Connect the Dots: Our Untapped Opportunity

As the region’s leaders scramble to put the finishing touches on our proposal to lure Amazon’s second headquarters with its promised 50,000 jobs to St. Louis, one wonders if what we plan to offer mirrors what every other metro area will propose: corporate tax rebates, ready infrastructure and plenty of other concessions. Yet we could truly set our region apart by embracing one of the strongest competitive advantages available today – diversity and inclusiveness.

Researchers have found that uniting people with different ideas and perspectives can boost creativity and enable institutions to transform themselves, while accelerating change and progress. Ronald Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, suggests that organizations with more diverse sources of information consistently generate better ideas. Sara Ellison of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that mixed-gender and mixed-race teams produce more creative solutions than less diverse teams. Even internal surveys at Google have found that diverse teams often innovate the most.

Diversity brings different experiences, questions prevailing assumptions and leads to new approaches to resolving long-standing challenges. Such a proven strategy would appeal to a global company like Amazon, whose own website calls it “a company of builders who bring varying backgrounds, ideas and points of view to decisions and inventing on behalf of our customers.” More important, diversity could catalyze our local businesses and corporations to realize greater future growth and success.

What will it take for businesses to pursue diversity and inclusiveness with the same vigor and commitment they chase market share and profit? Simply put, we need to acknowledge diversity as a business imperative and a financially responsible move. We need to recognize a return on diversity, or ROD, equivalent to the infamous bottom-line ROI – return on investment.

In practice, because of the difficulty of attributing increased performance directly to diversity, we focus on qualitative measures like employee engagement, feedback from customers, well-rounded decision-making, improved communication and greater transparency – all, admittedly, vital to achieving a high-performing culture and profitability.

ROD involves not just achieving equal ratios of minorities to nonminorities or women to men. Rather, it seeks to achieve balance through the richness of blended elements – culture, experience, age, perspective, gender and race – to ensure an organization can move from success to significance.

At the same time, diversity without inclusiveness has no meaning. Inclusiveness means being part of the delivery and execution of an organization’s mission. Organizations may recruit the best, most accomplished minds, but those hires cannot merely serve as showcases for the organization. We must encourage the fresh voices and broader thinking they bring – quite simply, a move that makes dollars and sense.

To achieve the long-term success we seek in this region, we need the kind of creativity, persistence and commitment that only a truly diverse community can provide. That achievement needs to start with the companies already in St. Louis. Making diversity and inclusiveness a corporate imperative will make our region attractive and competitive.

Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the president of BOA Consulting and former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

Benjamin Akande

Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the president of BOA Consulting and former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.