thinks we are,” she says.
“We want people who visit or migrate to Utah to see that Utah is a place for people of color to reside, settle, and thrive…” – James Jackson, III
Of Utah’s 3.15 million residents, the ethnic population makes up 1.2 million, she says. African Americans exist in Salt Lake City and they are a thriving community. “Anyone thinking of moving to Utah, come and meet with members of the diverse communities. We’re able to paint a better picture of the opportunities and how progressive Utah is,” she says.
For those members of the African American community interested in moving to Utah, Ms. Houston suggests visiting livingcolorut.com, a website created by the Utah African American Chamber of Commerce (UAACC) and slco.org/diversity/coda, which lists many of the opportunities provided by diverse communities in the state.
The Mission To Attract Diversity To Our State
Mr. Jackson made it his personal mission to change the landscape of diversity in Utah. According to him, “The Utah African-American Chamber of Commerce recognizes the opportunity of elevating the visibility of diversity in Utah. It’s more than just the economic development. We want people who visit or migrate to Utah to see that Utah is a place for people of color to reside, settle, and thrive. It’s more than just ‘acceptability.’
“People want to see and engage with people like them, and as an organization whose focus is community development, [The Utah African-American Chamber Of Commerce] believes it is our responsibility to create the environment. We do this with events anyone can attend, not just business professionals, such as our Evening in Harlem, when we celebrate Black History Month, or our Community BBQ, an evening of food and music.
“We connect and collaborate with other organizations of diversity to grow more unified and become more visible. With this collaboration, we are creating opportunities beyond business-to-business like other chambers.
“We are business to community; which is more valuable. So, the companies who look for opportunities for community outreach and development and look for qualified talent of diversity, can come to one organization for its ‘diversity concierge.’ Other states have ‘pockets’ in cities that is populated by a certain demographic. Utah doesn’t necessarily have that, so we have to create an environment to make it feel like a ‘pocket’ exists.”
“Remove the Zion Curtain,” he says. “So when they come here, they can see diversity exists.”