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Utah is full of diversity, and not saying so only holds back our progress.

Utah Business

Utah is full of diversity, and not saying so only holds back our progress.

Stop saying Utah isn’t diverse

There’s a refrain in the Utah business community I hear often: “Utah is not diverse. We have to look outside the state to hire for diversity.”  In May 2021, the Kem Gardner Policy Institute published an updated study on race, ethnicity, and sex called the “The Diversity in Utah Data Book.” According to the data, Utah is the 34th most racially/ethnically diverse state in the nation, with 22.3 percent of the state’s population identifying as Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Latina/o, or two or more races.  Could our population be more diverse? Obviously yes. But when we look at the more urban areas of our state, we have quite high ethnic and racial diversity: West Valley City 54 percent, Ogden City 39.5 percent, Salt Lake City 36.4 percent, and Salt Lake County 30 percent.

It may be illuminating to learn where this data comes from. Pre-2020, the census category “white” also included Middle Eastern and North African ethnicities. And when you think about ethnicity more broadly, there are many white people who move to Utah as immigrants from other countries who experience bias in their careers, due to language and cultural norms. 

Because the census relies on voluntary reporting, data collection can be impacted by race and class. Shawn Newell, who served on the Western Region African American & Black outreach committee for the US 2020 Census for Utah says, “communities of color can have a lack of trust with the census process. Government and civic leaders continue to be challenged to create authentic relationships with underrepresented communities. 

This impacts adequately communicating and educating about the economic, educational, and civic importance of participation in the census. Significant resources are provided based on our population count. In addition, across all ethnicities, children under the age of 5 are the most undercounted group. So our census, unfortunately, doesn’t accurately capture all of the ethnically diverse population that is actually here in Utah.”

Why this matters to business

 When leaders continue to say that “Utah is not diverse,” it actually holds us back from growing our economy in ways that you might not even realize. Utah is at an interesting inflection point. We’ve been through tumultuous times and are starting to emerge out of our Covid caves. We watched George Floyd’s murder, violence against Asians, and Covid disproportionally impact Native American, Black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian lives. Hundreds of business leaders have asked me in the past year about how to take meaningful action around diversifying their teams and creating equitable and inclusive workplaces. There is a strong desire to be authentic. As a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, I feel leaders are more ready than ever to make real and lasting change.  

Now is a good time to pause and rethink the narratives in order to drive meaningful change in our state.  I see leaders get stuck in their thinking on recruiting a diverse candidate pool. When I entered the legal field in 1999, I kept hearing from law firm partners, “female legal talent in Utah is scarce,” even with women graduating from law school at a rate of 50 percent nationally. I helped them get more creative about recruitment, and over a period of ten years, we hired over a dozen women attorneys.

 When I co-founded Women Tech Council in 2007, tech leaders would ask, “Where are the women in tech in Utah? We need to recruit from outside the state.” So over the years we built a community of over 10,000 tech professionals and tech companies became smarter and more creative about how to recruit and retain women. When we choose to see the talent that is already here, it changes the way we think about solutions.We are often blinded by our own bias, and that keeps us from being creative. 

You may have seen or heard of Danish psychologist, Edgar Rubin’s Vase illusion: Rubin presented an optical illusion of a white vase, with the black space around the vase in the shape of two faces in profile. Most people see the vase first. But when you know to look for the facial profiles, suddenly the other picture becomes obvious. This “Gestalt effect” is possible with race and ethnicity, if we choose to see it.  

To business leaders, I encourage you to reflect on how you influence others when you say, “Utah is not ethnically diverse.” Does it inspire action or inaction in your own company? Does it inspire frustration or creative solutions?  Or even harder to admit, perhaps this gives us an “out” on our own leadership accountability when someone points out that our company is not more diverse. When we choose to see the talent that is here, we open ourselves up to a plethora of creative options.  The reality is that most Utah companies establish themselves in the larger urban areas where the talent pool is actually quite diverse. So then, let’s get honest: why does our workforce and leadership team not reflect the talent that is right here in our own yard?

Also, ethnic diversity dramatically increases when we look to our younger generations. Three of Utah’s K-12 school districts are minority-majority (over 51 percent) – including Salt Lake City School District and Ogden School District. You might imagine the culture shock many of these young people experience when they are hired by Utah companies! Our youth in Utah are having a dramatically different experience, with multicultural diversity as their norm. “Leaders have an opportunity to see our students of color,” says Newell, who also serves on the Utah Board of Higher Education and formerly on the Utah State Board of Education. “College students of color are concerned about working in companies that don’t reflect the multicultural experience they grew up with. We need to get ahead of retaining this great talent here in Utah.”

As one of his last acts as governor in December 2020, Governor Herbert and hundreds of business leaders signed the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion housed by the Salt Lake Chamber. A core principle of this statement is that “economic inclusion is essential to creating [truly equal opportunity to prosper].” The Compact also encourages leaders to engage broader communities and create deeper connections across social, cultural, and racial lines. My invitation to leaders is to choose to see the vibrant diversity that already exists in our state.  An abundance mindset has always served Utah well, and ethnic diversity is the next untapped economic opportunity ahead of us.

Sara Jones is CEO of InclusionPro. She draws from over 20 years of professional experience in technology, business development, law, and leadership. InclusionPro works across a range of industries including technology, engineering, materials manufacturing, financial/venture firms, human resources, legal services, health care, higher education, e-commerce, consumer products, distribution, and non-profit organizations.  Jones, who was adopted from South Korea at age three, grew up as one of few Asians in a predominantly white community, and in her professional life, has often been one of few women leaders. These experiences helped her develop a profound and personal understanding of the value of diverse perspectives. Over 2 million people have watched her TED talk on transracial adoption. Jones was previously CEO of ApplicantPro, VP of Strategic Development at Patent Law Works, head of business development at School Improvement Network, and began her career as a patent attorney, becoming a partner at Workman Nydegger. She has advocated throughout her career for the benefits of greater diversity in our companies, boardrooms, and circles of power. Jones is a Co-founder of Women Tech Council (WTC), a national organization focused on the economic impact of women in driving high growth for the technology sector. She also serves on the Utah State Workforce Development Board, Board of Trustees for Intermountain Healthcare Salt Lake Valley Hospitals, and the Executive Board of Silicon Slopes. Jones was honored as a Distinguished Alumni from the University of Utah (2021), a Utah Business Magazine CEO of the Year (2019), received a Distinguished Alumni award from the University of Utah College of Engineering (2017), and was a Utah Innovation Awardee. Jones has a J.D. from BYU and a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Utah.  

Comments (6)

  • Kent Nelson

    I love how the author addresses this in a positive way i.e. it is an opportunity to have more talent regardless of race. I believe under this approach Utah business leaders will look to hire more minorities and more ethnicity especially entry level people coming out of training programs from community colleges and universities. Being an employer in Utah we are looking to get the highest qualify of workers at the best value. More often than not minorities win the competition.

    • Sara Jones

      Thank you Kent! Yes I believe viewing things from an opportunity and not a deficit lens produces innovative results. Thanks for doing your part!

  • Samantha Fullmer

    Look at Boards and C-level in Utah companies . Entry level isn’t diverse. Performative DEI is an old trend.

    • Sara Jones

      Thank you, that is my next topic!

  • Megan Brewster

    Great article and perspective. So much depends on the story we tell ourselves. This is true in higher education as well – diverse students are driving the enrollment in the future, so we need to create environments that best support them.

    • Sara Jones

      Yes! I like to remind leaders that the future is here already.

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