Diversity Straight Up: Ray Brown

Diversity Straight Up: Ray Brown
CBJ Podcast: Diversity Straight Up

Living Your Values

In the latest episode of CBJ podcast, “Diversity Straight Up,” hosts Sarika Bhakta and Anthony Arrington talk with Ray Brown, CEO of ESCO, about his purpose and passion and being mindful of the big picture. Diversity Straight Up is brought to you by GreenState Credit Union and sponsored by Alliant Energy. Additional support is provided by Collins Aerospace and the city of Cedar Rapids.

About Ray Brown:
Ray Brown is CEO of ESCO. Ray grew up on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids and graduated from University of Northern Iowa. He has been with ESCO since 1992.

About the hosts:
Sarika Bhakta is president of Nikeya Diversity Consulting and a Certified Diversity Executive with more than 20 years of experience in leadership, management, talent attraction/retention and resource acquisition/development. Born in Gujarat, India and raised in the Midwest, Sarika empowers leaders to identify their authentic self to be successful change agents in today’s global economy.

Anthony Arrington is co-founder and managing partner with Top RANK Professional & Executive Search and Consulting, a search firm focused on helping companies acquire professional and executive-level talent, with a special emphasis on diverse and inclusive leadership. He has more than 20 years of experience in management, strategic planning, leadership and staff development in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

Transcript of Diversity Straight Up Podcast – Ray Brown: Living Your Values

Voice-over 1: You’re listening to a Corridor Business Journal podcast.


Voice-over 2: It’s time for straight talk about diversity. Frank questions, honest answers, and real insights. It’s Diversity Straight Up, brought to you by GreenState Credit Union, with your hosts Sarika Bhakta of Nikeya Diversity Consulting, and Anthony Arrington of Top Rank professional and executive search firm. Diversity Straight Up, brought to you by GreenState Credit Union is a Corridor Business Journal podcast. On today’s episode Ray Brown, CEO of ESCO Group.

Ray Brown: I’m a firm believer that great beginnings first start with great endings. I’m really excited to develop what does that great ending for our DE&I charter look like and then what’s that end picture looks like? Then how do we go back to the beginning and say, “These are the strategies that we need to develop”? That accountability piece is huge.

Voice-over 2: We’ll be right back.

Voice-over 3: GreenState Credit Union is proud to sponsor Diversity Straight Up. Established in 1938, GreenState is Iowa’s largest financial cooperative, serving nearly 250,000 members of all walks of life. GreenState’s products include checking accounts, loans, investments, insurance, commercial services, mortgages, and credit cards. Profits are returned to members in the form of better rates on deposits and loans. We encourage you to learn more at greenstate.org. GreenState is federally insured by the NCUA and is an equal housing opportunity lender.

Voice-over 2: Diversity Straight Up, brought to you by GreenState Credit Union is also sponsored by Alliant Energy.


Sarika Bhakta: Welcome to another exciting episode of the Corridor Business Journal’s Diversity Straight Up. I’m your co-host Sarika Bhakta.

Anthony Arrington: I’m Anthony Arrington and we’re around for a good show today. I want to strap the seatbelt on. We’re going to have a little fun with Ray Brown from ESCO Group. We’ll get into his introduction a little later here but, first and foremost, Sarika, something’s on my mind.


Anthony: Something’s on my mind. I watched the Space Shuttle launch yesterday. I don’t know, did you get a chance to watch that?

Sarika: Oh.

Anthony: Pretty cool.

Sarika: Yes, beautiful.

Anthony: Exciting. I like space. I enjoy space. I likeStar Trek, Star Wars. I do it all, but there’s this challenge in me that says, “We got these billionaires spending this money.” I’m looking at all these hungry people in the world and I’m looking at all this hunger and this poverty. I’m struggling with how that money could be spent. This is America, this is a capitalist society, and we should be able to spend our money doing what we want but I struggled with that a little bit. I just wondered what you thought about that. It’s one of those things where it’s fun. I think it’s great, but man, that money can be used in so many other ways. I tend to struggle with that a little bit.

Sarika: Well, thank you for sharing your perspective. I think this is why I love what’s on your mind. I never know what’s on your mind or what comes out of my mind sometime when we do these topics.

Anthony: [laughs].

Sarika: This one I wasn’t expecting at all. First of all, you know me, I don’t like to group people together, so even billionaires as a group wouldn’t be fair if we’re walking the talk of trying to ensure that people are the individual person. When you were talking about this incident, I was trying to look at him as a man and his life’s journey. He didn’t graduate from high school, seems like, unless if I read it wrong, and he’s an entrepreneur. If I think about from an entrepreneur, and building a life, and creativity, invention, innovation is part of that philosophy. As the founder and owner of a company that really goes into space. This guy’s not a far reach to open the skies to the space. For me, I think about from that business aspect, it makes sense for him in that regard. Now, you’re thinking about the other philanthropic arm. Right?

Sarika: Yes. They give philanthropy. They donate.

Sarika: Yes.

Anthony: They do that.

