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Diversity, equity & inclusion in the workplace should be intentional: 3 local companies show us how

Luis Avila and Linsey Gleason at Varnum.

Local companies like Cascade Engineering, Varnum Law, and Afrik Advantage are intentional about opening dialogues and fostering change around diversity, equity, and inclusion, seeking to improve their organizations, empower their employees, and positively impact the community as a whole.
The discussion around diversity, equity, and inclusion has been underway for a long time and shows no signs of slowing down. Local organizations like Cascade Engineering, Varnum Law, and Afrik Advantage are intentional about opening dialogues and fostering change around these issues. Through in-house and community engagement, these companies are seeking to improve their organizations, empower their employees, and positively impact the community as a whole.

Founded in Grand Rapids, family-owned Cascade Engineering has been proactively making strides to move the needle around diversity, equity, and inclusion for over 20 years now. Serving as an Executive Vice President, Kenyatta Brame has seen several initiatives take shape and impact both internal and external stakeholders of the organization in his 12 years there.
 
“What gets me excited about Cascade Engineering is the diversity of our portfolio and the fact that we are a triple bottom line company – meaning that when we think about our business, we don’t just think about making money. We think about the impact we can have on the people within our community, the planet, and profit,” says Brame.
 
“Diversity at the highest level means differences among people, whether it’s sex, gender, experience, social economics, background, education level, thought. We think that our beliefs and our diverse workforce drives our innovation,” Brame says.
 
Luis Avila

“For us, our diversity focus is two-fold: diversity and inclusion,” says Luis Avila, partner at Varnum Law and co-chair of their internal Diversity Committee. “Diversity is more on the side of making sure that we’re representative of the various different walks of life that people come from – race, gender, ethnicity, religion, that’s what we’re trying to get at.” 

“There’s also the inclusion piece,” he adds, “which is really being accepting, embracing and promoting people based on those differences. It’s not just ‘let’s get people in the door,’ it’s how do we welcome them and champion them both here internally and out in the community.”

Varnum’s Diversity Committee has been in place for over 15 years. Their community-based Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, which was established in 2007, seeks to help the organization increase awareness of diversity-related issues and gain outside perspectives around strategic planning initiatives.
 
Linsey Gleason is also a Partner at Varnum and the co-chair of the Diversity Committee. When reflecting on the value of focusing on these goals, Gleason shares, “One of the things that we feel pretty confident [about] in trying to champion these things within the firm and get the buy-in of everyone here, is that we know it’s important to our community and we know it’s important to our clients.”

Linsey GleasonRobyn Afrik is also personally connected to the work being conducting in this space. Owner of Afrik Advantage, Afrik is CQ Certified in Cultural Intelligence and Unconscious Bias through the Cultural Intelligence Center. Through her work, she focuses on assisting faith-based nonprofits and corporations with developing and implementing strategies focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Growing up in a homogenous, very white, Dutch background, being a woman of color who also happens to be an adoptee,” has impacted her perspective and what she brings to the table, both personally and professionally, shares Afrik.

Building upon the dialogue around diversity and inclusion, Afrik highlights the importance of discussing equity as well. “Equity is looking at what are the systemic things, the attitudes that turn into policy, that actually keep people from having access to the same resources and opportunities that others have,” she says.
 
Robyn Afrik

Challenges to change

 
“I always talk about how businesses have three things that they have to look at – their people, their process, and their product. There are businesses that look beyond that. They look at community as part of the greater systems. It’s not just the products and the people,” says Afrik. “Priority says we’re going to put the right people in place and get the backing from leadership, too.” It is not always a simple feat, however.
 
When conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion began decades ago at Cascade Engineering, the initial train of thought was that individuals should be able to empower themselves and not need the assistance of a company to help them grow and thrive. As the discussions continued and more and more individuals entered the doors at Cascade Engineering, it was clear that change needed to happen, starting at the top.
 
“We’ve learned that we not only must create an environment where people can be successful, [but] we also have to train our supervisors in such a way to understand and have empathy for individuals coming from a variety of different backgrounds,” says Brame.
 
“We did a lot to train our supervisors to understand that individuals coming out of poverty need an opportunity, a welcoming environment, and skills and training to be successful. Once we provided those and our supervisors were encouraging and supportive, we saw that our retention increased significantly,” he elaborates.

One of the challenges Varnum has faced, in addition to other law firms, is attracting and retaining diverse talent in West Michigan. “Historically, we had a hard time keeping diverse attorneys in the community,” Gleason shares. This led them to take a look at their community efforts as a whole. “It’s when our attorneys go home and they feel like the community doesn’t reflect [them] or they can’t find how to get plugged in.”
 
