Ruben Anthony delivers a response during the panel discussion "The Role of Business in Advancing Racial Equity in Dane County" during the 2018 Cap Times Idea Fest.

Diversity in the workplace is good for business, good for society and good for groups that traditionally have found barriers to decent jobs.

But cultivating a culture of diversity in Madison workplaces is still a work in progress.

For the past five years, the Madison Region Economic Partnership and the Urban League of Greater Madison has teamed up to move that process along.

On Friday, May 17, the two groups will host their sixth Madison Region Economic Development & Diversity Summit at Monona Terrace, expected to draw hundreds of local business leaders, professionals, public officials and other who want to help fire up the local economy by diversifying the talent pool.

“A lot of time we don’t have honest conversations about diversity and inclusion,” said Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League. “The summit gives us a safe space to have that conversation, and also to hear what’s going on across the country with diversity and inclusion.”

The conference is organized under the premise that diversity in the workplace is not only a fairness issue, but good for business.

“We’re not seeing this as a social justice issue, we’re seeing it as an economic issue,” said Paul Jadin, MadREP president. “If you’re performing better in this space you’re going to do better in your bottom line, and ultimately, therefore, our entire economy is going to do better.”

For the first time, the summit will feature an appearance by a governor. Gov. Tony Evers, who edged out Republican incumbent Scott Walker in November, will speak shortly after noon. Anthony said Walker had declined invitations to speak at the event.

Keynote speakers will be Paulita David, a former Google executive who consults with companies to engage with Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American and LGBTQ consumers, and Wade Davis, a former professional football player who consults with professional sport leagues and companies on racism, sexism and homophobia.

Breakout sessions will include such topics as equitable development in opportunity zones, unconscious bias in the workplace, the role of K-20 education in building a diverse workforce and building equitable economies from the ground up.

The conference, which initially drew about 400 participants when it debuted in 2013, is expected to bring about 600 this year.

“We have 600 ambassadors that believe this conversation is important to have,” Anthony said.

He said one of the chief concerns in the region is the retention of a diverse workforce in a culture that is often not welcoming. Too often, he said, students who come to Madison to attend college and develop their talents end up leaving after they get their degrees.

“We have a risk of having massive brain drain,” he said. “People come here, black people, brown people, women, they come here to graduate from one of the best universities in the world, but they leave. They might get their first job here, but they don’t get upper mobility and so they leave.”

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Having a diverse group of business, government and nonprofit people attend the conference and bring strategies to foster diverse workplaces can have a positive impact on the region’s long-term economic health, Jadin said. But while conference attendees are largely people of color, not all of them are in a position to effect change.

“I would say that there are as many people of color at this event as there are not, and now the question would be are they in positions of authority?” he said. “That’s the bigger issue for me.”

Challenges for the Madison’s minority communities has been a hot topic in recent years, particularly after the 2012 Race to Equity report revealed vast gaps between blacks and whites in education, employment, health care, criminal justice outcomes and general well-being.

Jadin said that in the business world, MadREP’s Madison Region Workplace Diversity & Inclusion Survey, the latest of which will be released at the conference, has shown incremental progress. More businesses have adopted policies to attract and retain diverse workers, and cultivated more diverse workplaces.

Part of the impetus could be the bad press the city has gotten.

“Anecdotally I know we’re not all that different except that there’s a little more attention to it,” Jadin said. “In other words, we’re trying harder.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.