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Greenville Business Magazine

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is a Key Business Strategy in an Ever-Evolving Business World

Jan 28, 2022 03:47PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

Lee Gill fondly remembers his college days at University of Michigan, where he and his friends would fiercely debate the issues of the day.

Gill, who hailed from South Bend, Ind., was thrilled to hear unfamiliar perspectives from people of different backgrounds and cultures. He enjoyed having his views challenged and looking at the world from a different vantage point than the one he’d grown up with in Indiana.

And no matter how heated the discussion or controversial the subject, the friends could put aside their differences and go out for a beer after the conversation was done.

Those debates are more than just happy memories for Gill; they helped inform and shape his career path.

Gill is chief diversity officer and Special Assistant to the President for Inclusion and Equity at Clemson University, and for him, the concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is not just an abstract idea.

“The discussions we used to have, the debates we used to have, and the disagreements we used to have as students – that robustness is how we learned,” Gill says now.

And decades later, as the United States population becomes more diverse, those discussions – and the actions that flow from those conversations – are even more important.

According to 2020 census figures, the white, non-Hispanic population in the U.S. is now 57.8 percent, down from 63.7 percent in 2010.

The way Gill sees it, the American business world is part of a “highly competitive global society,” which means that companies can’t afford to ignore anyone from any demographic group.

The census numbers provide a vivid illustration of that fact.

“This demographic change means that by 2040, 2050, there’s a minority-majority. We can’t stop that. You’re not going to stop that. It is what it is,” Gill says.

The conversation around diversity and inclusion has been going on for the past 20 years or so, and equity has been added to the equation more recently. It’s part of an evolution of thought, Gill says, from an idea that started as cultural inclusion, then moved to affirmative action, and is now centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Chief diversity officers as a position did not exist 20 years ago, but now you see every major corporation, every institution of higher education, every business reaching out and connecting to have such a position within their organization, because we knew the demographic inevitability was going to take place,” Gill says.

Having a diverse group of employees brainstorming around a conference room table makes for a lively conversation, out of which can flow a multitude of interesting ideas.

“There are going to be people who will come up with ideas you’ve never thought about, because they’ve had different experiences. So it’s not about just having a Black person and a brown person and a woman, it’s about those groups. If they’re sitting around the table, because of their different experiences, they’re going to be more innovative and have different ideas on solutions,” he said.

And that one word, “solutions,” is the key to it all.

“We’re in business to solve issues and problems … and the way I come to my solution may be different from how you come to your solution,” says Gill, who has worked in higher education for 27 years.

Studies have shown innovation and diversity of thought can help boost a company’s bottom line.

In December 2021, the website Zippia released statistics about diversity in the workplace. Among the findings: Companies with racially and ethnically diverse leadership and executive teams tend to financially outperform companies without diverse leadership by 36 percent; companies with a higher percentage of gender diversity perform 15 to 21 percent better than companies with less gender diversity.


But there’s also the idea of employee retention, which is on the minds of many business leaders as the United States lives through the Great Resignation.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a record-breaking 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November 2021, up from 4.1 million the previous month. In November 2020, that number was just under 3.3 million.

The website cites studies that found that nearly 80 percent of workers want to work for a company that values diversity, while 52 percent said that improved DEI efforts would help them to be more engaged in their jobs.

And a recent Gallup poll found that 45 percent of U.S. workers reported experiencing harassment or discrimination during the previous 12 months.

But changing workplace culture isn’t always easy, and some executives are embracing the ideas behind DEI more easily than others.

“This change is scaring a lot of people,” Gill says. “They’re fearful, and they think something is going to be taken from them. And actually, nothing is going to be taken from them; things are going to be added to them. The beauty of diversity is new ideas, new concepts, innovation, entrepreneurship. That is a positive for organizations.

“We’re competing in a highly global world, and I like to say, learning about diversity and inclusion is akin to the educational process: Learn it well and be rewarded; fail to learn it and be left behind. Every business has competitors, and if your business or organization doesn’t get that, your competitors will.”

Executives and business owners who want to learn more about DEI will have an opportunity to immerse themselves in the subject on March 16 when Integrated Media Publishing (publishers of Greenville Business Magazine, Charleston Business Magazine and Columbia Business Monthly) puts on the first Living Color DEI Conference and Business Expo.

The daylong event, to be held at the Greenville Convention Center, will feature informative sessions on such topics as unconscious bias, setting DEI goals, and communication strategies to promote DEI in the workplace. And companies will have an opportunity to showcase their own DEI stories, network with other organizations, and bring awareness of their recruiting efforts.

Information is power, the old adage tells us, and in today’s hyper-competitive global business world, that idea is more important than ever.