The Greater Rochester Diversity Council Tending to Business

June 01, 1999

by Laurie Mercer*

by Laurie Mercer*

Everybody knows that diversity is good for business. In Rochester, New York, a core group of influential business leaders created an organization—the Greater Rochester Diversity Council (GRDC)—to help its members turn that conventional wisdom into practical action. The net result is that the policies and best practices discussed in the lively—and sometimes challenging—atmosphere of the Council’s monthly meetings have a direct impact on the lives of several hundred thousand workers in Rochester, and as many people again around the world.

One of the primary goals of the Diversity Council is to help its members convince technology-rich, skilled professionals to come to work in Rochester—an upstate New York metropolis that is often slammed for its frigid winters and its conservative mindset. Its small-town mentality is sometimes attributed to the influence of the founders of the city’s major businesses—George Eastman of Eastman Kodak, and Joseph Wilson, who founded the company that eventually became Xerox.

These close links between the city and its business community led to a 1994 conversation between two business associates that was the impetus in forming the Greater Rochester Diversity Council. Bill Simpson, director of human resources for Nixon Peabody LLP, and Clayton Osborne, director of strategic staffing and diversity for Bausch & Lomb, had been wondering what other Rochester companies were doing to alert the work force and the community to the relationship between diversity concerns and business success. They invited key executives from thirteen companies to meet with them to share information. Out of this gathering came the Greater Rochester Diversity Council.

By 1999, membership on the GRDC had grown to include representatives from thirty organizations. In addition to its monthly meetings, the Council has sponsored two full-day conferences and intensive training workshops for members and guests. While the primary focus remains on race and gender, other issues that members are concerned with are addressed as well. “White men in the changing work force,” “Who’s cooking tonight?” and “Does diversity translate overseas?” are some of the topics that have been considered by the group.

Osborne says he has found the Diversity Council useful in helping his own company as well as the Greater Rochester community improve diversity competencies. “As your skills in managing diversity grow,” he asserts, “you increase the possibilities for generating more ideas, creativity and innovation within the organization.” This, in turn, in his view, leads to an increase in competitiveness and profitability.

“Profit” is the key word for Osborne. “Bausch & Lomb is in the business of making a profit, not social engineering,” he says. “Our diversity challenge at B&L is not limited to race and gender, but to insure the continued availability of ‘positive conflict’ to generate change and renewal. Companies must innovate to survive, and studies have shown that the more diverse a problem-solving group is, the more creative it will be. Our goal is not to emphasize the difference of our diversity, but to achieve organizational unity of purpose, drawing on our diversity to strengthen the organization. To put it simply,” he continues, “you have to be more inclusive to make a bigger profit pie.”

“Many people see diversity primarily as a recruiting issue,” says GRDC co-founder Simpson, “but it’s a lot more than that.” He notes that diversity has been compared to a journey where you never really reach a destination, so it makes a difference to have some dedicated fellow travelers along the way.

“The Council aims to provide a forum where people can share openly and candidly,” according to Simpson. He says that the biggest benefit of the Council, for him, is that the existence of the network of Council members allows him to pick up a telephone to review difficult issues and draw on others’ experience.

Osborne shares this view of the value of the network. He also points out that the non-exempt—“blue collar”—part of many organizations is often naturally diverse in terms of gender and race. “The challenge,” he says, “is to achieve a similar degree of diversity in the professional and managerial levels.” The leaders of a company, as well as its lower-level employees, need to reflect the company’s customer base and its community, and mirror the diversity of the work force at other levels.

The importance of diversity at B&L is underscored by the fact that its 15,000-employee work force is located in thirty-five countries around the globe. Thus, according to Osborne, the diversity initiative has to be global in scope if the company is to have the ability to assess the potential of new markets, and attract and retain the best employees in all these geographies. “There is a tremendous interest in diversity issues now,” he says. “Successful marketing and sales strategies targeted to the very diverse population of the United States can also help us be more effective and efficient in gaining access to markets in other parts of the world.”

“It’s really a basic competency issue,” Osborne suggests. “You must learn how to do business with all people, successfully. In a traditional organization, if you looked, talked or presented in a way that was different from the norms of that organization, your ideas were not likely to be accepted. The challenge today is to leverage the differences that are both visible and invisible, and become more innovative.”

