Inclusion and diversity make for good business and a strong economy, says the Elevate Greater Akron initiative.

A summit Thursday morning at Quaker Station in downtown Akron will make the case to local leaders that, among other things, employers of all sizes need to be more inclusive in their hiring and sourcing. A top goal is to strengthen and tap the talents of the region's largely economically excluded black population.

And that means a lot of people, and businesses, will need to get out of their comfort zones, organizers say.

"I hope people hear not just this is a problem and a weakness in our economy," said Christine Amer Mayer, president at the GAR Foundation, a partner in Elevate Greater Akron. "But it is also a huge opportunity for our region that sits under our noses."

The plan's findings show that the greater Akron area is stagnant economically for a number of reasons and is excluding most of its black population from participating in opportunities.

And that's where the focus on business and inclusion comes in.

The Greater Akron Opportunity and Inclusion Summit marks a new phase in Elevate Greater Akron -- from moving from presenting findings to proposing, showing and pushing businesses to take concrete steps that it says will end up helping them, strengthen the economy and improve lives. The event, expected to attract a couple hundred people, will include presentations and panel discussions -- and a treasure trove of data.

Elevate Greater Akron is a collaboration involving the city of Akron, Summit County, the Greater Akron Chamber and the GAR Foundation. The initiative was unveiled in the fall of 2018. The Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings Institution helped collect and crunch much of the census, economic and other data that went into the program's findings.

"The Inclusion Summit marks a shift from research to action," said James Hardy, chief of staff to Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and one of the architects of Elevate Greater Akron. The group started out identifying problems and is now identifying solutions, Hardy said.

"We all have to start doing things differently, whether private sector or public sector," Hardy said. "Yes, it is a national issue. But there are specific Akron-area problems that we can solve."

Thursday's summit aims to motivate the business community and make the economic case for inclusion, said Brynn Allio Popa, the chamber's senior vice president for strategic initiatives and engagement.

"To me, this is a three- to five-year journey for the community," said Steve Millard, chamber president and chief executive officer. "We got here over generations. This is something that is going to take a while to fix. ... If this was just about doing the right thing, it would be done by now. We've got to find a way to help companies understand that in addition to doing the right thing, there's an economic case for this."

Diversity and inclusion should become natural, Millard said. It should become similar to when businesses years ago talked about internet and marketing strategy, he said. Now, when they talk about marketing strategy, Millard said, "It's part of the mix."

Elevate Greater Akron's research showed the exclusion of the Akron area's black population.

"For a business, you don't get results if you are fractionalized. As a chamber, we know there is an economic benefit to addressing this issue," Millard said.

A lot of people who are on the sidelines have not gotten the training and have not been connected to jobs and opportunity the way they could be, he said.

Besides hiring, the process also includes businesses ensuring their supply chains include minorities and minority-owned businesses, Millard and others said.

"That focus on shared prosperity is important to us because it is going to advance our businesses and help them do better," Millard said. "Plus, we know from the data and things, diverse and inclusive organizations are more likely to be profitable, they're more likely to be successful, they're more likely to be innovative ... For the chamber, it's something we have to address."

Many of the region's better known companies are energized, ready to lead on the issue, and will share information, ideas and practices with others, Millard said.

"I'm thinking a lot of the companies are at a stage where they don't know what they don't know. And then they are starting to share what they do know," said Robert DeJournett, the chamber's vice president for opportunity and inclusion. DeJournett came to the chamber from Summa Health earlier in the summer.

DeJournette said diversity and inclusion, or D and I, specialists at companies often take action by mimicking a process dubbed at Summa as "Summatize it".

"We take bits and pieces of what other companies are doing and then make it fit the culture," he said. "We share best practices. ... We're open to share because I think the common goal is the same, we want the best for our respective organizations. In order to have the best, we have to include everyone."

That all starts at a business's governance level, DeJournett said.

"It starts with the senior leaders," he said. "The chief diversity officer for every organization should be the president and CEO. That's who sets the cadence for D and I and it trickles down."

Business leadership needs to say to all employees, diversity and inclusion is part of their performance, Millard said.

The summit program starts at 7:30 a.m. at Quaker Station, 135 S. Broadway, with registration, breakfast and networking.

The opening overview begins at 8:15, with a panel discussion running from 8:50 to 9:45 a.m.

Luke Visconti, chairman of Diversity Inc., will give the keynote address beginning at 10 a.m.

The program is expected to end by 11:30.

Jim Mackinnon covers business. He can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @JimMackinnonABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/JimMackinnonABJ

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