In a time when many see innovation as economic lifeblood, what does it mean if not everyone has access to innovation's opportunities?
If technology jobs are growing quickly but the people filling them come from other places, how do they serve people living here already?
Who is responsible for connecting more people to the opportunities of an innovative economy? Government? Business? Educational institutions?
On Jan. 27 at Metro Regional Center, a panel discussed the challenge of creating a truly inclusive economy in a changing Portland. Representing small businesses, a bank, consultants and education, panelists dug into a sometimes difficult topic with a key theme re-emerging: There's a role for everyone but strong leadership is paramount.
Here are six key quotes that capture the tenor of the conversation. We've added times to help find the right place in videos from the event.
"Growing up we had to get to school before we could even think about learning."(6:21)
Moderator Dwayne Johnson, an entrepreneur with decades of experience helping companies develop more diverse workforces, spoke about his early childhood in a difficult section of Brooklyn, as an example of the barriers faced by many people of color from a very early age – a rocky start that can keep many from achieving their full potential.
Johnson recounted how he got lucky, because his parents moved to San Diego and he found himself in a wealthier suburban district where, despite being one of only a few African American students, he felt safe at school and suddenly had access to a computer, which ended up propelling him into a technology career. He suggested that if we don't create a safe environment first for students, they are at a disadvantage from the start.
"We often talk about, 'If we just had the pipeline, then my company would hire diverse people. I would do it.' But the pipeline is there. They just don't get hired." (13:45)
Stephen Green, a vice president focusing on North and Northeast Portland small businesses at Albina Community Bank, pointed out that conversations about diversity in Portland's economy often overlook the diversity already here.
With 15,000 Black- and Latino-owned businesses already in the Portland region – a number that has doubled in the last 20 years – Green said Portland shouldn't have as hard a time as it seems to when it comes to including more diverse businesses in the region's economic success.
"We're still twice as likely to be declined for a bank loan," Green noted (13:09). And fellow panelist Erin Flynn, vice president of strategy at Portland State University, shared that if that doesn't change, an increasingly diverse Portland population will find itself further left out of economic success.
"As business owners we have a challenge. We have to grow our business…but we also have the social responsibility that we are good stewards of our community, and good neighbors." (42:45)
Juan Barraza, founder and CEO of VDO Interpreters, a translation start-up based in Portland, acknowledged that the need to grow his business has meant that he has often sought talent from elsewhere in the Portland region. But he pointed out that his company tries to instill in employees a sense of being good members of the community and of trying to develop talent more locally.
"I would much rather have the talent grown locally." (53:17)
Panelist Vince La Vecchia, CEO of Instrument, a North Portland digital ad agency that relocated from Vermont, agreed that local talent is much preferred, particularly as his company tries to fulfill a diversity pledge it has taken. it's much less expensive than bringing people in from distant cities, La Vecchia said. But he noted a disconnect between education and the reality of the markets educated people are trying to go into.
“It feels to me like things are moving faster… to stay at the forefront of what brands like Nike and Google and Amazon and Samsung need, than what the schools are providing.” (01:06:49)
Beth Fitz Gibbon, founder and principal of Fitz Gibbon Inc. Venture Development, a company that helps new businesses get their footing, emphasized the need to build talent from within the state.
She shared what the recently legislated Oregon Talent Council, which she has helped to develop, is doing to address that. The council has outlined what the most-needed occupations in Oregon are they are helping to increase funding in those particular areas through grants, she said. Flynn also expressed a need for connections of qualified people to the jobs that are looking for them, and that addressing this need will be a good next step.
The panelists agreed, though, that actions are louder than words. Experiences are real, while intentions are nothing more than thought.
The people are already here, and as Green noted, the great thing about a lot of these communities is that they have well-developed networks, if only they can be tapped:
“It builds from a little bit of a seed, and it’s a very sustained effort… You’ve got to start somewhere, I would just use the resources that you have to invite people in.” (1:40:25).