Partners in the diversity effort

The coordinating and administrative arm of the Council is the Industrial Management Council of Rochester. Its president, Sandy Parker, was a charter member. With forty-eight employees and gross revenue of eleven million dollars, IMC represents the human-resource perspective on business and industry. As Parker says, even human-resources professionals find diversity an eye-opening issue as new aspects of the field are discovered.

Parker believes that the Council’s success to date can be attributed in part to its completely independent creation, and to the spontaneous coming together of concerned employers. “The Diversity Council members are all natural partners,” she says. B&L’s Osborne agrees with the importance of partnership on the GRDC, and points out that the IMC’s coordinating role has been a key ingredient in the success of the conferences and other events sponsored by the Council.

Another Council member is Ann Young, director of diversity and work/life for Eastman Kodak Company. Kodak, with 50,000 U.S. employees and 100,000 employees worldwide, is the largest of the Council’s founding companies. Young says that Kodak combined the job functions of diversity and work/life several years ago, because the issues go beyond visible differences. “It’s the mode of communication, it’s the way you think, it’s your education, it’s your personal circumstances,” she says. “In addition to recognizing the business value of a diverse work force, we have to be personally engaged in the issues. Self-awareness is essential in understanding one’s attitudes and behavior.”

Young reports that she turns to the employee networks to help her stay current with their issues. Kodak’s networks include groups of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered workers, and African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, working parents, and veterans. Each group sponsors at least one major event annually to help raise consciousness company-wide, as well as holding regular meetings to assist its own members in coping with the challenges of corporate life.

For the GRDC, Young serves as chairperson of the group planning the Council’s “Diversity 2000” full-day conference, scheduled for May 17, 2000. Another assignment Young undertook for the GRDC was organizing a roundtable discussion among two dozen key executives, focused on their role in diversity and specifically aimed at sharing ideas for attracting high-tech candidates to work in Rochester’s business and industry. The group came together a second time six months later, to re-address the issues and measure progress.

Like Osborne and Simpson, Young reports that she enjoys the opportunities for mutual support that the Council offers. However, she adds, “The most important thing is to get beyond the council members, who are already engaged in diversity, and take the message to line managers and key executives.”

Another Diversity Council founding member is Betsy Harrison, president and CEO of Career Development Service, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to improve the quality of work life by providing comprehensive career planning to individuals and organizations. Harrison is also the co-chair of Women for Corporate Boards in Rochester, where she advocates for more women on the boards of corporations. This organization also maintains a database of women who are qualified and willing to join nonprofit and corporate boards.

Harrison describes the Diversity Council’s two public conferences as extremely valuable in helping attendees increase their knowledge of best practices and improve their own skills. She feels that the difference in the size and nature of the businesses represented by GRDC members is one of the reasons for its success; another is its members’ willingness to “roll up their sleeves and get the work done.”

LeRoy Valentine, manager of diversity and staffing for Rochester Gas & Electric and a founding member of the Council, is keenly aware of the challenges of changing times. Responsible for nearly 2,000 workers during this time of deregulation of utilities, Valentine notes, “Being a utility, we were probably ten years behind the larger corporations in going down this road,” and adds that RG&E’s missions is not only to grow and keep customer loyalty, but also to attract and retain a skilled work force in Rochester.

Valentine describes three areas of focus for his company. First, there is human diversity, the visible differences of race and gender. Cultural diversity—“what makes up who you are as an individual, but is not necessarily visible”—is a second factor. And the third is systems diversity, which includes both level and function. Valentine says all are important because “you never know where your next great idea is coming from.” A competitive company must eliminate barriers so that ideas and resulting initiatives can take place at any branch or root of the corporate tree.”

Valentine shares Young’s view of the importance of self-awareness. “We fear what we do not understand,” he says. “We are learning how to incorporate the understanding of differences to do more business and to become more competitive. Self-evaluating is key,” he stresses. “And that is the hardest part to teach. You must look closely at yourself and do a critical self-evaluation. We humans have a tendency to scapegoat others for things we don’t like in ourselves.” Valentine suggests that a successful diversity initiative has to aim at changing the mindset of the organization—the organization’s culture. “No individual person is the embodiment of the group,” he says. “For an organization to function harmoniously people have to learn to examine their biases and prejudices and see other people as individuals.”

