Diversity at the State Level

Oklahoma has had its share of diversity-related image problems. Risha Grant came to its rescue. (Photo of Oklahoma's state building courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In July, Oklahoman protesters greeted President Barack Obama with Confederate flags, an embarrassing moment for diversity communications firm owner Risha Grant.

“I was shaking my head,” she said. “Oklahoma isn’t even part of that fight when it comes to the Confederate flag. It’s just so frustrating and so disappointing. You ask yourself sometimes why you’re here, but stupidity is everywhere. Ignorance is everywhere.”

This wasn’t the first time the state has made national news for being exclusionary. In 2008, state Rep. Sally Kern said gay people were worse than terrorists, a remark that made national news.

Risha Grant, Risha Grant LLC and DiversityConnex.com
Risha Grant, Risha Grant LLC and DiversityConnex.com

This inspired Grant to approach then-Gov. Brad Henry with a campaign called Our Oklahoma that aimed to improve the state’s diversity and inclusion image. Although he gave his support, his successor, current Gov. Mary Fallin, said no.

That hasn’t deterred Grant from working toward a more minority-friendly environment, however. She talked with Diversity Executive about working on a state’s inclusion practices and what her company, Risha Grant LLC, is doing now to make sure her original efforts weren’t in vain. Edited excerpts follow.

How did you approach the governor’s office with your concerns about Oklahoma’s diversity image?

It took me about three years to meet with Gov. Henry. I finally got the appointment, put together a presentation, and said this has got to be hurting us when trying to get companies to come to Oklahoma to build or relocate a business.

The governor agreed to be a partner in this initiative and hosted a dinner at the governor’s mansion for the 16 of the top companies in the state for me to talk about this issue, find out what they thought about it and discuss how it was affecting their businesses.

What were the first steps of the process?

Henry agreed with me wholeheartedly, but one of the things they [the governor’s office] asked was, ‘Who else feels this way?’ These weren’t their exact words, but it was implied: You feel like this as a black woman, but who else would agree with you?

Our first step was to do a survey. A little over 800 respondents said Oklahoma was not welcoming to diversity, that it’s hurting the state from an economic development standpoint, from an education standpoint, from a tourism standpoint. Most of our respondents were well-educated white women who said no, Oklahoma is not welcoming. For me, that was great because I was worried if it came back from only African Americans or other minorities that it wouldn’t hold the same weight.

What did you do when Henry left office in 2011?

We met about it with the new governor for an hour and a half, and I think she got it as the first female governor of Oklahoma. I approached her from the aspect that this is not affirmative action or any of those things that can be scary, especially to a Republican governor.

Instead, I made it clear that we needed to look at this from an economic perspective. We’re losing our students. They’re getting out of Oklahoma for a variety of reasons, but for an average African American or Hispanic person, there’s not a reason to stay here. You can go four hours down the road to Dallas and have as much culture and as many opportunities as you want. It’s time to look at how we retain our young professionals.

But when it came time to do what we had discussed, I could not get any traction. Somebody in her office put a stop on it. She got the message, but somebody in her office probably didn’t.

What was really important was that the state had ownership in it. If you don’t have ownership from the top, it’s hard to implement it. So we have this information from the survey, but it’s gathering dust.

How has that unused data informed what you do now?

Throughout the experience, I met a lot of CEOs, a lot of HR directors; and the common theme of our conversations always came back to workforce and economic development. Everyone said they knew they needed to hire diverse people, but they couldn’t find them. On one level, I thought what they were saying was a cop-out, but on another they seemed very sincere in that they did not know how to recruit diverse individuals.

That’s how I started DiversityConnex.com, a recruitment website that matches diverse talent with companies that value inclusion. Our goal is to provide individuals with a platform that allows them to focus on companies that value them.

What do you want your greatest achievement to be?

Nearly 50 percent of diverse individuals are less likely to be hired for a position even with a degree. You cannot tell kids to go to school and be who they want to be if the playing field is not level. If you’re going to school and incurring all this debt to get a degree, and you’re still not being hired, that’s a problem.

There should be a level playing field. We’re not talking about affirmative action. I’m saying here are the best candidates. If I’m not the best, that’s fine, but don’t kick me out of the group because you can’t spell my name or it sounds different.

Careers are so much a part of who we are. Most of us spend more time at work than anywhere else, and it’s how we live the way we want to live. I don’t want companies to say ‘We’re helping diverse individuals get jobs.’ No, diverse individuals are helping you to keep a competitive edge. It should be a partnership where people benefit from that relationship.