As we reflect on the holiday that honors the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., we should think about the indelible legacy he left in his actions and his words. He often said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” This year, on what would have been his 90th birthday his words and legacy are as relevant as ever. To honor Dr. King this day should not just be a day off, but should be one of reflection and a “Day of Service” to others through civic, community and intentional service projects. As a business leader and a man of faith, I constantly think about how I can serve others through my role at the helm of the Hampton Roads Chamber. While the Chamber means business it also must serve as in inspiring ignitor and impactful advocate in our community. Our advocacy efforts occur not just at the legislative level but also in recognizing inequalities, issues, challenges and concerns within our community and driving positive change.
In the corporate and business community of Hampton Roads, the Commonwealth, and the nation as a whole, African Americans are still not reaching the executive and board of director levels at rates one would expect. The number of African American CEO’s at Fortune 500 Companies is at its lowest since 2002. There are only three African American CEO’s in the Fortune 500, down from a high of six in 2012, according to a 2018 article in The Atlantic.
Here in Hampton Roads we talk often about diversifying our economy, but what if one contributing solution to growing our economic foundation is diversifying our workforce by ensuring diversity and inclusion at all levels? Study after study shows that diversifying the workforce strengthens it, allows for an influx of creative thinking, out of the box initiatives, solutions, reform and yes, even higher morale. The bottom line is a diverse workforce is a stronger and more productive workforce.
A perfect example of this is our military. And since we live in our military focused region it is not a leap to view our workforce through the lens of the military model. Our military is the greatest military in the history of mankind. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 70s and early 80s it was rife with racial issues. Since then they have adopted and implemented with strict discipline an equal opportunity policy, which has significantly strengthened it as an organization. This color-blind mentality means that the focus is on performance not race; unity of effort in achieving the mission not individualism; selfless service to something greater than one’s self not selfish prejudice; and pride in wearing the uniform of “One Nation Under God” where every individual has an equal opportunity to succeed based on their ability, performance and potential not their race. Why shouldn’t this translate into the business world?
With five historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) producing top talent across Virginia, Hampton Roads’ large military population and the proportion of African American residents in the region, there is no logical reason why the Hampton Roads business community is not leading the nation with African American senior executives and CEO’s. Our region was once rated in the top 15 for African American businesses yet the percentage of African American executives remains disproportionate to the amount of businesses and even more startling are the divisions in the unemployment rate based on race.
The unemployment rate is a barometer for gauging groups in the labor market. According to the Economic Policy Institute as of May 2018, in 14 states and DC, the African American unemployment rate is at least twice the white unemployment rate with Virginia’s African American unemployment rate at 5.4% compared to a 2.8% white unemployment demographic.
While Virginia as a whole does well for Minority-owned businesses, but interestingly the bulk of those exist in the melting pot of Northern Virginia. Interesting because in a 2017 US Census report Hampton Roads was one of the most diverse communities in the nation. In fact, Hampton Roads is the 13th largest African American community in America and it is predicted by 2040, it’s going to be a minority majority area with minorities representing 52% of the population.
In 2018, the Hampton Roads Chamber launched a Diversity in Business program. It was a program designed to start the discussion on identifying the challenges of minorities in the business community and start leveling the playing field and focusing on business inclusivity and equality. This year the discussion continues. On February 21st we resume and grow the program with another Diversity in Business forum where we are honored to have Carla Williams, University of Virginia’s Director of Athletics serving as our keynote speaker. Williams became the first female African American athletics director at a Power Five conference institution and is the fifth active female athletics director at that level in the United States.
Another one of my favorite Dr. King quotes (and I have many) is “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Let these words be a call to action for all of us. If you are reading this on your day off, reflect on Dr. King and what he stood for, commit yourself to civic service and know that your Hampton Roads Chamber is working for you, the community as a whole, and advocating for diversity and inclusion in our boardrooms, in the C-suites and across the spectrum of the business landscape in the region. The great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a very powerful dream!
Bryan K. Stephens
President & CEO
Hampton Roads Chamber