SALT LAKE CITY — As a senior at University of California, Berkeley, Frances James was apprehensive when Goldman Sachs tapped her for a job as an analyst at the company’s offices in Utah.
She knew the move from Oakland to Salt Lake City in July would be a significant cultural shift, but she wasn’t prepared for just how momentous it would be. James is Filipino and Black, and identifies as Black.
“The thing I noticed first, from that first day coming out of the car, was that no one looked like me,” James said.
Many of Utah’s largest employers are trying to bring more racial and ethnic diversity to the workforce, hoping varied viewpoints will enrich companies and communities.
They’re not getting as far as they’d hoped.
Utah remains overwhelmingly white, a “shock factor” that often stuns newcomers and makes it difficult for them to feel at home, according to executives, civic leaders and those who moved to the state for career opportunities. Civic and business leaders have joined in a push to help make all feel welcome and to retain minorities in the workplace.
The art of intentionality
“Since about 2013 (Dominion Energy) started aggressively hiring diverse candidates,” according to Craig Wagstaff, senior vice president of Western operations for the Virginia-based natural gas and electricity supplier in 16 states. “(As) a benchmark, in 2013, about 27% of our new hires (nationwide) were diverse at that point. In 2020, that number had jumped to 50%.”
While the company’s national efforts have been successful, revamping the workforce in states like Utah can be a bit more difficult due to the natural makeup of its population, he said.
“One of the things we felt was important is to try to ensure that we train our hiring managers and supervisors, and most of this training would focus on unconscious biases that they maybe didn’t even realize they have,” he said.
He said the effort included participating in major recruiting events across the country and hiring diversity recruiting specialists to help create workforces that mirror the communities Dominion Energy serves, he added.
Dominion has aligned itself with organizations like the Society of Hispanic Engineers, the Society of Black Engineers and the National Society of Women Engineers. Wagstaff said the company is dedicated to providing opportunities to a broad cross section of qualified applicants any time it lists an open position.
“We encourage all of our hiring supervisors and managers that when they do have a position they’re filling to ensure they have some diversity in that pool for consideration,” he said. The company also has a scholarship program geared toward minority student interns.
To help in its retention efforts, the company has developed employee resource groups to give workers a way to make connections and develop a sense of belonging.
“It’s about inclusion and having more of the interaction of professional development amongst employees (because) employee inclusion is just absolutely critical for retention,” Wagstaff said.
At Lehi-based Carrus — an online training provider for the allied health care industry — employing a diverse workforce is important to serve its target audience comprised primarily of people of color and women, explained CEO Misty Frost.
“In order to best serve our audience and really understand exactly what it is they need and help them achieve the success that they’re looking for, we really need to be very conscious about being plugged into not only what we care about in our culture but being sensitive to the culture of our learners and really supporting people where they’re at,” she said.
For companies, it’s incumbent they provide ongoing awareness training to create an environment that exhibits inclusivity and intentionality.
“It’s really important for leadership to continually beat the drum and they need to do it in meaningful ways by the actions they take. You can’t just talk about it once a month and (say) we care about diversity and then you don’t do anything about it,” Frost said. “Are you reviewing your hiring practices, how you write your job descriptions, how you’re interviewing people, are all the people who are interviewing sensitive to the issues?”
Casting a wide net to develop more diversity
Getting people from diverse backgrounds to take good jobs and come to the Beehive State is one thing, but getting them to feel like Utah can be their new long-term home is another.
“People will move to a new state for economic opportunity. So for people of color, when they get to Utah, they maybe last three to four years,” according to Sui Lang L. Panoke, senior vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at Zions Bank. “Then they start to think, ‘I don’t know if I could really build a life here, raise my children, start a family. If I really feel integrated into the community.’ And so we lose that (talent).”
She added that because retention is very important to businesses and their bottom lines, having high rates of employee turnover can be costly not only in a financial sense but also as it relates to innovation and productivity.
“We need to get this retention thing down. That’s the piece that we struggle with. Recruitment — we’re definitely making great strides in that arena and it’s working,” she said. “But it’s the retention piece (we need to work on). How do we get people to stay? People stay because of the culture. People (also) leave because of the culture.”
While some organizations foster an “amazing, inclusive culture” in the local community — 15 minutes down the street, people feel isolated.
“You don’t feel like you belong in that culture,” Panoke said. “It has to be a business partnered with government, that public-private partnership committed to driving home a culture that is really going to move the needle on retention.”
Currently, 1 in 5 Utahns identifies as a minority, she said. In Zions Bancorp., the proportion of minorities within the workforce is about 15%. She said the goal of the company is to reflect the makeup of the local population.
“It starts with listening, learning and then leading,” she said. “That’s where, especially white people in the Beehive State, need to start.”
Diversity, equity and inclusion starts at home
Minority business leaders are echoing the sentiments of employers like Dominion and Zions about the need to focus attention on recruiting candidates from the state’s growing minority population.
