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Equity and diversity among the keys to future economic success in Utah, panel says

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Downtown Salt Lake City is pictured on Oct. 12, 2020. A panel of Utah leaders says ensuring opportunities for people of all backgrounds is key for the Beehive State to maintain its ongoing level of economic prosperity.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

For the Beehive State to maintain its ongoing level of economic prosperity, making sure people from diverse circumstances have the opportunity to participate in that success will be a key component, a panel of Utah leaders said Wednesday.

Research by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute showed that in 2015, 79% of Utah’s population identified as white (non-Hispanic), with 14% identifying as Hispanic, 2% as two or more races, 2% as Asian, 1% as Black or African American and 1% for other, according to Gardner Institute Director Natalie Gochnour. Projecting into the future, the state’s minority population is expected to grow to 35% by 2060, making that demographic an important part of the economic makeup, she said.

Speaking Wednesday during the institute’s monthly online Newsmaker Breakfast, panelists from the state’s equity, multicultural and business communities told Gochnour that ensuring opportunity is available to Utahns of all backgrounds will be critical to the state’s future economic progress.

“These numbers are particularly exciting because it shows the appeal of Utah to diverse communities, which is key to also attracting businesses and companies who are exploring us as their next home base,” said Nubia Peña, director of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs. “This is important to our economy because we have a fairly diverse portfolio, so as a state, if we’re looking to be the type of place where people want to bring their talent here, they want to cultivate their workforce here, then we’re really being set up for a future of economic thriving. It is also important for us to note that as a state, if we’re not developing our capacity to work with diverse populations that we won’t be able to retain that global talent and risk being passed over by businesses that are seeking to hire, promote and develop a workforce that represents their clients.

“Research shows that companies with a diverse workforce perform better financially, companies in the top quartile of gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians, on average they’re in the top 30%,” she said. “In order to compete with other states whose demographics have a higher diverse population to draw from, Utah can adopt best practices around hiring, promotion and retention in order to appeal to businesses looking to make Utah their home.”

Pena said her office is poised to support those efforts through training and professional development by facilitating conversations on why diversity matters and why Utah should lead with equity, and working to cultivate inclusive workspaces “where people feel like they’re valued, they can contribute, they are seen, they are heard and they are part of the culture.”

A fellow panelist, Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson, said the growing minority demographic will not only add to the diversity of the state, but to the economic potential for businesses statewide.

“(These) are the markets that we go after, they are what make up our economy, and the importance of understanding the trends is to ensure that we are ready as businesses to bring all of these new members into the economy, and that we have the capability of servicing them, and that we reflect what the community is,” he said. “Everyone can agree that people should have an equal opportunity to prosper, and that only comes if we have an economy that’s inclusive because that’s what creates the opportunities to prosper.

“So when you know these numbers and you see the trends, and you’re out there from a business point of view planning for that, and planning for the products and services and delivery of those to this expanded market, it makes good business sense,” he added.

Emma Houston, special assistant to the vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Utah, said that an important consideration is understanding the distinct differences between those three key words and their individual meanings.

“While the words are often used interchangeably, equity can be defined as fair treatment, access, opportunity and advancement for all people. Diversity is all the ways in which people differ or self-identify, and inclusion is the variety of people who have power of voice and decision-making authority,” she explained. “So when we’re talking about the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion, we’re changing our lens and we’re changing our perspective on what that looks like.

“But the numbers indicate that the changes in the demographics will create opportunities for our communities to shift in the ways we view individuals and their contributions to the communities and the industries that they live and work in,” Houston said. “That (businesses) will be intentional. That’s the key word. We will be intentional about putting away our biases and create opportunities to work with and alongside others who have different perspectives and lived experiences.”