April 3, 2024
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State of Black Leadership: Discussing diversity efforts along the Central Coast


Panelists that participated in our 2023 State of Black Leadership Roundtable. (Courtney Abercrombie / PCBT Staff)

In 2021, the Business Times invited 10 Black leaders to participate in an email conversation about race relations and economic opportunity on the Central Coast. We’re revisiting that issue in 2023 in recognition of Black History Month. Since our first conversation, we’ve learned that diversity equity and inclusion have become more integrated into the corporate culture, particularly at large organizations. And that mentorship is a way of advancing diversity. But the high cost of housing is creating a substantial barrier to recruiting and retaining leaders and managers.

The Q&A was conducted by Editor Henry Dubroff and edited by Co-Managing Editor Jorge Mercado. The cover illustration was produced by Advertising Graphic Designer Courtney Abercrombie. For additional comments, email hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.

Question: Is the high cost of housing posing a challenge for recruiting and retaining Black professionals? And, more broadly, is it a significant barrier to having a diverse leadership group in the tri-county region?

Beswick: Housing is an issue for everyone. It is our biggest issue. We can recruit minorities but the costs of housing are so far out of line that it is hard to get people here. People don’t feel grounded unless they have a home, so ownership is important. Once people get here and look around it’s virtually impossible. If you are looking at a $2 million house, you need 20% for a down payment and who has $400,000 in their back pocket? A better idea is to develop housing where you gradually bring people into home ownership. Another problem is new people versus existing people. The existing people who came seven or eight years ago have accumulated enough for a down payment. It’s not a level playing field for people who come from a place where housing costs less.

Biddings-Muro: Housing remains a major challenge when it comes to attracting and retaining leaders to the tri-county region from all backgrounds. When I moved to California from the Midwest in 2018, the housing market was a major shock in my new reality. That experience taught me the necessity of an informed and committed network of colleagues who were intent on helping me find solutions. When I was appointed to my role at Cal Lutheran, the university offered a rental option until I could find something permanent. Without this, I would have been forced into a purchase that required a significant commute, which would have been a deterrent to my relocation.

Stewart: Housing is important in recruiting and retaining Black and other diverse professionals. As an HR professional, qualified candidates often tell me that they don’t apply for or accept an offer due to the cost of living here. As mayor, I’m thinking about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate and helping people live closer to where they work. Due to the cost of housing, only 33% of the city’s employees live within the city limits. We need a spectrum of options, which would help both our environment and build diverse communities. Affordable housing will always be a key factor in expanding diversity. To increase diversity, we must focus on policies that support affordable housing, as well as creating safe, intentional, and affirmative communities where diversity is celebrated and everyone can feel a sense of belonging here.

Hunter: Yes, housing is a challenge in the region for Blacks and frankly, anyone who wishes to seek and secure employment in the region. Housing is not a Black thing. It’s a challenge for everyone. There is a supply shortage of housing and given this scenario, it will pose a significant roadblock for those who want to call “The American Riviera” a place of home or work.

Jean-Baptiste: Affordable housing can be a barrier to attracting and retaining talent at all levels. I remember moving to the Central Coast region from Texas in 2004 when inventory was low and growth in the community drove up the cost of housing. It was a difficult transition for me, and it took time to reset financially. I believe that COVID and record levels of inflation have exacerbated this issue around the world. As a global organization and one of the largest employers in the Central Coast region, Amgen reimagined the future of work. We listened to our staff, and employees working virtually overwhelmingly wanted to maintain flexibility in the future. In this evolving climate, it’s important to understand the needs of our employees, and we empower our staff to work when and where they are most productive.

Johnson: The current landscape has shown most organizations and industries that the cost of housing has impacted the ability to recruit across the board and is a barrier to employment. In Ventura County, given the population of Black residents is less than 1.5%, there is already a challenge to recruit and retain Black professionals and leadership. Not having a large Black population would seem to impact the ability to have more diverse leadership groups. When there is such a small population of Black professionals, this can lead to a cycle that results in difficulty recruiting Black professionals. It also presents challenges to retaining those black professionals that are currently in the workforce. The County of Ventura has formalized and structured a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee that regularly works with human resources to increase our reach to engage Black professionals. There is a mentoring program in place to provide opportunities for individuals to have access to other leaders and their networks that can advance their careers within the county.

Sims Johnson: Coming from Los Angeles last spring, I thought I was prepared for the housing market in Santa Barbara until I started looking for a house for my family of four. First, there was the sticker shock of prices, then there was the limited supply of viable homes. We were fortunate to find a place near our sons’ high school, but the security deposit was nearly double the monthly rent. This is a significant barrier to recruitment and retention. In addition to housing, finding a network of Black professionals and organizations is critical. Black professionals in this region are often the only one or one of a few Black employees in their organizations. Being able to connect to the Black community where we live and in our respective fields will go a long way toward building a diverse group of leaders on the Central Coast.

