During the search for a new headquarters, a group of Amazon executives had dinner with economic development professionals from the Nashville area, including representatives from Williamson County’s chamber of commerce.
Nashville bid for the headquarters didn’t succeed, but the company is creating a regional distribution center, bringing an estimated 5,000 jobs to downtown Nashville.
At the dinner, Williamson Inc.’s Chief Economic Development Officer Elizabeth McCreary said a black, female Amazon executive asked about the area’s diversity.
“Tell me where people that look like me are in your community,” the executive said, according to McCreary.
The night before, some members of the Amazon team visited lower Broadway in downtown Nashville and were underwhelmed with the city’s diversity.
Of course, visiting lower Broadway was a terrible way to gauge the area’s diversity. Most of the people those Amazon executives saw probably weren’t from Middle Tennessee. (“We don't go to downtown Nashville on a Sunday night," McCreary said. "Unless there's a Preds game.”)
But McCreary said it’s complicated to answer questions about diversity when you look at Williamson County’s demographics.
Williamson County is nearly 89% white, and that number hasn’t changed much in the last two decades. Davidson County is about 65% white and the U.S. as a whole is about 77% white.
Many of the companies that have recently relocated to Middle Tennessee—and many of the workers they are hiring—come from places that are much more diverse than Williamson County.
Cypress, California, the former location of Mitsubishi’s North American headquarters, is about 55% white. Los Angeles, California, one of the top five cities sending new residents to Williamson County in recent years, is 52% white.
As Williamson County continues to compete for high-profile corporate office projects, the county’s lack of diversity could become an obstacle. At least, some companies like Amazon are now asking about diversity when relocating.
Recruiters at large companies could face a similar challenge when trying to hire employees from more diverse cities.
However, local business leaders believe the county’s work environment is inclusive, and many companies are carrying out initiatives to encourage diversity in their workforce.
McCreary said the county’s lack of racial diversity isn’t always a red flag when it comes to corporate relocations. Although, it is a question that the county has to address.
“I don't think it's necessarily a problem. I think we are looking at what effect it has and how we can message in the right way,” she said.
She pointed out that last year Amazon and Alliance Bernstein both took a hard look at Middle Tennessee’s diversity, and decided to set up offices in Nashville. Notably, they didn’t pick Williamson County.
However, when it comes to large corporate relocations, the lines between Williamson and Davidson counties are somewhat artificial. Most of those companies are looking at the region.
“When we are pitching Williamson County we're talking about the region, and quite frankly when Nashville is pitching Davidson County, they're talking about the region,” McCreary said. “They benefit from us. We benefit from them. There's this relationship where we don't exist without each other.”
Amazon and Alliance Bernstein both spent a lot of time investigating Middle Tennessee’s diversity, but not every company is giving diversity that much weight in relocation decisions. Other factors could play a much bigger role.
In a statement responding to questions about the role of diversity in the company’s relocation decision, Mitsubishi listed the cost of doing businesses, cost of living, lifestyle, schools and climate as some important factors in its decision to move to the county.
Mitsubishi noted that employees moving to Franklin from California span various ages and racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
“Integrating into the community isn’t something that has been flagged as a concern from our employees in any way, other than the fact that life in Franklin is simply different than life in Orange County, and that’s to be expected. We’ve been warmly welcomed at every turn, from Governor Lee and his team all the way to everyone we’ve met at the local grocery stores,” the statement reads, in part.
Throughout 2019, Williamson Inc. has been hosting inclusion workshops to help local businesses create a workplace environment that places value on treating all employees as individuals, fairly and without bias.
The workshops so far have focused on disabilities, age and race. Another workshop this month focuses on veterans. The chamber has also created a resource library for companies that want to implement diversity programs.
McCreary told the story about the Amazon team’s trip to lower Broadway at a workshop focusing on racial diversity in August.
At the workshops, local businesses have been eager to learn how to increase diversity in their workforces and make sure those diverse voices are heard.
Mary Winn Pilkington, senior vice president of investor relations and public relations at Tractor Supply Company, said Tractor Supply—which will host the veterans inclusion workshop this month—has made an effort to push for more diversity at the top levels of the company.
Of the Brentwood company’s nine board members, three are women. There are also Indian and Hispanic board members. However, all of the company’s operational leadership positions appear to be filled by white men.
Recently, Tractor Supply created an officer level position dedicated to increasing diversity, and the company has several employee resource groups that allow employees with similar backgrounds to advocate from themselves.
The employee resource groups can be organized around an ethnicity or a shared interest, such as a latino resource group or a disability resource group.
The company also makes it a point to send recruiters to college’s with diverse student bodies
However, Pilkington said Tractor Supply doesn’t have data to tell if the county’s lack of racial diversity is hurting the company’s ability to attract talented employees.
She said it could be a factor, but she sees the company’s efforts around diversity and inclusion as part of a broader goal of creating a great work culture.
“I think people want to work for a strong, growing company that is a good corporate citizen with growth prospects. Companies that are strong and growing are committed to diversity and inclusion,” she said. “We’re a great place to work and a great place to build a career. I think (diversity and inclusion) are platforms under those, but the bigger overarching factor is the culture.”
Candace Bridges, who is responsible for promoting Schneider Electric as a good choice for job seekers, said her company has also made an effort to diversify its workforce.
As an energy company staffed mostly by engineers—both areas traditionally dominated numerically by men—the company has had to put a special emphasis on hiring women.
Like Tractor Supply, Schneider also has employee resource groups that are in close communication with top leaders.
While some research has found that diversity programs can improve productivity, Bridges said research by the firm Ivy Research Council, which provides insights and research about recruitment, has showed that the diversity programs don’t have a huge impact on whether people apply for a job.
“When they’re evaluating employers they’re really looking at the job, what are they going to be doing,” she said. “That’s what diverse candidate are telling us what they care about.”
While Williamson County may not look diverse on paper, McCreary said she’s absolutely confident that the county will welcome anyone that comes. She connects that urge to Williamson County’s southern hospitality.
“Let’s be welcoming. Let’s be Southern. That’s who we are,” she said.
She said it usually just takes one trip to Williamson County to convince the doubters.
“I do think there are some misconceptions of the South as a whole. It takes people getting here and experiencing this region to understand we're not what you think we are,” she said. “I think people have to come and experience and see it. They are nine times out of ten surprised and pleased at what they find.”