NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — The hundreds of people who packed Rutgers' College Avenue Student Center on Friday raised their smartphones in the air, squeezing as many folks as possible onto their screens. They were taking selfies—but not your typical one.
The crowd was there to network and drive home the importance of diversity in business, as part of a Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey expo. More than a simple social media post, each selfie was meant to further just how critical diverse staffs, boards and customer bases are to a business's bottom line—and the communities it serves.
Indeed, the Aug. 18 event's significance was underscored by its draw. Dozens of small businesses attended, and larger companies, like Verizon, signed on as sponsors. State and local officials, like Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who's running for governor as a Republican, and New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill, meanwhile, spoke to the sprawling room of business leaders.
“We need you to participate. We need you to feel comfortable here. We need you to ask questions. We need to get you the answers that you need and the support that you need,” Guadagno told audience members, many of whom are Hispanic. “Because, quite frankly, New Jersey and you represent the American dream.”
The diversity expo brought dozens of businesses, large and small, to the Hub City. Their representatives set up tables and walked the room, building connections with other people and companies. Then, shortly after 9 a.m., attendees sat down for a breakfast and panel discussion, which focused on how diversity can boost profits.
New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno mingles with diversity expo attendees
Perhaps the greatest example of diversity's power was in the economic power of New Jersey's Hispanic population.
Hispanic companies are the largest and fastest-growing sector in the state, Guadagno said. Latinos spend $22.9 billion in New Jersey each year and represent 10 percent of the workforce, she said.
Hard numbers like those tend to make diversity initiatives more palatable to businesses, especially smaller ones, Carlos Medina, chairman of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said.
“Especially in today's climate, it's important that people recognize the value of diversity,” he said. “We really emphasize that it's not a philanthropic event, but it's something that adds to your bottom line and brings a great value to your organization.”
A diverse staff can help draw more bids, leading to lower costs for companies, he said. And it might also steer businesses from making embarrassing mistakes, such as misspelling the name of a country, like Colombia, he added.
A Verizon employee speaks with a potential customer
While many small businesses attended the event, some top-level companies threw their weight behind the cause.
Verizon, one of the event's sponsors, got involved because it believes in promoting diversity in local communities and the organization itself, company officials said.
Sam Delgado, vice president of external affairs at Verizon New Jersey, was one of several people who founded the state's Hispanic chamber, back in 1988. Looking around the room last week, he saw signs of a great future for both Latino business owners and diversity as a whole.
“This is the future,” Delgado said. “This is where you see the youth and energy of the immigrant class in America becoming American citizens. And what better way to become an American than to open up your own business and become an entrepreneur and contribute to the community?”
Big companies are often key to driving such ideas, leaders said. Without them, conferences like this might not be possible.
“These companies are small businesses that are just trying to get started,” Guadagno said, “and Verizon is giving them a leg up.”
Condemning the white-supremacist attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, she also noted that New Jersey's commitment to diversity helps defend the state from racism and its tragic consequences.
New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill speaks to the crowd
In New Brunswick, Hispanic businesses have long helped revive the city and meet the needs of its residents, Cahill, the mayor, told the crowd. People from Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Honduras have all established businesses here, boosting employment numbers and funneling money into the community, he said.
Cahill pointed to the French Street business corridor as one positive example. Once a decaying urban center, the area has grown as a hub of commerce in recent years, largely thanks to Latinos, he said.
“If you look at the Hispanic-owned businesses in the City of New Brunswick, you can see that they are great partners in the progress that the City of New Brunswick has achieved,” Cahill said.
And that's exactly what the diversity expo organizers and sponsors said they hoped to accomplish—but on a much larger scale.