Sarika: He’s part of the Giving Pledge, he’s part of that club if you’re that elite club. I always think about as an individual, I don’t like to judge in terms of what they have, what’s their purpose, what’s their legacy? Just reading up, at least for that individual, seems as if being part of that Giving Pledge, as well as philosophy in terms of what do you want to do with that legacy? It seems like giving back socially and environmentally is part of their philosophy. The foundation that he has 0% overhead, which I think is beautiful coming from a– Sitting on boards and nonprofits, we have to assess that all the time. Right Ray? We’re on the board that there is-

Anthony: Yes, we’re on boards.

Sarika: -some assessment. This one, because they take care of it with another arm, the foundation, 100% given to the foundation goes out. Those are the things that I guess I take a look at.

Anthony: There’s always a money trail somewhere. There’s always that money getting out. It’s–

Sarika: It’s a great question that you do pose.

Anthony: Yes, it is.

Sarika: I always think about also increase in the B Corporations. You’re seeing more companies looking at the corporate social responsibility. More and more are using that as a driver in terms of what? We can’t just rely on the nonprofits and the governments anymore to address those social needs that are glaring in our community. This is where the businesses have to step up. I think that’s where my head is going when I think about your question.

Anthony: Yes. I was having this conversation with Steve Shriver. I can’t be charitable unless I’m making profit. It’s people’s profit [unintelligible] . Good stuff. Thoughts?

Ray: Yes. I think Sarika did a great job, Anthony. I think you have gotta peel back the onion a little bit. When you think about [unintelligible] , the thrill-seeker going there, billions, but then you also look at the innovation and what NASA has been able to do to create all these wonderful products. The things that potentially could feed many, many people but you have to get past that. That piece of it’s coming, that private partnership of really continuing the NASA mission, but certainly there’s that thrill-seeker thing that I think we all see. As you go back that layer, I think there’s the next outing. They’re going to have two seats that go to individuals.

Anthony: Yes, they’re going to it under sweepstakes or something like that.

Ray: Yes, so really trying to create a cause around that.

Anthony: No, let me be clear. I wanted to make sure– I started reading about him, the individual, because I started hearing these things. Again, I always say this, when you hear things in media, I don’t care what kind of media it is. If you read about it you need to go verify it somewhere else. When you read it here or you watch it here. I started reading up on some of the things that he’s doing. That’s why I said it’s one of those things that bothered me, but I’m thinking he’s a giving person. I just wanted to bring it up and see what do you think.

Ray: I think he’s a great time.

Sarika: I think so too.

Ray: I think he’s 70. 70, 75. When you talk about the next generation, they continue to go and hit back. I heard the new 50 is like the new 30 so–

Anthony: Hope so.

Ray: The new 75 must be like the 50.

Anthony: Hope you’re right about that.

Sarika: [laughs].

Ray: We got that to look forward to.

Anthony: Yes.

Sarika: Well, on that note, thank you so much for bringing that up because what’s on your mind is exactly here. It is what’s going on and be able to engage in dialogue.

Anthony: Yes. Woke this morning .

Sarika: Yes, so thank you.


Sarika: What’s on our guest’s mind?


Sarika: Ray Brown is the CEO of the ESCO Group. He has worked with ESCO since 1992. He began his career there, and since then, he is now the CEO. He was appointed in 2014. Wow, that’s pretty impressive. I just have to stop and say 29 years with ESCO and you started there and this is where you’re still at. Before then he attended University of Northern Iowa, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in accounting. While at UNI, Ray was active in the Iowa Society of CPAs and in tax assistance. In 1992, Ray also achieved his certification as an Iowa Certified Public Accountant. Ray, welcome to our show on DSU, as we’re always keeping it real. Welcome.

Ray: Thank you, Sarika. A little shout out to my fellow panthers out there. Panthers.


Sarika: Well, why don’t you share a little bit about yourself. The second piggyback question is what made you say yes to wanting to come on the show here?

Ray: Yes. You bet, Sarika. I think really it goes back to my upbringing. Not to start too far down in the weeds but-

Anthony: That’s where we want to go, under the upbringing weeds.

Sarika: Under the hood.

Ray: We’re here out on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids. I believe I’m probably about a mile from my home. I grew up in, on the southeast side. I attended a Catholic middle school growing up. I went to Grant Wood Middle School for a couple of years and then back to All Saints for a couple of years. Had a year at Regis, and then I eventually ended up for three years over the Cedar Rapids, Washington.

My upbringing has been really always around this diverse, or the southeast Cedar Rapids. Southeast side of Cedar Rapids is one of probably the most diverse areas in town. When you look at Cedar Rapids, Washington, I really see that as you can either really the have haves and then you have a lot of the have nots, and that really grouping a population, we had to come together as students. Certainly, that’s a big part of what made me today is just my upbringing. Certainly, youngest of five boys, seeing a lot of mistakes, my older brothers’ over the years. Just really sound, family knew, my dad who worked on at Wilson Foods, Cedar Rapids meats, probably dating some of the folks that are out there.