Putting it into action
 
Countless reports and studies of late have shown the disparities in minorities’ access to healthcare and lending, as well as disproportionate incarceration rates and lower accumulated wealth. To combat some of these issues, Cascade Engineering has put programs into place to assist individuals with addressing and overcoming some of these challenges. Through their Returning Citizens program, which provides an equal opportunity for those with criminal backgrounds to obtain gainful employment, and their Welfare to Career program, they strive to empower individuals and provide them with the tools necessary to break the cycle of poverty.
 
Another unique element of Cascade Engineering’s inclusivity focus is their anti-racism policy, Through this initiative, a safe space is created not only allowing but also encouraging team members to be vocal about any inequitable situations they may see or encounter. This type of dialogue is fostered through activities such as guided role plays, which allows employees to speak up and speak out.
 
“We think that race is an issue that is still very relevant today and it impacts a lot of lives of the people in this country. We are a company that believes in talking about issues of race,” says Brame.
 
“As a person of color, race is a significant part of who I am. I want to be at a place where I feel comfortable talking about it with not only people of color but with a variety of different people. We’ve created a safe environment, where people can ask questions and have these sometimes tough conversations,” he adds.
 
Taking feedback from their Council over the past several years and putting it into action has helped Varnum move the needle with greater intentionality when it came to attracting and retaining a more diverse pool of talent. 
 
From there, however, they know their work is not done once the candidates join their team. Now they must consider how to retain these individuals. To help their new attorneys become more connected, Varnum pairs them with someone from their Council to serve as a mentor and guide. The goal is to help get them plugged into community initiatives and begin establishing their own roots within the area, Avila says.
 
Impacting the next generation
 
“Studies show that the more authentically insider one feels, their productivity and engagement  rises. For a business, that’s huge on ROI and in communities and organizations that are looking to build health and proactive sustainable foundations, that is key,” says Afrik.
 
“When you bring diverse groups of people together and create supportive and encouraging environments, your products are better, your services are better, your manufacturing processes are better. Everything is better because you have a variety of people contributing to the success of the company,” Brame says.
 
“There’s various levels of why as a firm we’re involved – not just because it’s the right thing to do, which is really where this starts and ends for us,” says Avila. “On a more pragmatic level, it’s because our community is diverse and we want to reflect the efforts of our community. Our clients are diverse and they’re asking us to reflect our client base both in our numbers and in how we operate.” 
 
Cascade Engineering was aware of the attrition rates of young professionals planting roots in the community post-graduation. Looking at the potential business impact, Brame knows this could be detrimental to the long-term trajectory of their organization. “It’s going to be hard for us to compete in the future if some of the best minds are leaving because they don’t feel comfortable.”
 
In response, Cascade Engineering has developed the annual Young Professionals of Color Conference. Having just completed its seventh session, the conference wants young people of color “to know that Grand Rapids can be a place for them to be successful and that there is a network of people [here] and that the community wants them to stay in the community.”
 
Varnum is also aware of the impact the next generation of professionals and community leaders can have to their organization. As the firm continues to grow and expand its geographic footprint, having a diverse team is becoming even more important. “We have offices all across the state now. We’re in more and more communities and our client base is growing. [This] is becoming more and more important for us as our geographical reach expands and the clients that we serve are from all over the world,” adds Gleason.
 
Issuing a call-to-action
 
“Grand Rapids has become much more openly diverse. There is a much more concerted effort community-wide through organizations like Talent 2025 that are putting a lot of effort into making Grand Rapids a more welcoming community,” says Avila.
 
As organizations continue to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is clear this is an ongoing conversation.
 
For both Afrik and Brame, the first step toward advancement is establishing a clear definition of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Diversity is everywhere. How are we addressing that and living that out fully? You can’t reconcile what you don’t recognize. How you recognize what [diversity, equity, and inclusion are] is going to determine what your solution or strategy is,” Afrik says.
 
Once these terms have been defined, conversations and change can take place. Brame says, “Challenge yourself to make sure that you are addressing issues that come before you. If you see something, don’t just ignore it. Feel free to raise your voice and have these dialogues with people that are different than you. Be courageous. Don’t be afraid to address issues of race. And don’t be afraid to encourage people different from you to be involved in the conversation.”

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet is the Program Editor for the “Making It In Grand Rapids” series. She is Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC and Brightwork Marine LLC. Leandra has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. Through her work, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at leandra.rapidgrowth@gmail.com!

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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