Grace: The housing dilemma is just a symptom of economic inequality in the United States. As CNBC reported in March 2022, the IRS is about 3 to 5 times more likely to audit Black Americans’ tax returns. Racism and inequality cost the U.S. economy $16 trillion, as NPR reported in September 2020, citing a Citigroup study. While 61% of white families own equity investments, only 34% of Black Americans have money in the stock market, according to a 2019 Federal Reserve Board. Finally, an immense and deplorable reason Tyre Nichols was stopped by police is that, as Stanford researchers have shown, Black people are overpoliced when it comes to traffic stops. Black and Latino drivers are far more likely to be stopped and searched for fewer reasons, as more illegal items are discovered on white drivers when stopped and searched. 

Question: We have seen an increased focus on DEI – diversity, equity, inclusion – issues at many organizations in the region. Is it beginning to have an impact on our corporate/leadership culture?

Biddings-Muro: The surge in new DEI leaders is having mixed results. New investment in C-Suite DEI executives suggests intentions toward meaningful change. It is an encouraging first step that requires resilience to stand firm despite resistance to change. I applaud executives who step up as DEI allies by challenging systemic issues that cause disparate harm. After nearly 40 years working alongside colleagues in DEI leadership roles – throughout my work in broadcast journalism, the steel industry, the natural gas and electric utility industry, and higher education – DEI leaders continue to express frustration, with some ultimately resigning. Meanwhile, higher education publications are reporting that political opposition to DEI-themed curricula in places like Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida signal that the road ahead in DEI work in some higher education institutions may be bumpy. Add to this narrative that top-level DEI leaders often have identities that differ from those in the predominantly white institutions they represent, which becomes an added tax in this complicated work. 

Hunter: Unequivocally, there has been both a priority and action for diversity, equity and inclusion.  In the eight years living and working in this region, I have seen first-hand an increase in the number of Blacks, primarily through work, but also those who have retired from corporate America or college/university president positions. One of the more positive outcomes of COVID was the ability for employees to work from home or remotely. This increased the opportunity for Blacks to live wherever they want and where they felt welcomed and appreciated.   

Jean-Baptiste: DEI should not be an initiative but a business priority to create a sustainable impact. At Amgen, we established four key areas of focus – people, culture, community and sustainability. Leadership commitment is critical for DEI sustainability, and we believe it is important to set that tone from the top. Since 2021, we’ve driven leadership accountability deeper in the organization with leaders creating and executing Leadership Action Plans. We expect this effort will promote a more inclusive environment and culture of belonging, laying the groundwork for our future DEI efforts. At Amgen, we are a founding member of OneTen, a coalition of over 60 employers that aim to collectively hire one million Black Americans into family-sustaining jobs over the next 10 years. Seventy-six percent of Blacks without a four-year degree are excluded from job considerations despite their skills. Amgen is taking a leadership role in this region to help expand the coalition of business and local partners who share in our desire to improve people’s lives by creating economic stability.

Sims Johnson: After George Floyd’s murder, many organizations took stock of their DEI work (or lack thereof) and it was promising. I was still living in Los Angeles County at the time and working at a foundation with the most diverse staff and culture I’d ever experienced in my working career. I do believe the world has shifted and organizations will be held more accountable for the work they do to improve their diversity, equity, inclusion and access. When I joined SBF in April 2022, I was pleasantly surprised to see how committed and transparent the Foundation was in its DEIA journey.

Stewart: The increased focus on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) in the public and private sectors is a positive shift. I’m hopeful that the intentional incorporation of DEI creates a sense of belonging and transforms the culture of many organizations. In 2020, the city of San Luis Obispo created a task force to listen to our marginalized communities. From each community’s needs, the task force prioritized the top ten recommendations for the city council. As recommended, DEI has been a major city goal for the 2021-2023 year. To make DEI a priority in every part of our city, staff and the community are learning new terminology and questioning what’s always been done. The city has identified funding for grant programs to support underserved and unserved communities, hosted speaking sessions with DEI experts and provided internal cultural humility training. 

Johnson: I believe the visibility of DEI efforts at the County of Ventura has significantly impacted the leadership culture. We have forums where agency directors have difficult conversations about issues of equity and race and how to support their impacted staff. Routinely, there are honest conversations around barriers to certain populations advancing in the workplace. These conversations represent empowering mitigation efforts that help improve diversity and recruit employees to specifically address concerns of the county workforce. In November 2020, the Board of Supervisors declared racism a public health crisis and this sparked many improvements and changes in county culture, which included: reviewing policies, looking at hiring panels to ensure diversity, clarifying goals and objectives, and even having agencies update their mission and vision statements to include their focus on prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion. While these are small steps, they are significant, meaningful and a clear example of ways that heightened discussions around DEI have positively impacted the county workforce.