Anthony: : Oh, grandpa, grandma. We had all families that were-

Ray: Yes. Just a big-time blue color background. Had to work my way through school. Shout-out to my fellow employee company out there, the Folience and the Gazette. Actually, I had a paper route from third grade through my senior year of high school.

Sarika: Wow.

Ray: One of the things that I reflect on, I have passion about really giving to our community, sitting on United Way Board. We’ve been talking about DE&I here for the past six months and this thing around the 19th Street, that’s a big thing. Cedar Rapids and I know Anthony, you know about this is, as you go west on 19th Street, that’s not that great a part of town. Well, that’s where my paper route was. I had like 65 very diverse customers and they were some of the best people you’d ever wanted to get to know.

That’s where I grew up and a lot of different things through schools. Attended university of Northern Iowa and was blessed to actually meet my current bride, wife Lori. I have two kids. Actually met in high school. High school sweethearts. Faith, family, have always been super important to me and just a diverse background of where I grew up. I graduated UNI in 1992, Engle family, ESCO Group started by Wayne Engle, who’s– Really that’s the second piece that’s been hugely impactful on my life is a company who started in 1964. Dan and Dave were second-generation owners. Their commitment to their community was always there.

I know Wayne’s huge Marion supporter. When they moved their office to uptown Marion, there’s a triple-x theater in uptown Marion. Wayne decided to buy that theater and he turned into a dollar family movie back in, gosh, probably 35, 40 years ago now. That’s what Dave and Dan did. They ran a dollar movie theater that used to be a triple-x. Just changing the community and making an impact, making our community where we live, work, and thrive has always been a passion of ESCO. I just try to continue that today.

Anthony: One of the things you mentioned is that you talked about your growing up in Cedar Rapids and your lived experiences have made you the person you are, growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For our listeners, can you talk about a scenario, an incident in your life, be it personal or professional as you grew up. Maybe there was an incident or an activity or something that happened in your life that was a trigger that made you think about how you reflect when it comes to equity and diversity and inclusion and engagement. Maybe there’s an incident, a personal, professional that happened. Can you talk through that?

Ray: Yes. You bet, Anthony. It really goes back to just the high school experience. I have names and names, but Trace Brown. He was a really good friend of mine in high school. You know Trace.

Anthony: I know Trace.

Ray: I know, and no relation. We’d always joke. He was a defensive nose guard. I was defensive tackle. We were brothers from two different mothers. We were out. We would do a lot of things, go to Kenwood, play basketball, hang out with a lot of other diverse kids. We sometimes would get stopped by police or adults. It was amazing how Trace and other folks would get treated differently. It was pretty much a recognition that, “You know what? This doesn’t seem right. This isn’t right.”

Back then, we were probably young and we didn’t talk about those things. It was just part of life. That’s probably the big game-changer for me, Anthony. It’s like, now I’m in a leadership role at ESCO, we can enact change. There’s a quote that I learned this last year, Martin Luther King, “In the end, you will not remember your enemy. You’ll remember your friends who were silent.” Gosh, you know what? I bet you, I was silent a bunch in high school and growing up and just reflecting back and just saying, “You know what? We need to do something different.” Especially, companies like ESCO, CEOs that are mid-size, smaller companies we have a really impactful voice that we can bring to this conversation. It’s just hard to understand where to get started. How do you make it safe? How do you create a safe conversation to get that going?

Anthony: Yes. I think it’s important that you acknowledge the silence. I think many of us have felt that way. I think it’s okay to say that and what are we going to do today? We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all had those situations. That’s a great point.

Sarika: That’s actually one of Anthony’s favorite quote-

Anthony: It is.

Sarika: -as well. He shares that a lot in the sessions and to many sessions with clients that we do jointly together. You had asked, what can you do as a leader? Right?

Ray: Yes.

Sarika: Things like this. Right?

Ray: Yes.

Sarika: Being able to, again say that, “As a leader, this is what I have in my control.” Being able to have a dialogue with even us. It shows that you’re wanting to create those safe environment in the workplace and in the community, and at the family dinner table to be able to have these conversations. I think that modeling the way as leaders is so critical.

Speaking of modeling the way, you signed the CEO Action Pledge for diversity and inclusion, which is a national initiative. The last that I counted, we have 17 companies in Iowa whose CEOs have signed this pledge. For our listeners, would you mind us sharing a little bit about the CEO Action Pledge for DE&I?

Ray: Some of you got them or may know, but ESCO Group, we’re a 40% employee-owned company. Culture engagement, that’s what makes our company special. When you look at the things that we’ve done over the years in terms of DE&I, the CEO Action is a community. Just like our employee ownership, there’s two awesome organizations out there that really create a community where you can go to like-minded companies and just say what’s working, and what’s not. That’s what CEO Action does for us.

When we got on this journey, trying to figure out where to start, and the first thing that we knew is that we had to educate ourselves. How are we going to educate ourselves? The CEO Action, it was started by Pricewater Cooper firm, Tim Ryan CEO. I think they’re called PwC today. There was 200 other like-minded CEOs. Really the commitment is to sign the pledge. It’s really not that complicated. It means, number one, you’re going to focus on a diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environment. That’s number one. You’re actually going to put together a strategic plan around DE&I, and you’re going to share it with your board of director and your leadership team.

