That potentially awkward moment when we talked about diversity

by Edward Cone

Hot-button social issues weren’t on the agenda when I spoke recently at an economic development luncheon in Hamilton County, Indiana.

Except, they kind of were.

The topic was our Workforce 2020 study and its implications for the cluster of fast-growing cities just north of Indianapolis. One key point, reinforced by our cities research team, was the importance of diversity in the workforce and in communities. 

And there’s the rub. Diversity is plenty political these days--especially in Indiana, where last year businesses helped force the legislature to amend a law unfriendly to LGBT citizens, and in my home state of North Carolina, where the same tensions are playing out now in a storm of negative national press, canceled events, and protests by corporations and individuals.

But I was invited to (very Republican) Hamilton County to talk about extending the momentum that’s made it the envy of the Midwest, and diversity had to be part of that conversation. My approach was a practical one, essentially a riff on the Civil Rights Era meme about business-friendly Atlanta being “a city too busy to hate.” Maybe I sermonized a little, not on political questions (is the long alliance between social conservatives and big business in the US fraying?) or my own views on LGBT rights (a moral imperative), but as a guy from one basketball-loving flyover state to an audience from another one, trying to map some common ground.

Which comes down to this: Among the distinctive capabilities of healthy urban economies, says our cities team, are reputation and “social, legal and cultural norms that promote a combination of trust and stability on the one hand and innovation and risk-taking on the other.” It’s hard to see how Indiana and North Carolina are helping their cities on those fronts. Meanwhile, businesses have work to do: Our survey found that only one-third of global executives think they are prepared to lead a diverse workforce. 

The mayor of one reliably conservative city gave me a nod from the crowd. People seemed eager to talk about the issues, although maybe those who disagreed were politely ignoring me. At best it was a baby step down a long path, but it felt like we were moving in the right direction.

Edward Cone is Deputy Director of Thought Leadership at Oxford Economics