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It's Really Not That Hard to Make a Business Case for Diversity

This article appeared on on March 18, 2024. By Tom Dakich

Many feared the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision to end race-based affirmative action in higher education would trickle down to the workplace and create a DEI backlash. Anecdotal and concrete evidence shows mixed fallout: Some firms have revised or deprioritized their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives or taken them under the radar, while others have doubled down on them. A recent national survey was positive, finding that 82% of business leaders consider diversity initiatives critical to their business plans.

A raft of studies show it is irrational to scrap workplace DEI initiatives. Diverse workforces offer businesses incomparable competitive advantages by driving growth, innovation and profitability; increasing retention, and even reducing risk. But what we should be talking about is the most determinative diversity issue facing businesses now — building a highly skilled, diverse workforce and talent pipeline.

This is critical if the U.S. and especially Chicago want to remain competitive. Our country has already fallen from the highest-ranked nation in the 2000 IMD World Competitiveness Ranking to ninth in 2023. With its employment growth and in-migration decelerating faster than the rest of the nation, the Chicago metropolitan region’s competitiveness is compromised, too. And severe labor shortages nationally and locally show no signs of abating in the next decade.

A diverse workforce and talent pipeline can be built many ways, but the most effective and equitable way is to focus on those who are underemployed, untrained or excluded from the workforce. Many are Americans who lack access to high-speed internet — at least 42 million, according to Broadband Now data.

Those who lack low-cost, reliable broadband options are more often low-income and minority and live in underserved or rural communities. Without high-speed internet, they have limited to no access to employment, education and health care information and opportunities. Students facing the digital divide can’t do their homework or participate in remote-learning opportunities.

Yet achieving digital equity is an enormous mission, especially in underserved areas. The “off-ramps” that allow them to connect to broadband highways cost millions and are a local municipality expense.

In northeastern Illinois, a seven-county region, 66% of Black households have broadband connectivity, compared to 78% of white residents, a figure that drops to 58% for all households earning less than $20,000. In about half of Indiana’s counties no more than 22% of households actually have high-speed internet access.

These issues inspired Quantum Corridor®, a 172-mile-longfiber-optic network that will have capabilities for quantum computing for regional businesses and institutions, and high-speed broadband for municipalities along its path—a route that goes from Chicago’s Near SouthSide to Purdue University’s Northwest campus. Enterprises on Quantum Corridor®’s path, which includes many major research institutions, will be able use quantum computing to achieve breakthroughs in defense, biotech, cybersecurity, machine learning and more. The many communities it crosses, including 17 sizeable municipalities, all with little to no high-speed internet, will be able to tap into this network for their residents. 

When the private market fails to supply affordable access to a critical necessity, communities must step in to fill the gap. While Quantum Corridor® is a public-private partnership funded by grants from the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act, the state of Indiana, Indiana READI and private entities, its success in reaching underserved populations will depend on municipalities. They must raise funds for off-ramps, a large expenditure but one that will yield exponential returns for decades.

Hammond's and Gary's mayors are engaged in fundraising efforts to build the off-ramps. Others are coming on board to form a Mayor’s Council for Digital Equity to include all contiguous municipalities along the route. This council is intended to help communities take advantage of opportunity and bridge the digital divide.

When completed in early 2025, Quantum Corridor® will be the first project in the nation to offer public and private enterprises and underserved communities a frontline fiber network that can benefit both.

Given the benefits diversity can bring to local economies, and the potential of high-speed fiber-optic networks to harness the power of inclusion, we hope this project inspires others. Those who choose to ignore diversity and inclusion will ultimately be left behind.