Q&A With Rob McCarty & Darel Ross: The Importance of Business Owners Engaging in Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) has been a hot topic over the last couple of years; diversity alone is no longer cutting it. As the Harvard Business Journal explains, diversity doesn't stick without inclusion. To some, engaging in this movement seems like a no-brainer. And while D&I in the workplace is extremely beneficial for businesses (and, y'know, just the decent thing to do), we're still seeing some pushback from businesses to engage in this movement.

I had the awesome opportunity to chat with Start Garden Director, LINC UP Co-Executive Director and Forty Acres Soul Kitchen Co-Founder Darel Ross and TIS CEO Rob McCarty, two #baller Grand Rapids business owners and entrepreneurs, about the importance of Grand Rapids businesses shifting the focus to D&I in the workplace. Check it below.

How do businesses get involved to support more D&I initiatives in our community?

Darel Ross: The biggest thing is to hire from your own community. The private sector has to start taking responsibility for some of the social problems going on within the community and be part of the solution because diversity and inclusion is way too big a problem for big entities to make changes on the micro level.

Smaller businesses need to be part of the solution by being intentional about reaching out to individuals and thickening people's networks to present them with more opportunities for growth and success.

Rob McCarty: Most businesses today are drawn solely to the bottom line (finance), but we all need to start thinking more holistically about what's best for where we are as individuals and as companies. It starts with people.

I’ve spent a lot of time with people like Frank Blossom at Grand Valley and other educators, discussing where GVSU students are coming from and why they leave after graduating. It's because they feel like they don’t fit in here, in part because there isn't enough outreach from the business community to show that they matter and we want them here. This needs to change if we want to see Grand Rapids and the local business scene prosper.

How can folks find businesses that are committed to addressing D&I in Grand Rapids?

RM: A good place to start is to browse the B Corp website and see which businesses in the area are certified. All these certified B Corps are thinking along these lines since it’s part of the B Corp mission. The burden is on businesses to make the information available for folks, but it's also a burden on community members and students to pursue that and figure out ways to engage us. It's a two-way street, just like any relationship.

DR: It all comes down to intentionality. Businesses truly need to go above and beyond to show community members that it's their intention to be at the forefront of D&I initiatives in the community.

Why is it important for Grand Rapids businesses to get behind the D&I movement?

DR: Why shouldn't we be? What's the alternative? Businesses only do as well as their communities are doing. If we don’t all start working together to change the policies that eliminate economic growth, that eliminate future earnings, that make neighborhoods suffer rather than thrive, that don’t create spending and new customers, etc., GR will fall way behind. Equity is no longer about whether or not you should care about it; it's about how you're engaging and what you can be doing better.

RM: GR business owners and entrepreneurs have the potential to be such a powerful voice to make changes necessary to progress, but we’re not taking full advantage of it by staying within our comfort zones.

DR: Exactly! The comfort zone should no longer exist. We need to let this go to see what limits we can reach on both sides—as businesses and community members.

“If we don’t figure this out, we'll never reach our highest potential as a city.” —Rob McCarty

RM: 100%. If we don’t figure this out, we'll never reach our highest potential as a city, which would be really sad because we could be known as the place to be.

We've come a long way since I first moved to GR in the early 90s. I'm not saying that it's perfect now, but the shiny exterior we’ve built will wear away when the reality sinks in that minorities don’t have places downtown, in a city in which they truly have huge ownership. You can’t have a community that operates this way.

DR: For sure. We have a very clear historic example of what happens when we push people and communities out, and we’re just now trying to solve this issue in GR and across the U.S. when we should’ve been trying 200–300 years ago.

RM: And D&I isn't just about race; it's also about the Disabled community. The Disabled community is another which businesses are not serving and financially missing an opportunity on by not engaging in D&I practices. And we'll all be a part of that community one day as we grow older. Again, this is about people first.

So then what’s the first step businesses should take to start engaging with the movement and the community?

DR: You have to implement it into your personal life first and foremost. It’s hard to be an inclusive business if you're not an inclusive business owner. Often times I hear folks say, “Well, I don’t know where to find a more diverse group of people.” That's because they don’t have those people in their personal lives. Our connections need to be intentional both inside and outside of the workplace. Everything’s an opportunity. Invest in people and invest in different relationships.

