In some quarters the workplace attention to diversity, equity and inclusion might be seen as the latest trend in business strategies.
At the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce it is something much deeper than that.
On Thursday, close to 400 people attended the chamber’s first annual CODE (Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity and Equity) Conference.
Last fall, the business organization formally adopted CODE programming that was created by the Greater Omaha Chamber in 2016.
It is focused on creating positive, measurable outcomes leading to increased opportunities and equity for underrepresented populations.
Loren Remillard, the chamber president likes to say it’s not an initiative, it is a movement.
Looking out over the large gathering in an RBC Convention Centre ballroom, Remillard said, "We expect to build this to where it becomes a signature event on par with our State of the City and State of the Province events," the chamber’s largest attended events.
Rosemary Sadlier, one of the main speakers, was the driving force behind governments across the country designating February as Black History Month.
Sadlier said, that while she worked tirelessly to gain recognition for the contributions Black people have made in the development of this country, she also pointed out the obvious insufficiency of limiting our attention to just one month.
She said, "During February I am doing presentations at schools, community groups, churches all the time. But when March 1 comes, my phone stops ringing. But I am still Black on March 1 and I still want to be treated — or not treated — the same way come March 1. My Blackness is not situational."
The growing awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) among the business community, Sadlier said, is a societal acknowledgement of the correctness of such a movement because businesses are smart enough to know what is good for business.
That sentiment was expressed by various presenters throughout the day.
Remillard does not have to worry about any backlash about the chamber’s adoption of CODE.
Extensive surveying has shown that the number one issue for his membership is recruiting and retaining talent.
"CODE is a function of thought leadership," he said. "It’s also a response to what our members told us. They said ‘We need you in this space to provide us with resources to help us really understand and move forward successfully’. It is a business issue through and through."
Amanda Kinden, the founder and owner of Oh Doughnuts, is outspoken on social media in support of LGBTTQ+ rights and issues.
She said while some have urged her to tone it down, she said it has been good for business and even if she "steps in it" she said that is always an opportunity to learn and then move on.
Larry Vickar, the president of Vickar Auto Group, said he was sensitive early on in his career as an owner of auto dealerships about his company being representative of the community in which he does business.
That led him to recruit staffers from the Filipino community, for instance, and he started to listen to his employees to hear just how the organization should participate in community activities rather than focus on his own issues.
Asked if that sort of attention to diversity is good for business, he said, "Absolutely it is."
Manny Atwal, the CEO of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, said his 3,000 person workforce is very diverse but more work needs to be done to get management ratios to the same level.
In terms of practical actions, Atwal said it is a good idea to get at the metrics.
"My advice is think about what you want to be and measure where you are today," he said.
Many presenters made the point that finding ways to talk about DEI goes a long way to creating safe workplaces that will attract talent from across the racial, social and gender spectrum.
In reflection on her efforts to have governments proclaim Black History Month, Sadlier pointed out that change happens when the people make it clear that is what they want.
"Governments don’t just do things for us, whether we are talking about culture or business or community," she said. "We know what we want. We know what we need. We are the ones that have to push for that."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.