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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014
Commentary

Nadine Smith: In Florida, the bottom line is equality means business


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“Equality means business.”

It was the answer a Florida business leader gave me to explain why his company was updating its non-discrimination policies and looking to shift the corporate culture to attract greater diversity.

I’d been invited to a training at their corporate headquarters and was curious about what the motivation was to add LGBT protections and expand their diversity program. They were losing key prospects and noticed that highly sought after, talented young applicants were breaking at the last minute for their less-resourced competitor.

He and other leaders in his company came to the same conclusion that businesses around the country and the state overwhelmingly have: Smart, talented people go to places that allow them to be themselves and where diverse perspectives can fire innovation.

Every company on Fortune magazine’s list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” includes sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policy. More than half of these companies have now added gender identity.

Economist Richard Florida’s research revealed a strong correlation between economically thriving cities and the existence of strong, inclusive anti-discrimination policies.

“Members of the creative class — the 40 million workers, a third of the American workforce — the scientists and engineers, innovator and entrepreneurs, researchers and academics, architects and designers, artists, entertainers and media types and professionals in business, management, health care and law who power economic growth — place a huge premium on diversity. In fact, they use it as a proxy to determine whether a city will provide a welcoming and stimulating environment for them,” wrote Florida.

In 2008, the Knight Foundation and Gallup dug deeper into the topic of diversity and talent in their groundbreaking study “The Soul of the Community.” After interviewing close to 43,000 people in 26 communities over three years, the study found that three main qualities attach people to place: social offerings, such as entertainment venues and places to meet; openness (how welcoming a place is); and the area’s aesthetics (its physical beauty and green spaces).

Researchers learned the communities with highest levels of resident attachment — a person’s passion for where he or she lives — also had the highest rates of GDP growth over time.

Equality Means Business is now a project of Equality Florida Institute with the goal of improving Florida’s national and international reputation as a welcoming and inclusive state to live, work and visit.

“The study provides empirical evidence that the drivers that create emotional bonds between people and their community are consistent in virtually every city and can be reduced to just a few categories,” according to the report. “Interestingly, the usual suspects — jobs, the economy and safety — are not among the top drivers. Rather, people consistently give higher ratings for elements that relate directly to their daily quality of life: an area’s physical beauty, opportunities for socializing and a community’s openness to all people.

“When a city is not a good place for older people, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, young adults without children and gay men and lesbians it is even a less welcoming place for ‘young, talented college graduates.’”

Today, Tech Data, Florida Blue, CSX, Winn Dixie, C1 Bank, Wells Fargo, the University of North Florida, the University of Miami, PNC Bank, Moffitt, Citi, On Top of the World and Tropicana are among Florida’s top employers and institutions that have joined the Equality Means Business Advisory board, and the list continues to grow (www.equalitymeansbusiness.org).

Smaller businesses let us know they wanted to be visibly on the side of equality, so we are launching in September a program called Another Business for Equality (www.AE4B.org) that focuses on small to mid-sized companies.

And importantly, the voices emerging from business are bipartisan. In fact, Republican business leaders have become the most outspoken supporters of local and statewide non-discrimination laws being updated to include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Steve Halverson, CEO of Haskell Co., says the business case for the updating anti-discrimination protections is overwhelming.

“We are embarrassingly behind other communities for the lack of this kind of protection, and I’ll add, I’m a dedicated Republican, so I would oppose any effort to make this political. It’s about jobs, fairness and bringing Jacksonville into a nationally competitive posture.”

The business community, with a focus on the bottom line, is miles ahead of the political leadership on the issues of diversity and has been for years. It is time for our non-discrimination laws to be updated statewide, and momentum is growing in Tallahassee to accomplish that thanks in large part to the growing voices of business leaders. People will go where they believe talent and hard work shape their destiny, not prejudice.

Florida can lead now or run to catch up later, but the bottom line remains: Equality means business.

Nadine Smith is the CEO of Equality Florida|Equality Florida Institute.

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