MMAC panel: Move beyond ‘kumbaya’ conversations on race

Milwaukee’s racial disparities receive attention at MMAC all-member meeting

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce all-member meeting on Wednesday was an opportunity for the business community to celebrate growth and progress, but a panel discussion during the evening’s program also highlighted some of the region’s significant challenges.

See more photos from Wednesday’s all-member meeting at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

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Tim Sheehy, MMAC president, said the organization’s research showed metro Milwaukee’s quality of life, people, education, economy and business climate are viewed by MMAC members as the strongest assets. On the other hand, he said racial disparity, educational attainment, workforce challenges, a lack of government cooperation and low numbers of startups are seen as the biggest liabilities.

“I don’t like standing up in front of you and talking about the challenges Milwaukee has, but we want to be honest with both our assets and our challenges,” Sheehy said.

During the panel discussion, Sheehy said racial disparities represented “one of the toughest challenges this community has” and asked the group, which included Cathy Jacobson, chief executive officer of Froedtert Health; Cory Nettles, managing director of Generation Growth Capital; Joel Quadracci, chairman, president and CEO of Quad/Graphics Inc.; Austin Ramirez, CEO of Husco International; and Richard Yau, CEO of Bright Cellars why they care about the issue from a business perspective and how it can be addressed.

“We’ve got to get beyond the kumbaya diversity and inclusion conversation,” said Nettles, pointing out CEOs of most large corporations in the region have chief diversity officers and people on their team focused on the issue. “There’s a real disconnect between what they’re feeding you and what the people in your organization are experiencing. So we’ve got to get beyond the polite conversation and figure out how to have a real conversation about these major racial disparities.”

Nettles said the data puts Milwaukee among the worst in the country on measures like African-American unemployment, education and poverty.

“Just as a practical matter, it is not possible to be a healthy, thriving, growing region with these kinds of racial disparities,” he said.

Quadracci said he has jobs available but no way to get people to them and the size of Quad’s plants means they can’t be located in the city.

“It feels like we have a whole group of people who’ve been left behind and we haven’t had a concise, sort of integrated approach to really fixing this problem,” Quadracci said.

He added that he does have training programs, has invested in technical colleges and is working with churches and van programs to get people to his facilities, but the problem needs a more “integrated approach.”

“If I can’t bring people in, I can’t create diversity of thought within my own organization, and to me that’s very important because diversity of thought is a big deal in this day and age, when business itself is relying on so much innovation and so many different perspectives,” Quadracci said.

Several of the panelists described Milwaukee’s challenges as both a moral and business imperative. Jacobson said there are lots of well-intentioned efforts, but there needs to be more coordination and focus, especially if the region is going to attract millennial talent.

“They want to live in an urban, inclusive area and they don’t want to live in a place that is labeled the worst segregated community in the country. They just simply don’t want to do that,” she said. “So again, if we’re to attract talent, to bring people in, we just have to fix this.”

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce all-member meeting on Wednesday was an opportunity for the business community to celebrate growth and progress, but a panel discussion during the evening’s program also highlighted some of the region’s significant challenges.

See more photos from Wednesday’s all-member meeting at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tim Sheehy, MMAC president, said the organization’s research showed metro Milwaukee’s quality of life, people, education, economy and business climate are viewed by MMAC members as the strongest assets. On the other hand, he said racial disparity, educational attainment, workforce challenges, a lack of government cooperation and low numbers of startups are seen as the biggest liabilities.

“I don’t like standing up in front of you and talking about the challenges Milwaukee has, but we want to be honest with both our assets and our challenges,” Sheehy said.

During the panel discussion, Sheehy said racial disparities represented “one of the toughest challenges this community has” and asked the group, which included Cathy Jacobson, chief executive officer of Froedtert Health; Cory Nettles, managing director of Generation Growth Capital; Joel Quadracci, chairman, president and CEO of Quad/Graphics Inc.; Austin Ramirez, CEO of Husco International; and Richard Yau, CEO of Bright Cellars why they care about the issue from a business perspective and how it can be addressed.

“We’ve got to get beyond the kumbaya diversity and inclusion conversation,” said Nettles, pointing out CEOs of most large corporations in the region have chief diversity officers and people on their team focused on the issue. “There’s a real disconnect between what they’re feeding you and what the people in your organization are experiencing. So we’ve got to get beyond the polite conversation and figure out how to have a real conversation about these major racial disparities.”

Nettles said the data puts Milwaukee among the worst in the country on measures like African-American unemployment, education and poverty.

“Just as a practical matter, it is not possible to be a healthy, thriving, growing region with these kinds of racial disparities,” he said.

Quadracci said he has jobs available but no way to get people to them and the size of Quad’s plants means they can’t be located in the city.

“It feels like we have a whole group of people who’ve been left behind and we haven’t had a concise, sort of integrated approach to really fixing this problem,” Quadracci said.

He added that he does have training programs, has invested in technical colleges and is working with churches and van programs to get people to his facilities, but the problem needs a more “integrated approach.”

“If I can’t bring people in, I can’t create diversity of thought within my own organization, and to me that’s very important because diversity of thought is a big deal in this day and age, when business itself is relying on so much innovation and so many different perspectives,” Quadracci said.

Several of the panelists described Milwaukee’s challenges as both a moral and business imperative. Jacobson said there are lots of well-intentioned efforts, but there needs to be more coordination and focus, especially if the region is going to attract millennial talent.

“They want to live in an urban, inclusive area and they don’t want to live in a place that is labeled the worst segregated community in the country. They just simply don’t want to do that,” she said. “So again, if we’re to attract talent, to bring people in, we just have to fix this.”

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