RM: Yeah, it’s really hard for people to start expanding their networks when they have no prior experience doing so. And, it’s a lot harder to do in the workplace than in your personal life. You need to have empathy for those with different upbringings, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

“… you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. It’s a commitment to growth.” – Darel Ross

DR: And that empathy can be difficult to channel when someone's uncomfortable, but you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. It’s a commitment to growth.

RM: Word! We need to push ourselves to think about how things really are today in GR. It’s more difficult to have conversations and to confront what we’ve allowed ourselves to become, especially as a business community. People don’t expose themselves to reality; they hide from it.

DR: Yeah, and in GR especially, success is more determined by who you know and not what you know. This is a harsh reality most folks aren't willing to face yet.

Are there any handy GR resources that support D&I hiring initiatives that business owners can look into?

DR: There currently aren’t enough… but this presents a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs and business owners. We should be the ones creating those partnerships, programs and initiatives for Grand Rapids.

RM: Agreed! And we're working on it! My partner in life and in business Karen Tracey is leading that initiative for us at TIS. She partnered with connections from our Equity Drinks Leadership Team to help her in revamping our hiring policy to support and favor a diverse and inclusive working environment. 

What organizations should GR business owners look to help them learn more about incorporating D&I initiatives into their business?

DR: Well there's Grand Rapids Urban League, NAACP, The Hispanic Center, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and LINC UP, of course… but again, this is where the private sector should show that they’re leading and not following. We need to be the ones creating these initiatives and organizations.

RM: Yeah, all these groups are great collectively. They help a lot of people in our community and have raised a lot of money; but at the end of the day, it's still as not impactful as it would be if a group of well-known business leaders announced they were going to lead folks on these social issues and initiatives.

How do we put business leaders in a position to do that?

DR: First, we need to help broaden the definition of sustainability beyond waste management. Are you tracking unemployment in the community? Community wellness? If we follow these people-focused stats with the attention to detail like we do with waste management, there'd be some serious change.

Sustainability has to be based on people, not just profit and planet. If for some reason you’re defining success solely based on profit over planet and people, that's where we’re failing.

“Maybe the definition of success could be reworked… if you don’t fix social inequities, you won’t ever get to the core of the problem.” – Rob McCarty

RM: Maybe the definition of success could be reworked. Right now, success is defined by material items like cars, houses, retirement plans, etc. I think success looks like communities that thrive holistically. When you look at the big picture, if you don’t fix social inequities, you won’t ever get to the core of the problem. Plus, you can still make a lot of money while also making a significant and positive impact on your community!

DR: For sure. Diversity is the easy part; it's inclusion that's difficult. Inclusion is messy; equity is messy. We’ve got to be willing to get out of our comfort zones and bring more folks of different races, classes and abilities to the table. To have those levels of competencies and make something of it is not easy, but those organizations that have mastered it can’t be touched.

True D&I has become a huge competitive advantage in the workplace. More folks need to take advantage of that.

“Diversity is the easy part; it's inclusion that's difficult. Inclusion is messy; equity is messy.” —Darel Ross

What are TIS and Forty Acres doing specifically to engage in the D&I movement?

DR: We're starting with people when measuring sustainability and taking responsibility on the social capital of the community and bettering it. A question we constantly ask ourselves is, “How can we help individuals thicken their network for more opportunity and growth?”

We also understand that we’re responsible for macro-level indicators we can’t move—like unemployment, childcare, health and wellness etc.—and forcing ourselves to be a part of something bigger than what we are. At the end of the day, we always strive to represent the community we serve.

RM: Our next challenge at TIS, especially for me as a leader, is defining what growth looks like for us. We're not currently looking to grow the size of the organization in terms of employees, but I also think that there are more initiatives and people we need to engage with that can help us become a better organization for all.

I think we’d be best served by broadening our network and continuing to take advantage of the network we have to make us more whole. This is something we can actually address and quantify; it's just a matter of being thoughtful and putting us in those situations that make us uncomfortable. The more you push outside your comfort zone, the better prepared you'll find yourself to be in the future.

Interested in learning more about how and why business owners should engage in diversity and inclusion?

Darel and Rob are both more than willing to chat more on this topic with you.

Click here to get in touch with Darel Ross.

Click here to get in touch with Rob McCarty.