The head of the Utah Black Chamber of Commerce noted that the number of African Americans in the Beehive State has jumped significantly in recent years.
“When you think about the Black population’s growth here, we’ve been talking about 2% (overall) for the last six years,” said James Jackson III, founder of the Utah Black Chamber. Utah’s population grew steadily in the five-year period ending in 2014, he noted, but the percentage of Black Utahns remained stagnant, he said, “and the reason why is attrition.”
Statewide, 4 in 5 Utah residents are white, census data show, while 14.4% are Hispanic, and just 1.5% are Black, according to 2019 census estimates, the most recent available.
Jackson said often after a few years, African Americans choose to leave Utah because they don’t feel comfortable being such a huge minority at work and in the community.
Jackson said companies should make an effort to provide employees of all backgrounds the opportunity for advancement to the highest levels of their companies.
“I was speaking with a Black professional last summer who was part of a tech company. He was one of our mentors for our Leadership Pathway Program, the goal of which is to increase diversity in leadership in business, in government and within other organizations,” Jackson said. “Ironically, he ended up getting promoted to a chief technology officer position out of state. He said he would have stayed here but there were no C-suite opportunities here for him, so he was shipping out.
“We have to do a better job of continuing the pipeline not only out of high school or college but from entry to midlevel, from midlevel to senior level, from senior level to the executive level — that pipeline has to continue.”
That includes the right mentoring and the right opportunities for the proper pay, Jackson said. Those steps are something Utah could better ensure take place by appointing a statewide officer over diversity in business, he said.
In the meantime, Jackson’s organization has teamed up with other diverse business chambers in the state and with Salt Lake City on an initiative to help those new to Utah feel at home, whether they’re looking to find a social network, a place of worship or cultural events they might not otherwise learn about.
Living Color Utah, still in its early stages, provides an online guide and events aimed at those of different ethnicities, plus LGBTQ people and transplants.
Ben Kolendar, director of the city’s Department of Economic Development, said it became more clear that Utah’s capital city has work to do after a corporation that was considering coming to Utah chose Atlanta instead, citing Utah’s lack of diversity.
“That stung. And it started some conversations with some partners of ours, and got the ball rolling on a lot of things that you see playing out now,” Kolender said. “It wasn’t just that we weren’t diverse enough, but also that we hear from some of our local companies that retention can be tough.”
To help, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall is hiring a chief equity officer, a senior adviser that will help the city chart a path forward, and her employees are working on an equity master plan.
It’s an idea that Rep. Sandra Hollins, Utah’s lone Black state lawmaker, welcomes.
“I think that’s that’s what we all need to be looking at doing, how do we go about making this our community a better place for it and more welcoming to everyone?” Hollins said.
When Hollins moved to Utah from her home state of Louisiana roughly 30 years ago, the difficulties she encountered ranged from finding a sense of community in the overwhelmingly white state to tracking down hair products for African American women.
It took about two years to adjust, but Hollins found a home at Cavalry Baptist Church in Salt Lake City and in an African American women’s sorority organization, and the right hair care items have become more widely available as Utah has slowly diversified.
“For newcomers, it’s difficult for them, and that’s what I’ve heard from a lot of people. They just feel that they there’s no way for them to fit in,” Hollins said.
A significant adjustment
Before taking her job with Goldman Sachs, James, a Southern California native, had done her research about the Beehive State’s history, demographics and politics, but the difference when she arrived in Utah was startling all the same.
In just the first few weeks, she encountered employees at stores who were reluctant or refused to help her. Others in public stared at her hair and her Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
One worker in a Salt Lake City home improvement store refused to help James and her 15-year-old brother find a drill, leading her brother to ask her, “Why was that man so mean to us? Was it because we were Black?
“I’m used to it,” James said. “I’ve dealt with microagressions and macroegressions and blatant racism to my face before, but it really was hurtful to know that my little brother had to confront this in a new state that we had been in for three days.”
She’s met others through the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and advocated for a successful 2020 ballot measure Hollins proposed to eliminate slavery from the state constitution. The initiative’s success signaled process, but James said she struggled to make sense of the voters that voted against it.
“As a Black person new to the state, I thought, who’s in favor of slavery?” she recalled.
Her colleagues at work are supportive, and her employer is committed to increasing diversity across its ranks. It announced a $10 billion initiative to help Black women advance economically in the face of racism, James noted.
But not being able to see those co-workers in person because of the pandemic makes it harder to adjust.
She’s isn’t immune to the charms of Salt Lake City’s downtown, which she described as “this little blue bubble in Utah,” and has enjoyed hiking, snowboarding and camping in the mountains.
She’s now planning to return to her home state, in part to be close to family, but also because of what she’s faced in Utah.
“I could love my job, I could love the area, I can love the activities that I do. But if I feel like I can’t go out somewhere, or if I feel like I can’t go to Zion National Park and stay in St. George because the people look at me funny when I walk in the hotel, or question whether or not I’m supposed to be there ... I’m tired of having to continuously deal with it and act like it doesn’t bother me.”