Wyoma Best, vice-president of public relations and communications for the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “It’s a human need to seek comfort,” she says. “Diversity challenges include the art of being courageous.” She feels that the process of change is initiated by those few people who are courageous enough to think outside the box. “It only takes a few people,” she says, “who are willing to step out of the circle of popular thought, do the research necessary to support a new way of looking at things, and then go back to the organization to share their insights.” She is very positive in her evaluation of the GRDC. “This is probably the only Council of its kind in the country,” she says. She feels the mission of the GRDC is very much in tune with the goals of the Chamber, which from its founding in 1887 has helped new workers become valued members of the American work force.

Past, present and future

Ruth Rosenberg Napersteck, Rochester’s city historian since 1984, feels the GRDC is a good fit with the culture of a city which has been hospitable to both the business community and to social reformers such as Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. She also notes that it is easier to maintain diversity initiatives in times like these, when the economy is good. In times of economic downturn, things become more difficult.

Napersteck reinforces the view that the current major challenge for the city’s business community is sustaining its growth in an increasingly technological and global environment, and attracting enough high-tech employees to fill the positions in the growing industries. She also sees the city redefining what a community should be. As she projects twenty years into the future, she imagines a metropolitan government that combines services of county and city for efficiency—a goal that will require financial investment to create a city center that will be vibrant and welcoming. While she welcomes the efforts of the GRDC, she recognizes that its successors in helping businesses manage their diversity will probably not be immediately apparent because, as others also pointed out, overcoming the barriers that keep a diverse work force from being successful is an ongoing task—a mindset, and not an end in itself.

“The real key,” said one Greater Rochester Diversity Council member, “is that the effort must never stop.”

Tips for Creating a Diversity Council for Business

  • Start with a small core group of representatives from approximately ten companies to define the council’s mission before beginning to build membership. The core should reflect different industries and include both profit-making and non-profit groups.

  • Get senior-management endorsement of the council so the company can become a key part of how the council functions.

  • Focus the work of the council on leveraging diversity of gender, race and thought in the business arena.

  • Agree on a name for the group and create a written document establishing the mission, qualifications for membership, dues, officers and duties, rules of order and so forth. Provide procedures for amendments, and a process for dissolution of the organization if necessary. Elect a board of directors, making sure the board reflects the diversity of the membership. Establish a meeting schedule, and create standing committees.

  • Plan public events such as diversity conferences with outside speakers, or full-day or multiple-day awareness workshops, to get the word out.

  • Encourage members to share best practices and avoid competition.

  • Encourage members to “walk the talk”—to celebrate as much as possible the group’s diversity.

Greater Rochester Diversity Council Member Organizations

Membership in the GRDC in 1999 included the following organizations:

Bausch & Lomb
Blue Cross/Blue Shield of the Rochester Area
Career Development Services
Century 21
Chase Manhattan Bank
Democrat & Chronicle
Distillation Products Industries (Eastman Chemical)
Eastman Kodak
Gordon S. Black Corp.
Industrial Management Council
Mike Streeter & Associates
Mobil Chemical Co.
Nixon Peabody LLP
Rochester Gas & Electric
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester Metro Chamber of Commerce
St. John Fisher College
Time Warner Communications
The University of Rochester
Wegmans Food
West Group Legal Publishing
Xerox Corporation

End Notes

  1. For more information on the Bausch & Lomb diversity initiative, see Clayton H. Osborne, “Change and Continuity: Bausch & Lomb’s Diversity Development Plan,” The Diversity Factor, Volume 4, Number 1 (Summer 1995); and Linda Baird and Dan Pennachia, “Championing Diversity at Bausch & Lomb,” in the same issue.-ed.

  2. For more information about one Kodak employee network, see Margaret Blackburn White, “The Invisible Minority: American Indian Women in Corporate America,” in this issue.-ed.

*Laurie Mercer is a writer based in Rochester, New York.
From The Diversity Factor, Volume 7, Number 4 (Summer 1999). Use with permission. All rights reserved.

The foregoing has been prepared for the general information of clients and friends of the firm. It is not meant to provide legal advice with respect to any specific matter and should not be acted upon without professional counsel. If you have any questions or require any further information regarding these or other related matters, please contact your regular Nixon Peabody LLP representative. This material may be considered advertising under certain rules of professional conduct.

The foregoing has been prepared for the general information of clients and friends of the firm. It is not meant to provide legal advice with respect to any specific matter and should not be acted upon without professional counsel. If you have any questions or require any further information regarding these or other related matters, please contact your regular Nixon Peabody LLP representative. This material may be considered advertising under certain rules of professional conduct.

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