The CEO Action that I think it had 17, there’s actually approximate about 2,000 CEOs that have taken the pledge. It’s not just for CEOs. I know one of the things that our leadership team has really struggled on– Because if you look at the makeup of ESCO Group, construction engineering, 300 plus professionals come from a wide variety of backgrounds. A lot of these folks that have come up through the trades, they’re some of our key leaders today. Trying to create a conversations around, what does it mean to be inclusive? What does diversity mean?

At the end of the day, we all agree we will hire the best-talented people, regardless of race, color, ethnicity. We can agree on that. How do we get the conversation going to start creating a strategy around that? CEO Action is also a community for your leaders, your HR professional, to get tapped into. There’s other resources they’ll bring in professionals like yourself, Anthony, in helping you navigate what that looks like. We’re just on the budding end of the first part of this journey with the CEO Action. Part of our strategic plan for 2021 was to sign the pledge which obviously we’ve done that. I’m one of 17 in Iowa. We could do better than that.

Sarika: According to the website that we have looked at. [chuckles] I’ll keep an eye out on that website.

Anthony: We’ll do.

Ray: Then our strategic plan is, we’re going to develop a DE&I equity committee. They’re in the process of working on a charter. Our focus for this year is really on education and being an inclusive work environment. Back in the first part of the year as we kick off the New Year, we’ll really share with our employees, what does that strategic plan look like? We share the CEO Action plan. We actually add a day of understanding. We do a monthly town hall where we try to talk about really important issues. What’s going on within ESCO, our partners, our community. One of those town halls back in, I believe it was February, we did just a session on CEO Action and being inclusive until our charter is built. That’s the way we focus at ESCO is very much around engagement. We have an E3 team that’s developed on employee engagement. We develop a partnership, leadership gets behind these teams and you think about that pyramid where typically the leaders at the top, we flip it. We get the leadership behind it, but then we have the employees drive the initiative and that’s how we’re taking the DE&I initiative.

Anthony: That’s great.

Sarika: From the accountability perspective, how do you think that will be driven, Ray, as you start to think about your organization and you’re just in the infancy stages of your equity, diversity inclusion, and engagement? The accountability piece is so crucial for the continuous success. Thoughts on that?

Ray: Yes. I think the piece– I have to reflect back a little bit on just our employee engagement journey. We launched our employee engagement, I’ve been with ESCO 29, now is 30 years. When they first got started, they were just giving us advice on, “Hey, what’s should the health plan look like? Should we do a Kernel’s night, not do a Kernel’s night?” We actually do metrics. We do a quarterly assessment around, “Are you feeling valued? How can the company improve your skillset in terms of your role that you provide, the outcomes that you’re driving?” The HR director, myself, we sit down with the E3 team, we go through what those metrics are, and then our goal is to develop strategies around improving those.

I’m a firm believer that great beginnings first start with great endings. I’m really excited to develop, what does that great ending for our DE&I charter look like? What’s that end picture look like? Then how do we go back to the beginning and say, “These are the strategies that we need to develop”? That accountability piece is huge, Sarika, but measurable. I think this is the piece that maybe we missed a little bit in that first quarter when we sat down and had the discussion. I think a lot of employees were taking a step back and said, “Why are they talking about this? Do we have a problem? Do we not have a problem?” I think that our message got off a little bit and maybe I could have done, we could have done a better job of really developing that vision that we need to educate ourselves on what it is, what we want to look like, and that’s where we’re at today.

Certainly, life, the busyness, ESCO like other companies out there we have got our workforce development challenges. That’s why this is so critical though and is if we’re going to go after the best of the best talent, we have to create an inclusive environment. We have to look like the people that we want to bring into ESCO. ESCO was 64, there’s probably a lot of stories out there like ESCO, who started in back of a entrepreneur’s garage.

Anthony: I think of garage story.

Ray: Yes. Now our leaders they have to be able to talk with a plant floor person, a mid manager, or even a C-suite player, and if they don’t have that skill set we’re not going to be successful.

Anthony: One of the things, Ray, that we’ve experienced as consultants, and you hear about it in the media and all over is this fear with white men, this syndrome as a leader, that if we’re talking about issues in an organization related to race or culture that suddenly there’s this sense of defensiveness that some white leaders assume, “Oh, they must be talking about me. I’m not that way.” There’s this wall that goes up. For fear of being blamed and shamed. Sarika and I have done a very good job of this as we meet with clients, it’s important to create a safe space. As a leader, I wonder how you feel about that. You’re in that space, you’re a white, male leader of a company that when you’re stepping out on a limb, having these conversations and in environment where that’s not normal, maybe there’s arrows being thrown at you by way of insults, “Why are we doing this?” How do you deal with that as a human being? How does Ray deal with that?

Ray: Thick skin, Anthony.