Question: Mentorship is seen as a key building block for fostering diversity. Is that something you are engaged in yourself? Do you have an example or two to share?  

Rideau: My interest in mentoring began after I received a major contract from the city of Los Angeles back in 1973. I developed a need to “give back to the community” as I called it. From years of oppression, women and people of color had little opportunity to grow their businesses and, in fact, there were very few women and minority-owned companies. I along with other successful business owners began to mentor those companies on how to acquire contracts with the city. After that, it became my way of life, nurturing and mentoring everyone who worked for me in the insurance field, the securities and financial world and now the wine industry. My commitment to women in the wine industry allowed me to hire one of the first women winemakers in the Santa Ynez Valley. Adrian St. John has been with Rideau Winery since I hired her in 2014 and she is now making phenomenal wines and changing the way people look at women winemakers. Allan Hancock College has a special wine program so we will have even more to talk about as it relates to diversity in the wine industry.  

After owning my winery for 20 years, I sold it with the intention of retiring. However, I had more to say. So, I wrote my book, “From White to Black, One Life Between Two Worlds.” Since then, I have found a new group of individuals interested in diversity and racism in America. As I speak to these young people today, I find myself mentoring again. Since speaking to the students at Midland School I have discovered that these young people have a real interest in learning more about racism in America. They share a desire to help stop the hatred that is spreading across America against not only Black people but people of all colors, people from the LGBTQ+ community, Jewish people and now women.

How far have we come since my days when the Jim Crow Laws ruled the South and infected the entire country? Not far enough. But as I interact with my new young contacts, I am encouraged.

Biddings Muro: It is an honor to have in-depth conversations with individuals from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds who are preparing to enter their careers as well as those with several decades of experience.  The most important piece of advice I have shared as a mentor is to seek out the greatest diversity possible within your network of mentors, advisors, and sponsors. By gaining the perspectives of people whose identities are different from our own, we authentically deepen connections with people from all walks of life.

Hunter: There is no doubt mentoring is a key component in fostering diversity in the workplace and the community at large. Given my passion for education, particularly at the academic level, I created a nonprofit 25 years ago this year called The LAGRANT Foundation which increases the numbers of African Americans/Blacks, along with Hispanics/Latinos, Asian Pacifica Islanders, and American Indians, in the fields of advertising, marketing, and public relations. CSU Channel Islands and UC Santa Barbara are the two schools where I have been providing scholarships, internships/career opportunities, career development workshops, and mentorship programs. In addition, I became the first investor in a spirits company — T.W. Hollister, an artisanal vermouth company based in Hollister Ranch, with production in Carpinteria products sold at Stearns Wharf, the Lobero Theatre, the HandleBar and other outlets. There is also a Club Oso de Oro, which is a monthly vermouth club.  Providing marketing and earning media support has been truly a labor of love. I like to refer to myself as an advisor/sponsor versus a mentor. The former has a far greater impact than mentorship ever can.

Jean-Baptiste: I feel it is my inherent responsibility to support and mentor others. We stand on the shoulders of many and it is important for us as leaders to cast a net to support and mentor others on their personal and professional journeys. I recognize that women and diverse talent are typically over-mentored and under-sponsored. A Black manager is 65% more likely to progress to the next rung on the ladder if they have a sponsor. Yet, only 5% of Black employees succeed in winning sponsorship compared to 20% of their white peers, according to a 2022 article in the Harvard Business Review. Sponsorship is as equally important, which means we need more people willing to use their influence to help Black talent, and especially women of color, progress.

Sims Johnson: I followed my mentor into the community foundation sector because she was the only Black woman in leadership in my previous organization. Representation and diversity truly matter. She was an example and an inspiration for me to enter the world of philanthropy. Thank you, Nike Irvin! I had the pleasure of supporting Black colleagues in my last role and look forward to finding new opportunities to mentor and support the next generation of Black leaders in Santa Barbara County.

Johnson: Mentoring is something I am passionate about and am actively engaged in. The County of Ventura has a Mentorship Program to support individuals in our workforce. That program strives to provide ongoing leadership and support to prepare candidates for emerging executive roles, as well as provide quality, cost-effective training that values development, diversity, and growth opportunities for employees. For the past several years and currently, I have worked with mentees to provide those mentorship opportunities. Currently, I am mentoring a junior-level professional that has benefitted from allowing herself to set boundaries, learn how to proactively approach her director and work with senior executives in such a way that she is empowered to be the expert in the room even with higher ranking individuals and being a minority.