We recognized that we were not attracting racially diverse talent because we were not intentionally building relationships in communities of color in our headquarter city, Portland, Oregon.
Four years ago, I was at an executive event in Portland with 90 business owners in the room, many of them friends of mine. In that moment, something became abundantly clear to me that had been there all along—I looked around and finally noticed that 85 of the 90 of us were white men. I realized, “I am the problem.”
Unconsciously, by attending and networking at events with people I typically surround myself with, I helped to create a system of privilege that benefited me and people who look like me—my company was not racially diverse.
A week later, I wrote a blog post called “Portland business community, too white, too male,” talking about my conviction and awareness that like my own company, leadership throughout Portland companies was quite homogenous. The Portland leadership community did not reflect the diversity of our population and my call to action was for executives to commit to hiring a college student of color as a paid summer intern.
Writing the post was uncomfortable for me as one of the few white guy CEOs in Portland to publicly talk about the importance of racial diversity. I feared that I’d be viewed as a hypocrite because my company was not diverse at the time or that I’d surely say the wrong thing and the consequence would be career suicide.
That blog post marked the beginning of a nonprofit I cofounded, Emerging Leaders. We quietly started a movement. Emerging Leaders has placed over 320 interns of color at 100 Portland companies and matched 97 mentors and mentees. It has helped dispel the myth that there is no diverse talent in Portland.
I’ve learned something fascinating about people in power. Many times, we will choose a comfortable status quo and risk underperformance rather than be uncomfortable and talk about race.
We have posted our outcomes on our website as a way of publicly being accountable (https://thesis.agency/people). At our digital agency, Thesis, we have made intentional strides in creating an inclusive workplace. The result: Four years ago, before we were intentional about diversity and inclusion, 12% of us were people of color. And now, with intentionality, 33% of us are people of color.