Ray: You know you’ve got to be vulnerable. If you really want to get better as an organization and as a person, the first thing you have to admit is, “Hey, I can get better.” That’s one of our core principles, core values, is get better to be better at ESCO. It doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong, or right. It’s just like, “Hey, we have to be continual learners.” That also goes with us as human beings, going through high school, Washington. If we know now what we knew back then, jeez. Think about the different things that would happen.

Anthony: Yes. Great point.

Ray: You got to be vulnerable, you have to assume positive intent. We talk about that a lot at ESCO. Assume positive intent.

Anthony: We talk about– That’s why you’re smiling.

Sarika: That’s what I do. I said they assume the positive intent versus the impact, is that coming from a malicious place or is it coming from curiosity. I appreciate you sharing that.

Ray: Admit that you’re wrong. It’s like, “You know, I got that one wrong.” I think at the same time, sometimes you have to get up to that and swing to the ball. If you don’t get out of the batter’s box, how are you going to win? We play to win at ESCO. Sometimes you’re not going to have everything figured out, and I think that’s the other really piece that we talk about a lot is don’t make perfect the enemy of good. If we’re committed to get better, to be better, and we’ve got a pretty solid plan, maybe it’s 75%, 80% there, let’s go and we’re going to be okay to pivot when we need to pivot. Sometimes-

Anthony: Great perspective.

Ray: -around these important topics. We’re having a tough time getting on the batter’s box sometimes because you have to bring back your team. I think this is a piece where maybe I could have done something different is really have more alignment within our leadership team. Do you have to have all that alignment before you get an important initiative like this? I’m taking the approach that I do anything. I don’t think so. I think it’s a journey that all of us – we have an eight-person leadership team including myself, and we have a lot of different perspectives, and we’ll go down some rabbit holes on some topics, but that’s okay. I think in the end, it’s the diversity of those eight different perspectives and trying to make a good decision and still stay committed to moving forward.

Sarika: I think the executive alignment is a key, key aspect of it because I’ve always said part of this journey requires in your own workplace to have individuals that have an interest around DEI, as well as those that have power and influence. Sometimes that individual may have all three, highly unlikely at times. That’s why it’s important to have that executive alignment with leaders that are on board and so that they can understand that if you want to get better, that also means that you can’t go in with DEI thinking something is broken. If you’re hit with a lawsuit, now that’s a different conversation. Then there is something that needs to be fixed, but it’s reactive.

For other companies, the majority of the companies, it’s going to be a proactive journey, but you have to start now, and then really have that cultural assessment around DE&I conducted to know where you’re at. Some of them are going to be pleasantly surprised, and guess what? You’re not in the denial phase or the avoidance phase. You’re actually a little further along on the journey than you thought, and now you’re just being very strategic and intentional about where you are putting your time, energy, resources. You have a greater ROI on it, that means you know what kind of training you want, you know what kind of leadership development.

I appreciate your thoughts and perspectives, because a lot of times, again, with DEI, people think there’s something broken that’s where we’re going on this journey. I hate that mindset just because you know what? DEI is an opportunity. If you really going to help get that alignment and go on this journey, that’s going to create some magical outcomes there.

Anthony: You want to feel like something’s broken. Well, it’s broken here. It’s broken everywhere else. You’re no worse off than most other organizations are better off. It’s, “Are we going to grow?” I think you said something earlier, some of us aren’t even in the batter’s box and that’s okay, but if everybody’s getting there, eventually you’re going to be on the first base. Will that next person get to the batter’s box? I hope so. Everybody’s willing to move. The challenge becomes when people don’t want to move, when people don’t want to grow, and that becomes part of that challenge.

Sarika: How do you feel– I know at times we hear leaders say, “We in our backyard have such a very homogenous labor pool. There is not much we can do about this.” From your perspective, how do you think you can influence partners that you may tap into whether it be a labor union or any other groups for contract work, et cetera. How do you think you can influence that, Ray?

Ray: I think it’s different for different organizations, so certainly you look at the ESCO Group, half of our professionals are bargaining professionals, half of them are non-bargaining. There’s a lot of things. As you look at the bargaining side, we’re involved with apprenticeship programs, we’re involved in recruiting, training. We partner with the union on really developing that employee experience for that union individual. I know in the Cedar Rapids area, right now it’s silly, but we have a JTC hall that will only take a hundred people because that’s the side of it.

That’s the only number that we’re taking when the reality is we could probably take another 230. We were in great conversations with that, but if you go outside of this area, there’s a lot more being done. You look at your organizations that you’re involved with, certainly, on the construction side, there’s diversity. The NICA national, for us that’s association and electrical side, they’re really developing some strategies where companies like ESCO can tap into.

Just that workforce certainly on the non-bargaining side, we recruit from all over the United States. We have offices in seven different locations. When we’re looking for a project manager, especially going through this last year with remote workforce, we don’t have to have a person being in Cedar Rapids or St. Louis or Indianapolis or Louisville, Colorado, or Des Moines, Omaha. We could really try to recruit globally and we’ve been doing that for a while.

