Traverse City News and Events

Traverse Connect's New Committee Aims To Lead Diversity Charge

By Ross Boissoneau | Nov. 5, 2020

Traverse City – and all of northern Michigan – have long been seen as a relatively homogeneous place. In an effort to bring more diversity to the area, Traverse Connect has set up a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee consisting of representatives from across the business spectrum.

According to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Grand Traverse County’s population is .8 percent Black, 1.3 percent Native American, and .8 percent Asian.

The committee’s charge is to “lead the community in becoming a region that is attractive and enabling to people of all diversities – racial, cultural, social economic and ability.”

Chair Brenda McLellan, director of investor engagement at Traverse Connect, says greater diversity and inclusiveness help bring about favorable outcomes, both socially and economically. “When you have different people come together, it helps businesses make changes for the better. For the region to grow … it needs to be more welcoming. Diversity, equity, belonging and inclusiveness are all facets” of that, she says.

The committee got its start about a year ago. That’s when McLellan started in her position, and one of her charges was to lead such a committee and host a summit around the topic. The summit is scheduled to take place in the first quarter of next year, and will be led by Sonya Hughes, an expert in diversity, equity, inclusion and cultural intelligence who previously worked in such a role for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and now heads her own business based around diversity in the workplace.

Soon Hagerty, owner of the Vietnamese restaurant The Good Bowl in Traverse City, says she recognizes the lack of diversity and is pleased about efforts to address it. “I grew up in California, and in Los Angeles, diversity was all around me. When I came to Traverse City I definitely noticed the difference,” she says.

Other minority organization leaders and business owners agree. The Northern Michigan E3 Council, an anti-racism task force led by BIPOC local community members, believes there is a definite for both increased diversity and equity in the Grand Traverse area. 

Shiloh Slomsky is another who applauds the efforts. She’s executive director and co-founder of Arrowhead Incubator, a Native American-focused economic and business incubator. “Anytime you can see the community come together it broadens the ability to do things,” she says. “If we can increase the number of Native American businesses, it generates money back into the community. It benefits the community as a whole.”

The committee now stands at 19 people from across the area, representing various businesses and non-profits. One of the newer members is Nick Beadleston. As the founder of Good Impact -- dedicated to creating a stronger, more ethical business community -- he says it’s overdue.

“I’m amazed it didn’t already exist in a community that prides itself on being forward-thinking,” he says of the committee. “If we want to survive we have to embrace inclusivity and diversity.”

McLellan says such an effort will also help to bring in younger people who are more apt to want and expect greater diversity in the community and in the workplace. She says one goal is to expand the working population between 35 and 49 by five percent by 2030. In addition to attracting newcomers, she hopes the work will help bring back those who grew up here and then left to gain experience outside the region. “We want to attract people back after they’ve left, the boomerangers,” she says.

McLellan believes collaborative efforts with local employers and educational institutions such as Northwestern Michigan College can showcase the region to entrepreneurs and business people from outside the region, and adding inclusiveness and diversity to the workplace and community will help them see how they could fit in and lend their skills and experiences to the region. “There are so many ways we can help the economy grow,” she says.

The committee hosted a webinar with Hughes yesterday, and has other meetings planned, along with the seminar. It’s all part of what McLellan sees as the its ongoing mission to broaden and diversify the region’s character. “It’s never-ending,” she says of the committee’s efforts. “We want to create change. We hope this is a drop in the ocean that never ends.”

Creating a community that goes beyond words to actually welcome and support businesses that value diversity won’t be without challenges. “It’s not going to be easy,” says Hagerty. “Traverse City is pretty worldly, and people like to try different things. But you have to get businesses to invest and instill that (commitment to diversity).”

“It’s messy and it’s hard,” agrees Beadleston. He also believes businesses that have experienced success might be averse to taking a risk. “There’s a reticence to engage and people don’t want to have their hands slapped. But taking risks has to happen.”

McLellan adds that the committee will be hosting monthly webinars and other events.

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