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All Are Welcome in Greater Chattanooga

An inclusive environment gives this region an edge in talent attraction and development.

By Teree Caruthers on October 6, 2021

illustration of diversity through shaking hands
Jeff Adkins

In a global economy, a diverse talent base is essential to economic development and growth. Data from the Pew Research Center says 75% of American adults believe it’s important for organizations to promote racial and ethnic diversity in their workplaces.

Diversity Matters

Research by Livability.com found that a community’s diversity and inclusiveness was a top 3 factor in a relocation decision among adults
age 18 to 34.

“We’re in a highly competitive environment for talent,” says Lorne Steedley, vice president of diversity and inclusive growth for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. “According to research, 25% of American adults wish their communities were more diverse. We want our community to be at the forefront both to maintain local talent and entice new talent to choose Chattanooga.”

Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce

Rolling Out the Welcome Mat

Steedley says a big part of the effort to attract new talent to Greater Chattanooga is closing the racial equity gap. Chattanooga’s Velocity 2040 community visioning process, led by the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, found that a top priority for residents is prosperity for all. According to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, closing that gap in the U.S. would increase economic prosperity.

The Chattanooga Chamber has launched a number of initiatives to promote more diverse workplaces and diversify the talent pool, including a Women’s Unity Networking Breakfast series, which encourages female professionals to connect and grow their networks. And quarterly events with local and regional expert speakers focus on helping underserved populations connect to the larger business community.

“In fact, it’s estimated that (closing the gender gap) could generate an additional $191 billion spent on food, $500 billion on housing, $52 billion on apparel, $259 billion on transportation and
$77 billion on entertainment each year.”

Lorne Steedley/Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce

In May 2021, the Chattanooga Chamber launched the CEO Pledge for Racial Equity, which asks business leaders to commit to enhancing efforts to achieve equity of opportunity.

“This will grow business, drive accountability and increase innovation,” Steedley says. “Starting with an organizational assessment, CEOs and managing leaders can take a deeper dive to focus on talent, performance management, leadership development and workforce culture. The outcome of these efforts will yield internal and external performance recommendations. These recommendations will promote competitiveness, enhance geographic attractiveness and drive economic growth.”

Investing in an Inclusive Future

Many of the region’s employers are already engaged in diversity, inclusion and equity work. CHI Memorial Hospital, for example, is partnering with Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. The partnership will bring fourth-year medical students to CHI Memorial to complete training and help increase the number of Black physicians in health care and in the community.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee sets measurable goals around recruitment and hiring practices, employee engagement, supplier relationships and civic partnerships, focusing on the competitive advantage of a workforce reflective of the individuals they serve.

“There’s a lot of intentionality here around how we can be a welcoming place for everyone,” Steedley says.


Cultivating Core Values

At Unum, a Fortune 500 company that provides financial services products, an Inclusion and Diversity team leads mentoring programs for diverse talent, creates programs contributing to diverse employees’ professional growth and delivers training to foster an even more inclusive environment.

“Our talent strategy is focused on eliminating bias in the hiring process, growing organizational partnerships to attract more underrepresented candidates and supporting diverse employees to achieve their visions of professional success,” says Natalie Godwin, head of external communications for Unum. “Leaders set performance goals directly tied to recruiting and retaining diverse employees and ensuring that Unum is an inclusive workplace where they can thrive.”

Forbes named Unum one of America’s Best Employers for Diversity in 2020.

group standing in front of bridge
Chattanooga Area Chamber

Leading the Way

Chattanooga Gas, a subsidiary of the utility giant Southern Company Gas, established equity as a strategic pillar in its overall diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to ensure all employees are well represented, included and fairly treated within all levels of the organization. Employee Resource Groups help engage the company’s diverse talent. Over the past five years, Southern Company Gas has expanded the number of groups from two to nine.

“We believe in promoting an inclusive workplace so that all employees at Chattanooga Gas feel valued and respected for their contributions to the business,” says Pedro Cherry, president and CEO of Atlanta Gas Light and Chattanooga Gas.

Cherry was among 80 leaders of the city’s largest employers to take the Chamber’s CEO Pledge. “Business and community leaders in Chattanooga have a reputation for coming together to solve big problems, ‘The Chattanooga Way,’ and that engagement is a great asset to help maximize opportunities for both companies and workers,” Cherry says. “Other businesses recognize the benefits of diversity, which helps to fuel growth in this region.”

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