Features

Photo by Emily J. Davis

Diversity Rising

Promoting entrepreneurs of color and retaining professionals of color

By Kevyn Burger
Thu, 2017-02-16 13:48

With his genial grin and wrestler’s build, Alex Rodriguez is a familiar face and form at events that connect professionals of color.

As he turns 23 this month, the local A-Rod, as he is sometimes called, is a power-hitter on the startup scene.

An Entrepreneur-in-Residence selected by Google, Rodriguez works out of the COCO co-working space in downtown Minneapolis, where he heads a team of three who run WorkMand, his technology startup that serves contractors. He also leads a five-person group building Graveti, an organization he founded to connect and champion African American and Latino entrepreneurs.

“Graveti’s mission is to make Minnesota the best place for people of color to work and build a business,” he says.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez grew up in Inver Grove Heights watching his father build a construction business with little more than determination and a relentless work ethic.

“I was raised not to take no for an answer,” he says.

Smart, productive and ambitious, Rodriguez could be regarded as the answer incarnate to the puzzle that leaders in business and government have been working on, piece by laborious piece.

Public and private policy-makers are working mightily to bring in more professionals like Rodriguez, and encourage their success.

THE RETENTION GAP

Research from the University of Minnesota finds the Twin Cities ranks first among the 25 largest metro areas in overall professional talent retention but is 14th in retaining professionals of color.

“In our region, the strength and quality of our people has always been our number-one competitive advantage. Some big demographic changes are happening very quickly and that puts the future of our economy at stake,” notes Peter Frosch, vice president of strategic partnerships for Greater MSP.

The regional economic development organization estimates 115,000 additional workers will be needed by 2020 to keep the economy whirring. It has launched multiple initiatives to make the region more welcoming to the diverse workforce needed to fill those jobs.

“Our labor force growth is slowing significantly so we need to do some big things fast to find talent from outside the state,” Frosch says. “Professionals of color are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce and population. We have to make this a region where they can come and stay and thrive.”

Census figures show that Minnesota was 96% white three decades ago. Today, people of color make up 19% of the population, with diverse ethnic and cultural communities settling in rural as well as metro areas.

To make sure those people are better represented in Minnesota’s state workforce, aggressive action is high on the agenda of the Dayton administration.

“We’re intentionally creating diversity in our applicant pool. We show up at recruiting events with commissioners to signal our commitment,” explains James Burroughs, the state’s chief inclusion officer. Other initiatives pushed by the governor include prioritizing outreach to minority contractors and preparing existing employees of color for expanded executive roles.

“Talented people will stay if they see they can be promoted,” Burroughs adds.

FULL EFFORT NEEDED

Despite the broad range of efforts, Minnesota has made only limited progress in attacking stark gaps between whites and people of color in income, home ownership and educational outcomes.

“That’s jarring to Minnesotans. We take personal offense at these structural problems that are still real,” says Brett Buckner, managing director for OneMN.org. The nonpartisan coalition works on the policy side of equity issues.

“We have to get over ourselves, collectively, and start to solve this; we can’t be in denial,” he insists. Despite the slow march of progress, Buckner remains optimistic the region can address the old obstacles that have slowed progress for its diverse citizens. “We’ve seen suggestions that communities of color will make up an estimated 23% of our population in the next census. If we embed those people in our economy, it will propel Minnesota’s economy to the next level. We can solve this and can lead the country.”

Alex Rodriguez acknowledges that he’s faced racism, both subtle and overt, as he’s made his way through multiple internships and corporate meetings.

He’s also seen businesses that merely pay lip-service to broadening their pool of employees and applicants.

“Some companies look at diversity like it is charity, but it’s dollar bills,” he says. “It’s a fact that if you build a better product and service with people from different backgrounds, you get broader perspectives.”

He wants to nudge his home state into making changes in attitude and policy that will truly welcome greater diversity.

“I have nothing but love for Minnesota. I want to take it to the top and build a billion-dollar business here,” he says.

PUTTING DOWN ROOTS

Is love the answer to Minnesota’s diversity dilemma?

Angela Davis and Duchesne Drew had no connections to Minnesota when their jobs brought them to the Twin Cities. 

The TV anchor and the newspaper reporter were both new to town when they first crossed paths at a local Black Journalists Association lunch in 1994.

