The Advocate

Businesses need to make sure their diversity goals are aligned with the company’s mission, a leading diversity expert said Wednesday.

“If what you’re doing with diversity isn’t aligned to strategy, then it’s not that important,” said Deborah Elam, former chief diversity officer for General Electric and president of the GE Foundation. Elam, a New Orleans native, was the speaker at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s annual Diversity in Business Event.

One example of tying diversity to strategy was in early 2010, when Elam and other high-ranking black GE officials went on a trip to Africa, making stops in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. The goal was to increase business in Africa, by showing that GE was a company they should do business with because it had black employees in key roles.

Diversity should also be a factor when it comes to attracting talent or courting new markets, Elam said.

“Diversity is not easy work,” she said. “You have to show where you are delivering value for what you are trying to do. Then it will matter.”

Elam, who earned a bachelor’s in sociology from LSU, was recruited by GE when she was earning her master’s in public administration from Southern University. The company was trying to diversify, so it decided to reach out to historically black colleges and universities to find young men and women who could meet its standards. “You go fish where the fish are,” she said.

Internship programs are a good way for companies to diversify, even small businesses. Because small businesses often grow by adding on family members or people existing employees know, it’s easy for insular thinking to take place.

Bringing in new people to look at things from a different perspective is important, Elam said. “It’s not what you lose, it’s the opportunities for growth, advancement and innovation that you miss out on,” she said.

At the sold-out luncheon, BRAC presented Diversity Star Awards to two businesses for the job they are doing in advancing diversity in their companies. Civil Solutions Consulting Group Inc. was the small business winner, and Republic Services of Baton Rouge was the large business winner.