Strengthening the voices: The Chamber, business, community groups build resources for diversity

Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is give the microphone to someone else.

As businesses in Maine and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce sought to take the next steps in their efforts for diversity, justice and inclusion, they realized they needed to listen to the voices of the communities they wanted to serve better.

“We don’t have to create something from scratch. We need to empower people who are already doing a great job and give them the mic and the resources, ”said Steve Smith, CEO and President of LLBean.

Photo / Courtesy of LLBean

Steve SmithPresident and CEO of LLBeanis one of the leaders working to improve diversity in Maine.

Smith, along with Michael Simonds, chief operating officer of Unum Group (NYSE: UNM), were among the business community leaders who have worked with dozens of corporate executives and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce over the past two years to make progress in promoting and support for diversity in Maine.

They also help create the next steps toward greater networking opportunities and internships for color communities in Maine.

“My job was to be behind, to support the work and to raise people and communities and the great work that is already being done. My job is to serve, ”says Symonds.

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury and Breona Taylor, and subsequent national protests, the Portland Chamber and Maine business have been actively trying to respond.

In the first year, more than 400 companies signed a public declaration of solidarity against racial and social injustice, and more than 1,500 people took part in training on a 21-day education challenge on issues such as race, power and privilege.

While some companies and communities may have stopped there, the Maine business community is pushing for more work and action.

next steps

Over the past year, the chamber and about two dozen business leaders have worked with a facilitator, Beyond Racial Equity, to create a plan for the next steps to promote and promote diversity.

Among the steps in the plan, Maine companies will work with existing black groups, Indigenous people, people of color communities to create networking opportunities for different employees to help them find peers and support across Maine, as well as and to create internships for pupils and students. color for work in local companies.

“The fact that all business leaders have emerged and worked on this shows how important it is. It’s right for our business, it’s right for society, our community and the world, “Smith said. “Business leaders have strength and platform, and we can use that strength for good. The BIPOC community will judge whether we are successful. “

Photo / Tim Greenway

Quincy HentzelPresident and CEO of Portland Regional Chamber of Commerceworks with the business community to develop new efforts to improve diversity.

“Collectively, as a community, we have people who can work together to expand groups that are already doing a good job, and to combine our efforts to find new ways to serve those communities,” said Quincy Hentzel, president and chief executive. Executive Director of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“The business community will not solve all the problems alone, but it can help do its part and show support.”

The Third Place, a collaborative and community space for black entrepreneurs and emerging leaders, and ProsperityME, which helps immigrants and refugees gain financial stability, are among the groups now working with the chamber and the business community.

“We are trying to change a culture that has existed forever,” said Claude Ruagane, founder and CEO of ProsperityME. “Most companies in Maine are family-owned. This does not entice many outsiders. The fact that other companies in Maine are trying to change and there is an impetus for change, I say “Hallelujah”.

Photo / Courtesy of Prosperity ME

Claude Rwaganfounder and CEO of ProsperityME

The business community will hold BIPOC networking events with Third Place and ProsperityMe so that BIPOC employees from several organizations can come together, find a community and support each other.

“We offer a social security network that supports people,” said Adila Mohammed, president and founder of Third Place. “The network offers a way to organize the community when there is no strong, obvious cultural infrastructure.”

“BIPOC people are leaving Maine due to a lack of social opportunities outside of work. There is no amount of money you can pay to make someone stay if there is no community or if they feel at home, ”says Mohammed.

“One of the best tenants of BIPOC employees are BIPOC employees who are already in the workforce. The more opportunities there are for networking and communication, the more people feel at home and want to be here and work here. ”

“Maine is in a unique place. Maine is growing in diversity at a time when people are embracing more diversity. Maine is in a really good place to make things right. The hope is that with the increased levels of dialogue as the community emerges, jobs will be able to change, “said Mohammed. “The fact that the chamber has put the top leadership behind this is a significant demonstration of support and strength.

Efforts to develop the workforce

The business community is also creating more internship opportunities for color students in high school and college.

This summer, the pilot internship program will accommodate about 10 color students at MEMIC, Unum, MaineHealth, Bangor Savings and others. The goal is to double the internships next year.

“There were more internship offers than students to complete. The generosity of the business community was astounding. Now we need to make more contacts to talk to more students and get them to apply, “said Tae Chong, director of multicultural markets and strategies for the Maine Chamber of Commerce, which works with the Portland Chamber on the initiative.

“It’s all about the circle of influence for these students. “No one in their community has applied for an internship before, so they don’t know what that means or how it can help,” Chong said. “We have to take risks and work a little harder to entice these children, because they will be the first and bravest robbers.”

Chong says he has worked with students at Southern Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine to encourage them to apply. The hope is that if a student makes connections to a company in Maine, he will want to stay here after graduation.

“The number one indicator that someone wants to stay somewhere is whether they have good support and good experience. “It helps to develop the workforce,” Chong said. “It all comes down to relationships and how well someone is known.

Other efforts include sharing DEI training and education programs set up in some of Maine’s largest corporations, such as Unum, Hannaford, WEX and LLBean, with any business that wants to learn from them.

The Portland Chamber also plans to appoint a consultant to lead the project manager to ensure that DEI’s goals are met.

As part of this, the chamber aims to raise $ 300,000 to help with internships, step up networking efforts for Third Place and ProsperityME, and pay for the DEI consultant. Half of this fundraising has already been achieved, says Hentzel.

Photo / Courtesy of UNUM

Michael Symondschief operating officer c Onesaid diversity helps Maine companies become more responsive to customers and employees here and across the country.

“The importance of this work cannot be overstated. This expands the circle of people who would come here and want to continue to develop the country and improve the country. People are our number one priority. That’s the point, “says Symonds. “Power is in the hands of the worker, which is great. We want to create a truly powerful and inclusive environment in which the worker wants to be, prosper and grow. ”

Simonds says DEI’s efforts also make a lot of business sense.

“Our business may be in Maine, but our customers are reaching out to the United States, which is diverse and changing. “A company will not be successful if it is not sensitive to the variety of thoughts, ideas and desires of its employees and customers,” says Symonds. “We want companies in Maine that serve more than Maine.”

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