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Q&A: A Conversation on Upward Mobility for Minorities in Business

SBJ Economic Growth Survey: The New Workforce

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Larnelle Foster, who runs Springfield wine bar Q Enoteca, visits about workplace diversity with Elise Crain, a community advocate in Ozark with a longtime career in the construction industry. Each has a personal journey as a minority in business – Crain’s was decades ago as a businesswoman in management and Foster’s currently to diversify higher-level jobs for multiple ethnicities. They talked about the parallels of the movements during Springfield Business Journal’s 2020 Economic Growth Survey Forum: The New Workforce on Aug. 26; excerpts follow.

The Playing Field
Elise Crain: It didn’t take me very long in a job to understand that my pay was not the same level as a male would be, even if the male was doing my job, which of course they were not. I went to work in 1967 for an engineering company. They hired me, and I couldn’t type as well as I should’ve been able to. So they made me the bookkeeper – and you should see my handwriting – but they wanted to keep me around. The principal of that company was an engineer and maybe the most brilliant person I’ve ever known. He had a lot of respect for his mother, his wife, his children and me. So everybody that came into that engineering firm, you can feel that respect and that understanding. That let me know other engineers along the way, and they respected me because the people who worked with me respected me.
Larnelle Foster: I came into college as well, and always thinking of myself, too, as a total equal … because of the way my parents raised us and the way that I’ve come to the world, that doesn’t always mean that other people have that same opportunity. I even found that as I got into the workforce and further in I got, and the more successful I felt I was, I would see other people and feel like, “Why isn’t the same thing happening for them?” Sometimes it was also because of their background and not feeling like they have the same confidence or had the same feeling of themselves that like, “Hey, I can do this just like anyone else can. I’m equal, if not better.”
Crain: Looking back, what I realize now is by being in a leadership position, which we naturally go to, then we’re mentors. Whether we know it or not, we’re mentors. That’s just about the best feeling you can have, if somebody comes up and says, “You made a difference in my career.”
Foster: For me, even having this conversation, being willing to be a mentee and say, “Hey, will you tell me what I’m doing wrong here and help me through it?” Being able to honestly say to someone, “I don’t know everything. I’m young here, and I’m trying to figure it out” and not be afraid to say that.
Crain: Oh, I agree. We need to ask more questions. There’s a reason we have two (ears) and one (mouth).

Changing Company Culture
Crain: I know hiring is a challenge, but when you look at it on a piece of paper, it’s a whole lot different than when you look eye to eye. You have to understand the people and the conversation with them. But really reach down to see what kind of people they are and where their heart is. That could open up some doors. Then the employer has to stay hitched to that and they have to make opportunities available to people who look different than most other people. They have to stand by that.
Foster: What happens sometimes in a business, in general, people are so used to the culture that they have already. So they look to people that are the same within that culture. I think it’s about us saying how do we diversify our business and what does that look like? Then once you look at that, then actually doing the work to find good people and not just saying, “Oh, do you have a friend that could come and work here?” No, let’s sit down as a business and say, “How do we change our culture? What are the questions we’re not asking? Why does everyone in our business look the same?” That’s something that has to be addressed. Then, how do we change it?
Crain: One of the things that’s really important to me is the tone of voice. When you talk to someone, your tone of voice makes such a major difference.
Foster: It’s the tone of voice and the allowance, too, of listening, Not just trying to take over, but saying who is the person I’m in front of, who am I meeting and not assuming things also about the background of that person. That makes such a difference because then you can look at where to meet them and find the right tone.

Why Should Business 
Owners Care?
Foster: Because we’re human beings and should treat each other as that. I think that if you don’t care, you shouldn’t be a business owner. Bottom line, close your business. If you do care about human beings, then you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that your business has offerings that include everyone. You look at everyone and say how does our menu, or how does our gym, or how does our hotel make everyone feel equal and accepted?
Crain: We all use the same money. So when the money goes into the store or the credit card or whatever the transaction is, when all that money goes into the box, there’s no other information. It’s just money in the box. If we want, as a business, to have money in the box, then we need to treat everybody as if they had the money to put it in our box.
Foster: Taking the time, not only externally but internally. Let’s sit down as a group of people that work in this business and figure out if we’re doing everything we can to make everyone here feel equal. And if you don’t feel equal, please let us know why and how we can change it. I think that’s a second part of that, too, is not being afraid to have these conversations. I think some people are so afraid and it’s a conversation. What you should be afraid of is not having the conversation.
Crain: We can come together and have a conversation. If we disagree, we can say why we feel like we do and invite them to say why they feel like they do. We may find some more common ground that we can all work together. So we’re back to respect.

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