“We were dating other people so we started by hanging out and eased into our relationship,” says Drew. “Angela was bright and bubbly, even-keeled and kind. There’s a joy about her that I was struck by.”

The two found they had much in common, from their passion for storytelling to their East Coast roots—and their desire to return there— to the circumstances of their youth.

“People who don’t know about our personal lives see us as a Cosby family from the TV show, before Bill Cosby was creepy,” says Davis. “But we both grew up in poverty. We didn’t come from the environment we’ve created for our kids.”

Now in their 40’s, the couple, parents to two Minnesota-born teenagers, feel at home in a place they arrived at by chance.

“It was never the intention to stay, but the longer we’ve lived here, the harder it would be to leave,” Davis explains. “We have good jobs, great neighbors, generous and caring friends, and the ability to send our kids to outstanding public schools, which we don’t take for granted.”

Their conclusion that the Twin Cities was the right place to buy a house and raise a family led them to put down roots.

“This is home. We’ve chosen to re-up,” said Drew.

Statistically, children make professionals of color more likely to stay put.

In its effort to keep diverse workers in the region, Greater MSP combed through reams of data from University of Minnesota Prof. Myles Shaver and teased out a promising finding wrapped inside a discouraging one.

“Of the largest 25 metro areas, we rank 14th in retaining professionals of color,” says Greater MSP’s Peter Frosch. “However, when they have children, we go up to number two in retention.”

He thinks he knows why.

“When you’ve got kids, you’re connected, through schools, youth sports, places of worship; you have inroads into community.”

That’s been the case for Davis and Drew.

“We became homebodies when our son was born. You push a stroller and you’re in greater proximity to your neighbors; it’s easy to say, we’re grilling, come on over,” Drew recalls.

“Most of our best friends are parents of our kids’ friends,” Davis adds. “We got to know each other at preschool drop-off and pick-up, then it was play dates in our homes.”  

But Davis and Drew had to leave the Twin Cities to fully appreciate its advantages.

A year after their 1996 wedding, career opportunities in Dallas led the couple to relocate to high profile positions in Texas.

While Drew wrote about education for The Dallas Morning News, Davis worked in a TV newsroom in Fort Worth.

“We had jobs in two cities with two sets of friends who didn’t know each other, and long commutes we didn’t enjoy,” says Davis.

Within a few years, the couple had become restless.

“We didn’t attach to Dallas in the same way we did in the Twin Cities. We decided it wasn’t where we wanted to grow old,” Drew said.

They were putting out feelers when they attended the National Black Journalists Association convention. Each was approached by their previous employers in the Twin Cities and wooed with offers to bring them back to Minnesota.

“We’d kept in touch with friends and had been back to visit and for weddings. I’d stayed in the football pool at the Star Tribune, faxing in my picks every week,” Drew said. “We were offered good jobs within good organizations that we knew.”

Drew returned to an senior position at the Star Tribune, with the promise it would lead to a management role. KSTP’s news director recruited Davis to a prime spot anchoring the station’s morning newscasts.

In the ensuing years, opportunities from larger and more diverse markets have come to both of the accomplished professionals. Considering options elsewhere has solidified the couple’s decision to stay in Minnesota.

“We’ve gone on house-hunting trips, but when you look at the cost of living, traffic and schools in bigger markets, Minnesota always comes out on top,” Davis said. “Our family has thrived here.”

Today, Davis anchors the Sunday evening newscasts and is a general assignment reporter at WCCO; two years ago Drew left his job as managing editor for operations at the Star Tribune to become the community network vice president for the Bush Foundation.

In that role he’s been part of the brain trust that’s seeking to make the Twin Cities more welcoming to professionals of color. Drew thinks the strategy must prioritize personal, as well as workplace, relationships.

“We want to create more opportunities for people to meet the love of their life,” he says. “Or find new ways for people who are new to town to find friends. The love will follow.”

Last year, for their 20th anniversary, Davis and Drew returned to the Jamaica beach where they married to renew their vows in the presence of their son and daughter.

Davis wants single people of color who are looking for their own match to not lose heart.

“I had lived in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Atlanta, which are more diverse, and dated a lot of people. I didn’t have any hope I was going to meet anyone when I moved here,” Davis smiles. “But I tell other people of color not to be pessimistic. You only need to meet one person.”