You have to take a different approach and I think that’s maybe an eye-opening thing for a lot of businesses out there that maybe even haven’t gone down the DE&I route is– When you think about influencing, your labor pool is a lot bigger than what just Cedar Rapids offers. Certainly, this community is very passionate to myself and ESCO but certainly, we as leaders have a bigger expand. Certainly, there’s industries that don’t; manufacturing or – you really need that labor to drive some of that, but for us, it is more of a global recruiting effort from that standpoint.

Anthony: Is that helping the desire or the decision to increase your remote opportunities at ESCO? Not that you have metrics today, but do you notice that’s happening anecdotally? Have you seen it?

Ray: Yes, I think it is. I think the thing that we recognize Anthony, is we had a recruiter that would go to the job fairs, Iowa, Iowa State, Purdue, actually went out to Colorado, Boulder and you just have a white male on recruiting. We’re trying to promote this inclusive environment. How do you get the diversity people to come up and say, “Hello”?

I think at some point, the recruiter is pulling people out of the hallway like, “Bring them over to the ESCO booth.” One of the things that we did, we have really great internship program and talking to the younger folks. We just had this last year new group formed, Women in Technology. As leaders, I think this is probably most– We don’t have all the answers, but let’s ask really good questions.

You go to some of our females that just came in, it’s like, “Why did you choose ESCO? What should we be doing differently?” “First thing, maybe you should get a couple of female out there at your job fairs.” It’s like you create this warm and inviting experience and those things are no-brainers when you think about them. It’s just like small incremental things like that.

Anthony: Being intentional.

Ray: Yes.

Sarika: Okay. Moving it on to another segment of our show is called, What’s in our Listener’s Mind.  [music] What’s on our listener’s minds. I think Anthony, you’ve got our listener question for Ray today.

Anthony: Yes. This is Jerry from Indiana. Again, it’s not directed at Ray or anybody, it’s just a question we pull out of the hat. He says, “I’ve been reading and hearing about so many stories around critical race theory and how to teach racism, or how to teach about race. As a leader, how do you feel about policies and education and on the history and the facts of race in America in terms of being educated on that?” That’s from Jerry, from Indiana.

Ray: I think Jerry from Indiana is spot on. I think it goes back with get better, be better and I think that, if we think that we haven’t grown up and haven’t created some unconscious bias, I think we’re foolish to think that. I think that’s what it’s really about is, how do we educate ourselves? How can we understand? How did we get from point A to point D? As we’ve traveled from A to D, what have been our biases or unconsciousness in that? How do we educate ourselves? To me, it goes to the heart of emotional intelligence. We’ve been talking with leaders for years and years. We’re trying to connect with other people in our organizations and communicate the way they want to be communicated with. As we’ve stepped out into our communities to me that’s not that far of a putt.

When you think about understanding different people’s perspectives, it’s like Anthony, we went to high school. There’s no way that you and I had the same high school experience because we were in two different homes. You start layering on the other things with, you’re black, I’m white, certainly. Maybe we grew up on the Southeast side, but we still seeing things differently, we feel things differently. The only way we’re going to solve problems is try to understand, what it is– Let’s educate ourselves and then how do we take a step back and say, “These are the things that we can move forward together on.”

Anthony: I think Sarika and I were talking about that earlier, how do we deal in a space of facts? I think we can all agree to disagree on where we’re going and how we get there, but can we agree and to be educated and want to learn and to want to grow? To your point all three of us sitting at this table, have grown up differently. Doesn’t matter how long we’ve lived in Cedar Rapids together, we all have a different experience.

Sarika: We need to be mindful of what happened in the past. We can assess what’s going on now and be able to look at solutions moving forward.

Ray: One of the things to talk about, pausing, and one of the things that we’re doing at ESCO we’re very proud. 2019 became Iowa Workforce Development, a great place to work certified. Part of that process is, you have to survey your employees really broad. Are you valued? Leadership, engagement, the whole host of metrics that you look at. Equity was a small– I think there was two questions on equity but out of that you get your metrics.

We became a certified great place. I think we had close to 92% people do that. A big push out of that is, then we come back and look at our metrics and we do focus groups. We have three business units. We sat down with employees developing very action plans. I think they put it in two categories, the just do it and then some more heavy lifting action plans. We’ve worked through that in this last year, certain DE&I, inclusion came on our radar screen.

From my perspective, I’d love to ask you guys is, we’re going down this certified workplace it’s really about driving being the elite employee experience, culture, and engagement. It didn’t have a big DE&I piece, how do we not lose our people with bringing in maybe that assessment around DE&I, or are we at the point where we just have to wait for great places to work, to develop a broader piece around some of that focus groups around some of that really important conversations around DE&I?

Anthony: Yes. Well, I don’t think you have to wait. If I understand what you’re asking is how we’ve just got out of this massive assessment and got this great recognition and how do we go in now to our organization and say, “We need to do this DE&I assessment”? We want to look at it again without people saying, “Oh, we’re going to lose it. Why are we doing that?” I think it really starts with understanding why and the opportunity, for example, a town hall. You said you have a monthly town hall. It’s an opportunity to explain before you take that step, “Here’s why.”

