Photo courtesy of Soulful Synergy
Local business groups aim to support diversity and equity at the grassroots through job training, awareness, and community outreach.
Alex Alvarez and Dwayne Norris are on a mission to promote economic justice in Westchester County. Alvarez, a former union carpenter, and Norris, a former financial services professional, are the cofounders of Soulful Synergy, a consultancy based in New Rochelle and New York City that aims to bring access to good pay and career advancement to members of diverse, minority communities through workforce development.
Since 2013, Soulful Synergy has developed curricula and offered job training in areas such as construction and the green economy, working closely with nonprofits and local firms to ensure that the more than 5,000 people the group has trained are job-ready. “We see a lot of opportunities for companies to build better practices around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI),” says Norris. “They are looking in different places to hire the labor force.”
Soulful Synergy is one of several local organizations that are working to push diversity, equity, and inclusion to the next level in Westchester County. The county’s population of just over one million people is about 53% White, 25.5% Hispanic/Latino, 17% Black, 6.5% Asian, and 1% Alaskan Indian and American Indian. Many local employers are looking to bring more diversity to their workforces, an issue made more pressing by the racial justice movement across the country.
“We see a lot of opportunities for companies to build better practices around diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
— Dwayne Norris
Cofounder of Soulful Synergy
The county government has been working to achieve targets, first set in 2018 and since increased, for hiring minority- and women-owned businesses (MWBE) as contractors and vendors. The benchmarks are based on the practices of six other counties in the region that Westchester officials studied: Albany, Rockland, Nassau, Erie, and Suffolk counties in New York, and Montgomery County in Maryland.
“We took the best of what we found and made changes to our MWBE program to make sure it was as effective as possible,” says Bridget Gibbons, director of economic development for the county.
“We took the best of what we found and made changes to our MWBE program to make sure it was as effective as possible.”
— Bridget Gibbons
Director of Economic Development, Westchester County
Originally, the county began its efforts through outreach at conXpos — conferences to help MWBEs, service-disabled veteran-owned businesses, and disadvantaged business enterprises meet those responsible for procurement in county departments and become familiar with the contracting process. The county has also held sessions on how to get certified as an MWBE with New York State. “If you get certified with New York State, that’s great,” says Gibbons. “New York State has a requirement that 30 percent of contracts must go to MWBEs.”
Now, the county is focused on ensuring that it hits specific goals for its purchasing categories. It has established goals of contracting 20% of its professional, nonprofessional, and construction services and 10% of its goods with MWBEs.
The county has also gradually expanded its citizen advisory boards, which now include an Asian-American Advisory Board and Arab-American Advisory Board. “They allow these constituencies to provide direct feedback to the county executive on policies and priorities that they think are important for the county,” says Gibbons. “The importance of these advisory boards has really increased, and [the county executive] has increased the number of them.”
Under the Westchester County Economic Development Strategy, Recovery, and Implementation Plan, undertaken by the request of Westchester County Executive George Latimer in 2020, the county is also running a training program to help entry-level workers enter the field of advanced manufacturing, one of four areas being prioritized, with the others being biosciences, financial technology, and clean energy. “We’re implementing a training program to help get entry-level workers trained and part of the pipeline into advanced manufacturing,” says Gibbons. “The hope is that this pipeline will bring opportunities to a diverse population.”
Gibbons adds that the county has also been working with the U.S. Small Business Administration to hold some of its workshops in Spanish. “The more we do, the more we realize it’s a really effective way to help the business community grow,” she says.
In the future, the county is planning to hold a conXpo in Spanish. “We have done several workshops in the Spanish language only,” says Gibbons. “We are really seeing that it is an effective way to help many of the businesses in the community.”
“The more the community offers high-quality, local-workforce opportunities in the in-demand sectors, the more sectors will naturally diversify.”
WCF Senior Program Officer
Meanwhile, local business organizations are moving forward with their own efforts. In addition to the diversity conference it held last year, the Business Council of Westchester (BCW) has put together a series of eight anti-bias videos in response to the murder of George Floyd. “I think the challenge now is to keep this on the front burner,” says Dr. Marsha Gordon, BCW president and CEO. “DEI has to be a value and practice that all of us live with, moving forward.”
In White Plains, the Westchester County Association (WCA) is another business advocacy organization doing similar work. “We’re striving to put this issue in the broader context of what it means to run a thriving business for organizational success,” says Michael Romita, president of the WCA. “The concepts of diversity and equity are vetted in the programs we undertake generally. If we look at WCA, we focus on affordable housing, digital connectivity, closing the digital divide, health equity with our healthcare providers, and workforce development. There is an inclusionary aspect to all of these focus areas.”
As part of its efforts, the WCA produced the “WCA Women in Leadership 2021” video for its annual awards dinner, dedicating a portion of the program to highlighting diversity, equity, and inclusion as it welcomed Susan Fox, president and CEO of White Plains Hospital, as its next board chair.
Romita also sits on the advisory board of the newly founded Westchester Center for Racial Equity, launched by YWCA White Plains and Central Westchester as a dedicated space to work toward advancing racial equity in the county. The WCA has also done joint programming with various groups, including the African American Men of Westchester and Nonprofit Westchester, both of which are actively advancing DEI in the county.
The nonprofit Westchester Community Foundation (WCF) has done an internal DEI assessment and racial equity training in order to become more of a resource for the groups it funds. “We are aware of local business leaders who are looking to improve their racial equity,” says Laura Rossi, executive director of the foundation. “They want to get sharper and better about how they do it.”
Meanwhile, the group has been providing grants to low- and moderate-income business owners, the majority of whom are people of color, through its grantmaking activities. Between 2020 and 2021, it provided $160,000 in grants to three separate organizations. Those grants were used to provide training. In 2020, for instance, one organization that received a grant trained more than 50 women and minority business owners through workshops, a 60-hour entrepreneurial training program, mentoring, and counseling.
“DEI has to be a value and practice that all of us live with, moving forward.”
—Dr. Marsha Gordon
BCW President & CEO
Many businesses want help in diversifying their workforces —and that is not always easy during a nationwide labor shortage. “There is a large local business consciousness about how we recruit and hire,” says WCF senior program officer Tara Seeley. The WCF believes that supporting workforce development, such as the construction training it funds at Soulful Synergy, will help on this front.
“The more the community offers high-quality, local-workforce opportunities in the in-demand sectors, the more sectors will naturally diversify,” says Seeley.