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4 takeaways from our Envision Iowa Think Tank on people, culture


In order for Iowa to thrive and grow, we need a strong workforce and vibrant cultural opportunities. During Tuesday’s Envision Iowa Think Tank, we heard from leaders across the state who are working on a variety of initiatives – in their communities and beyond – to make Iowa a great place for all.

Speakers included:

  • Keynote:Debi Durham – director, Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Finance Authority, IEDA.
  • Liesl Eathington – research scientist, Iowa State University Department of Economics.
  • Evette Creighton – senior manager of talent, inclusion and diversity, Transamerica.
  • Tyler Peschong – owner, MTownProud Insurance Agency.

Here are some of our takeaways.

Recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce
Eathington and Creighton spoke about barriers that exist to attracting and retaining a diverse workforce. Both discussed the need to have tough conversations and not give up on initiatives when things get difficult.

Eathington: “I think the biggest challenge is the unwillingness to really be honest and face some hard truths about the state. It’s a lot easier and a lot more exciting to say, ‘What can we do differently? What can we do that’s new?’ It’s much harder to say, ‘What are we doing wrong? What do we need to stop doing that is just not working that is not attracting people who are different than the people we are used to seeing on the street in Iowa?’ I’ve seen a lot of initiatives start and they’re asking the right questions. But as soon as it gets uncomfortable, the institutions shut down and they don’t want to have that dialogue anymore. So they veer off and say, ‘We just need to market better, or just need to do this different.’”

Creighton: “It’s not from a lack of some effort, right? I believe there are a lot of organizations across the state with intentions of attracting diverse professionals and families to our communities. But I think it’s a very real thing for us to ask those difficult questions. Not about having another summit. And then having … that summit be led and driven by the Black community. Those are things that are important, but it’s time for us to take it to the next level. When we’re talking about attracting and enticing [people] to create businesses and opportunities for diverse communities, are we taking those steps? And then when we have conversations, are we truly looking around the room as equals? And if there’s not the voice at the table that’s different, there’s not many of those voices, are we really addressing some of those challenges? I think it is really important for us to have those difficult conversations, to peel back the onion and ask ourselves what are we doing wrong and what can we do to make that change happen?”

— Michael Crumb

Make sure people see themselves represented
Peschong pointed to an example of how small business owners can have a positive influence on inclusivity in their communities.

Because his father was a State Farm agent, Peschong grew up with the understanding that it was possible for him to become an insurance professional someday. Now, after recently starting his own agency in Marshalltown, he said a passion of his is to be inclusive in his hiring so that young Latinos can have similar role models in business in the community.

“No one aspires to be an insurance agent when they’re a 10-year-old, but the NFL stopped recruiting slow guys that can’t throw very well,” Peschong quipped. “But it was always in the back of my mind, if things go well, maybe I could do this [be an insurance agent] someday.” Having recently hired two sales managers who are Hispanic — one male and the other female — he’s hoping that it’s a step toward better representation of Latinos within the industry.

“I want them to have their face on a billboard [as an agency owner] someday and have the 10-year-old that I was to look up and say, ‘That could be for me, too.’ And that’s the opportunity. But we have to understand as business leaders that when they can’t look around and see other people on billboards right now that look like them, it’s going to take more work.”

— Joe Gardyasz

Adapting to changing demographics
In the chat, several attendees were offering terms like “Iowa Inviting” and “Iowa Inclusive” as new ways to frame the conversation about how Iowa communities could think about welcoming new residents and supporting current ones. Keynote speaker Debi Durham said people of color have made up 57.8% of the population growth in Iowa’s rural areas, and 44% of Iowa’s growth between 2010 and 2019 was due to immigration.

As both domestic and international immigration accounts for more of Iowa’s population growth, Peschong said a priority in the space is having communities commit to learning about new cultures and adapting to them.

“One of the great opportunities we talked about both in our agency and with the community leaders that I get to spend time with is how do we, one, invite and embrace the culture that hasn’t been here before and make it not like, ‘Well you have to adapt to our culture,’ it’s ‘How do we adapt to a new culture, a new way of working, a new way of doing business and new way of loving each other?’” he said. “Two is help bridge the gaps. There’s a very strong language barrier for a lot of people so they don’t know where to turn for resources that just seem second nature to a lot of us. And so how do we create an environment where the resources are available and they know that they’re available?”

— Sarah Bogaards

Communities’ long-term response to population loss
For communities with stagnant or declining populations, Eathington said their leaders are moving toward a focus on providing a strong quality of life and robust culture to their community’s existing population and any new residents.

“We have to provide this head dose of reality [that] most of Iowa’s communities, like two-thirds of them, are continuing to lose population,” she said. “I think the focus that I’m seeing more so in the past 10 years is things like leadership. For the people that we have left in communities we’re really trying to focus on leadership development, then also the diversity, equity, inclusion initiatives from the community standpoint and from organizations [like] city governments, nonprofits.

“Both of those aspects can be done even if your population is not growing, and I think that’s where we’re really seeing a shift in focus. There’s initiatives like Shrink Smart to help communities accept the realities that most of them are not going to grow. But how can you maintain and even improve quality of life for these communities, even if they can’t add people? How can we make life better for the people who are still there or the new people from different cultures who are arriving?”

— Sarah Bogaards

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