The other part of it is depending on how you’re assessing an organization is, are you taking a 30-minute assessment that’s going to drive your staff bananas, or is it something short and sweet that you can really capture the essence of the information around the diversity, equity, inclusion, cultural assessment that you want? It’s a lot of combinations, but if I were in your shoes, I don’t know that I would wait. I might think there’s ways that you can probably start. I don’t know what your thoughts are.

Sarika: Great question. I think we get this asked a lot. I think for any DEI strategies, you mentioned you were going on a strategic plan is challenging to do one without having a DEI assessment done because then that informs where are the areas? Where are the gaps? Where are the opportunities to enhance? If you feel that DEI component it was not in it, then this is a great opportunity to be able to tell your team that. “It’s great that we are on this journey with this. We feel that the DEI is extremely important and it was not as visible in that, so we would like to ensure that it is addressed. We want you to be seen, felt, and valued.” DEI is not just in a solo silo by itself, you want to integrate it as part of your cultural transformation. Hence pausing, assessing, course-correcting is part of this journey, and just message it in that way and that you’re valuing it and you want them to be part of it and taking the time. I think that before you go too far ahead, ensure that you know that this is valuable, make it valuable, make it a priority, you’re walking the talk that you are really wanting to do DEI.

Anthony: Great conversation. For our listeners, we’d love to keep your questions coming info@diversitystraightup.com.

Sarika: All right. Now let’s go to– Did any of you play a ball in high school?

Anthony: We did. We played a little ball. I know it.

Sarika: Really? Okay.

Anthony: It’s fun stuff.

Sarika: All right. Well, I’m going to have you start this segment then.

Anthony: All right. This segment is called our diversity thumb ball. Ray, this is fun. It’s got its great icebreaker. It’s got a bunch of questions and comments around diversity and the way that we play it is I slam Sarika in the face and just go home. I’m just kidding, actually.

Sarika: He hasn’t done it yet. Let’s see if he can.

Ray: It’s about getting better.

Anthony: It’s about getting better.

Sarika: You’ll get Joe’s equipment before you get my face and that’s called liability.

Ray: We’ll throw this ball in the air.

Anthony: For our listeners, it’s like a little soccer ball and it’s got sayings all over the ball. We’ll throw the ball in the air and wherever your thumb lands left or right, ask the question and answer it obviously. Pretty simple. All right?

Ray: All right.

Anthony: I will start and I will throw it to you first. I’ll throw it to Sarika first. We’ll leave you.

Sarika: What gender roles did you learn about when growing up? Oh, how much time do we have here? In my household, because I don’t wanna generalize, it was a very patriarchal culture I grew up in. Let’s just say my first year in college, my dad said, “There is this guy that we want you to meet for marriage.” “I’m a first-generation college student, so thank you dad for helping with that.” He had the first year of college, he said, “Marriage.” I said, “No. Education.” He said, “You can get educated after marriage.” I said, “No, dad.” This is just one example of quite a few that people get to know over time, but that was one gender role that I learned the value of marriage and the value of education, at least for me what did that look like? That was lopsided. I did hold off on marriage and I did pursue my education, everyone.

Anthony: Do your thing. Good for you.

Sarika: Yes.

Anthony: All right. Where are you going?

Sarika: You’d go close right here.

Ray: All right. Describe a time when you witnessed a bias or discrimination.

Anthony: You can’t use the one you used earlier.


Ray: No, I won’t. I actually got a good one. I got a good story. I think I mentioned we do town halls at ESCO. It was probably four or five, six years ago, we were doing an in-person one and we got done at the end. There was a group of leaders that were talking in our cafeteria area. We had one of our senior leaders leading the discussion. I was listening in with two other people and they were talking about some important things. I just recognized that there’s three or four ladies just cleaning up around us and actually pushing them out of the way and I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to pause this conversation and we’re going to help clean up.” The look I got for my senior leader, it looked like he’s going to throw a pitchfork through me. I’m like, “Really?” That was like an ‘ah-hah’ moment . I grew up being a servant leader and respect is one of our core values at ESCO, and sitting around. There’s too many little things like that, that happen in organizations that probably go unaddressed. I think we as leaders need to address those. You come to meetings and the female gets chosen to take the notes, is it because they got the best handwriting? I don’t think so.

Sarika: It’s a microaggression happening in that one right there.

Ray: Yes. That’s something just from ESCO that– I think it’s the thing that we need to do more of being intentional is pausing and addressing those things when they pop up in a professional way.

Anthony: Yes, we could go all day about microaggressions.

Sarika: Oh yes. Micro messages can create big impact.

Ray: Anthony.

Anthony: All right. Do I still catch like in high school?

Sarika: [laughs]

Ray: I don’t know. If you catch or if you throw it.

