Columbus Chamber's new diversity program aims to help smaller companies

Erica Thompson
The Columbus Dispatch
The Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio are putting 25 small businesses and some nonprofits through a DEIA program. From left: Opal Brant, director of business solutions for the Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio; Sherrice Sledge-Thomas, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and access at the Columbus Chamber of Commerce Foundation; Dr. Ted Sun, president and chief innovations officer at Transcontinental University; Tonya Kelly, founder and executive director of Empower Our Youth Foundation; and Brittany Moody, co-founder and president of A Plus Staffing Solutions.

Since the racial justice awakening of 2020, there has been a renewed interest in large corporations’ diversity efforts, with customers and employees calling on the companies to diversify their boards and C-suites, and work with more minority suppliers.

To help smaller businesses do the same, the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio have launched Next Level DEIA, a free program for small to mid-sized companies.

The organizations have agreed to sponsor 25 businesses and some nonprofits in two sessions. The program will guide the establishments in examining their diversity, equity, inclusion and access (DEIA) needs, help them build a plan and provide coaching as they implement that plan.

The program will be directed in part by Ted Sun, president and chief innovations officer at Transcontinental University in Dublin.

“If we really are going to make a sustainable difference, we have to change the systems inside all companies,” Sun said. “It's not just a training and everybody (makes a) checkmark, or we meet some quotas.” 

The first group of 11 businesses and nonprofits includes Wendy’s Quality Supply Chain Co-op, Jewish Family Services, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective and the Dublin Arts Council.

They will participate in the program from July to December, and receive implementation support through June 2023. The second group will follow.

Other program facilitators include Cody McMichael, chief business officer at Transcontinental University; Sherrice Sledge-Thomas, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and access at the Columbus Chamber of Commerce Foundation; and Kelly Fuller, vice president of talent and workforce development at the Columbus Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Companies ‘want to do better’

Over the last two years, the chamber has sharpened its focus on inclusivity, according to President and CEO Don DePerro.

“George Floyd's murder hopefully changed the world and it certainly changed us at the Columbus Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “Of our more than 2,200 members, 80% of them employ 50 or fewer employees. We really are an organization of small and mid-sized companies. And a lot of their ownership is majority — middle-aged men who look like me. And they want to do better.”

While the chamber is sponsoring the nonprofits in the DEIA program, the Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio secured $100,000 in funding from the state to support the for-profit businesses.

Looking for a ‘roadmap’

One of the program participants is Brittany Moody, co-founder and president of A Plus Staffing Solutions in German Village. She said this will be her first time developing a diversity plan for the company.

“I have always appreciated diversity in my life,” she said. “I think the spark to me is that I started to hear things like, ‘You have to be intentional about it.’ And so I was thinking, ‘Am I coming off the way I want to? Do I seem like I'm inclusive to people?’ And that same thing goes for my organization.”

Brandon Curry said he is looking for ways to recruit diverse workers for Singleton Construction, in Lancaster, where he is director of workforce development and communication.

“(The program) will give me a roadmap to figure out how to navigate creating diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for our company," he said. 

Tonya Kelly received a free membership to the Columbus Chamber as part of a program for Black-owned businesses, launched in partnership with the Columbus Urban League.

She sees the DEIA program as "a change-maker" for local entrepreneurs.

"If you are a new business owner like myself, it takes money," said Kelly, founder and executive director of Empower Our Youth Foundation. "I never would have had this opportunity because that cost would be attached to it.”

More:Take the Columbus Dispatch corporate diversity survey

Designing an effective DEIA plan

As part of the program, participants will compare their ideas about DEIA with what their businesses and organizations are actually doing, and work to close those gaps. They also learn about organizational systems — promotions, training, etc. — and how to design them with equity in mind.

As they put their plans into action, they will receive feedback that allows them to measure success.

“We give them the tools and ability to design their own systems so that it's authentic to them,” Sun said.

What small businesses can do right now

For small businesses and organizations outside of the program, Sun recommends they start their DEIA journey by writing down their core values.

“Share that with the rest of the company,” he said. “(For example), say, ‘This month, we're going to work on respect,’ and then continue to reflect those values. ‘If I’m paying people, how do I show respect?’ I tell people all the time, hire based on people's value sets because that's something you can never train.”

Sherrice Sledge-Thomas, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and access at the Columbus Chamber of Commerce Foundation, recommends businesses take the following steps to work toward diversity:

• Hire a consultant, and make sure the DEIA approach is customized to the needs of the business.

• Ensure that there is an understanding and agreement across the leadership team about the definition of diversity, equity, inclusion and access, especially as it relates to the company. 

• Consider the diverse needs of all employees, such as special time to pray, adjustments to work hours and wraparound services, so they can "bring their best selves to work every day."