Anthony: Recount a time when you felt like an outsider. Oh my goodness. Oh, where do I start? When I left Johnson Elementary, I went to a kindergarten through fourth grade. I was at a school called Johnson Elementary in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I got asked to go to a school called Squaw Creek for fifth and sixth grade. I remember being pulled into an office and being asked that I want to change schools and I didn’t really. I was told it was EXPOs: expanding pupil opportunities but apparently, it’s for kids that were smart.

What I learned later as an adult is that was part of it but the other part is that Cedar Rapids was trying to desegregate some of the other schools in the communities. They were trying to diversify the schools, so I got bused out to Squaw Creek. My mom basically said, “You’re going.” I left Johnson Elementary in fifth grade. I left all my friends and started getting bused out to Squaw Creek Elementary.

I remember being in a class full of fifth and sixth graders and being the only black person in the class. Now I’m in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and that was pretty typical. At Johnson Elementary was quite a bit more diverse than it was at Squaw Creek. I remember I was a little nervous the first few days just going to school there, just because I had never really been the only one in the room at that age. I didn’t really know why I was there and why can’t I be back at Johnson with all my friends. That was probably one of my first experiences feeling like an outsider. That’s tough.

Ray: That’s tough.

Sarika: Oh, well, I hope you enjoyed this segment, Ray, and we’re just wrapping up our show. Before we do, I want to ask you, is there anything that we haven’t touched upon that you would like to share with our listeners as well as any advice you may have them to help enhance our equity, diversity, inclusion, and engagement journey?

Ray: Yes. Just a couple of things, Sarika. I think first and foremost, thank you again to yourself and Anthony for– I think a lot of times when you sit down and you have conversations like this as leaders, I learn more about myself doing this and I’m hopeful that same thing will happen here, so big thank you.

I think just as leaders you got to start somewhere. I think it’s an important piece just to say, “Hey, pause.” You’re running an organization and whether you like it or not DE&I and inclusion and engagement, those are all things as leaders that we’re trying to drive and so why not have a really great strategy around those things and make– You’re really taking your organization to the next level. If you’re not addressing those things because you think they’re not safe, that’s okay.

There’s professionals out there, there’s communities of networks, to really get started. Then lastly, really blast myself, Kelly, Mark Bank will be running the 2021 United Way cabinet campaign this year, and really proud of the things that the United Way is doing around really the whole DE&I discussion. There’s a community assessment. I think that just closed up yesterday, so really excited to circle back with the United Way Leadership team and just see what that assessment brought out. As community leaders, how can we peel back that onion and dig a little bit deeper in our community? How can we connect what we’re doing at ESCO and not just from our cultural engagement side, but also with our time, talent and treasure? Because at the end of the day, this is a beautiful community. We all live Cedar Rapids area, the surrounding cities. We all have a super vested interest in not just this generation, but many generations to come.

Sarika: Well, thank you, Ray. Great advice for anyone, anywhere around the world to really help drive your equity, diversity, inclusion, and engagement as a leader and the compound, effect it has in the communities that you serve. Thank you so much, Ray, for being here. We really enjoyed you and your perspectives and for opening up and being vulnerable. I think someone once said to me that “Sarika, is hard for leaders to be vulnerable.” I said, “Let’s talk about it.” I go “Is vulnerable equate into weakness or is vulnerable equate into authenticity?” Let’s do a perspective shift and look at vulnerability equals authenticity.

Anthony: Yes. We were just small talking offline, looking at the glass half empty or full, which one are you going to look at?

Ray Brown: Half full.

Anthony: Half full. Thank you. It’s been fun. One of thanks to our sponsors, our major sponsor GreenState Credit Union, along with Alliant Energy in the city of Cedar Rapids and Collins Aerospace. We want to thank you for your sponsorship and thank you for your time.


Sarika: Thank you to our listeners. Without you, we would not be able to have this show, so continue to follow us, like us, share your thoughts, perspectives and– as we always say on Diversity Straight Up.

Anthony: Keeping it real.

Ray: Rock on.


Sarika: Thank you to our listeners, as we wouldn’t be here without your support. Help us grow our subscriber base by sharing our show with others.

Anthony: Love this new episode of Diversity Straight Up, brought to you by GreenState Credit Union? Then head over to the most popular podcast audio platforms to describe, rate, and review us and check out our other episodes while you’re there.

Sarika: Catch us on our next episode which drops monthly.

Anthony: We’d love to hear from you. Hit us up and send your questions, comments, and suggestions to info@diversitystraightup.com.

Sarika: Remember wherever you live, work, and play, our backyards are increasingly global. It’s not enough to simply be a leader. Be a global leader by leveraging diversity with equity, inclusion, and engagement and share your journey. This may empower others to be bold, change agents. Be courageous, be authentic, be vulnerable

Anthony: Diversity Straight Up, brought to you by GreenState Credit Union.

Sarika: Keeping it real. [music]

Voice-over 2: You’ve been listening to Diversity Straight Up, brought to you by Green State Credit Union. Additional support provided by Alliant Energy, Collins Aerospace, and the city of Cedar Rapids. For more from the Corridor Business Journal, please visit corridorbusiness.com. This episode was produced by Joe Coffey of Coffey Grande Studios.