Pittsburgh’s Lack of Diversity and its Effect on Millennials

Raymond Lee, prepping the Savoy Restaurant kitchen. Photo by Tyler Polk

By Tyler Polk

Melanie Harrington thinks diversity is the key in sustaining long term growth in Pittsburgh.

While James Huguley believes diversity should be on everyone’s agenda.

And Niecy Dennis feels that we haven’t understood the importance of keeping and retaining employees in Pittsburgh.

These three individuals all share similar beliefs on the importance of diversity in Pittsburgh.

Statistics on Pittsburgh Diversity

According to a study by WalletHub in 2015, Pittsburgh was ranked 227 out of 230 cities in diversity. The city also ranked 226 in Diversified Economies.

“There’s a racial divide in economic lines, where the African American population is very much in economic need,” said Huguley, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

It’s different in other major cities like Atlanta, which has a large African American population and a strong and prominent black middle class.

Atlanta and Pittsburgh are a part of 15 benchmark regions used in the Minority Workforce Participation survey from Pittsburgh Today.

The other regions are: Richmond, Charlotte, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Denver.

Photo by Chloe Jakiela
Vibrant Pittsburgh seeks to increase diversity.  Photo by Chloe Jakiela.

“These are regions people decided on to determine how we are doing economically,” said Harrington, the President and CEO of Vibrant Pittsburgh, which is a nonprofit that wants to establish a diverse and inclusive Pittsburgh.

The average percentage of jobs held by minorities in all 15 cities is 25 percent. Pittsburgh ranks last in that survey with 11 percent of jobs held by minorities.

“The community decided to do this regional workforce diversity economic indicator to measure against other regions to see how we are doing,” Harrington said.

Pittsburgh’s Issue with Diversity and How It’s Improving

Historically, there’s not been a solid enough commitment to create diversity from companies and corporations.

“There has not been a strong enough effort to recruit, train, mentor and promote African Americans and people of color,” said Tim Stevens, the chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP).

Stevens wants to create a mentoring component of all area companies and corporations for people of color, where key leadership positions would take on mentoring up and coming African Americans, Hispanics and other people of color.

“It would make a difference in the atmosphere of companies and retaining of employees of color,” Stevens, who is also the facilitator of the Corporate Equity and Inclusion round table, said.

In the results of the Pittsburgh Regional Survey conducted by the University Center for Social & Urban Research, 66 percent of minorities think their employer is not diverse.

“The heart of the diversity problem is employers not willing to change and try new things,” Harrington said. “If they do change and things don’t work out with a person from a different race, then it’s not stereotyping after one bad experience.”

Overall, the strides to make changes are being made with Mayor Bill Peduto forming the most diverse staff in the city’s history and contributing to improving diversity alongside Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

“I’m happy we have people who recognize the city’s need for diversity and equity, plus having a priority on our communities as well,” Huguley said.

Creating a Successful Minority Owned Business

Tara Sherry-Torres is the founder and creative director of Cafe Con Leche. Photo courtesy of Sherry-Torres.

Tara Sherry-Torres had a vision of neighborhood-based creative places that would engage and connect Latinos in Pittsburgh, and share Latino culture to Pittsburgh.

“Working in community development, I saw a lack of places, events and venues that diverse groups of people could come together, hangout, enjoy some culture and each other’s company,” said Sherry-Torres.

This inspired her to create Café Con Leche, and since January 2014, it has hosted 25 pop-up events around the city working with galleries, nonprofits and businesses.

Photo by Tara Sherry-Torres
The Cafe Con Leche group planning events.  Photo courtesy of Sherry-Torres.

“I like to get to know people,” Sherry-Torres said. “That is just who I am. I knew that’s where outreach comes from. Personal relationships are the most powerful ways to build a network of people.”

She believes diversity is important for business because the ideas matter. Hiring a diverse staff also will create wider markets.

“The more diverse your team is the more ideas you have,” Sherry-Torres said. “Making sure you have diverse employees and listening to ideas can give new ideas on how to operate.”

John Bettis is the executive manager of Savoy Restaurant. Photo by Tyler Polk.

Savoy Restaurant is an African American-owned restaurant that was founded in May 2011. Its key to surviving the tough restaurant business is providing great service no matter who the clientele is.

“We feel that providing great service outdoes everything inside the restaurant business,” said John Bettis, the executive manager of Savoy Restaurant. “When you think back to a memorable experience dining, you think about how the staff was attentive, and then how good the food was.”

Bettis believes that planning is the difference between a black businesses succeeding or failing in Pittsburgh.

“You’re looking at [who] your target audience is and what they like,” Bettis said. “Once you execute the plan and open your business, you operate like any other company”.

Chef Andre Robinson (Left) giving instructions to Tyrone Wright (Right). Photo by Tyler Polk.

His advice to minority millennials wanting to start their own business is to research the industry before taking the leap of faith.

“If you know [how business operates] take the step,” Bettis said. “Make sure you have a firm plan of who your marketing to, and do it.”

Gary White, director of sales and marketing, (Left) and Jackson Forosisky (Right). Photo by Tyler Polk.

Rice Enterprises LLC independently owns 13 McDonald’s restaurants in the Pittsburgh Area. It began with James Rice working his way up from crew member to management. He would later buy his first McDonald’s restaurant in 1987.

“We have a good infrastructure,” said Michelle Rice, Co-CEO of the Rice Corporation, alongside her sister Melissa. “I think your business, wherever it is, must reflect the neighborhood it is in.”

As the owner of the corporation, she is a part of doing the second interview for managerial positions. Other hiring is done by the incumbent general manager and other staff supervisors.

“We look for a person who is a leader, displays those skills daily, has the energy to motivate a team, has a good work ethic and does whatever it takes to be successful,” Rice said.

How Diversity Affects Millennials and Education

Niecy Dennis, WDGA President and Founder with Volunteer of the Year Sue Hobart
Niecy Dennis, WDGA President and Founder, with Volunteer of the Year, Sue Hobart. Photo by Debbie Norrell.

Niecy Dennis founded Workforce Development Global Alliance (WDGA) in 2006 to promote economic self-efficiency through peace and employability of disadvantaged youth in Kenya after visiting a school in Africa named after her late father, Archie Dennis, in 2004.

“I was overwhelmed by the lack of opportunities, and the lack of opportunities afterward for those who got an education,” Dennis said.

She created the “School 2 Work” program to connect the Kenyan children to an alliance of companies to get jobs and promote peace.

The program was a success until 2008, when tribal wars were creating conflict in Kenya. During the wars and riots, the school was burned to the ground.

“I realized that while focusing on the workforce and job readiness was a good start, I needed to teach conflict resolution for the program to be more effective,” Dennis said.

She later renamed the program “2 Steps 2 Work” and took the unprecedented step to move the program to Pittsburgh. Since 2011, it has operated at the Carnegie Library of Homestead.

“They told me reaching out to kids in Kenya was a no-no, then reaching out to kids in disadvantaged areas in Pittsburgh was a big no-no,”  Dennis said.

Dennis said people told her if she went to Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles or New York, she would be better off because of their diversity.

The six to nine week program teaches all those skills and builds cultural competency through community projects with 16-25 year-olds, and even a trip to Kenya.

“What really makes [millennials] marketable is when they are culturally sensitized, they value diversity and are used to working on a team, and getting out of their comfort zone,” Dennis said.

The WDGA Class of 2015 and Tamara Tunie, a Homestead Native (Center) Photo by Debbie Norrell
The WDGA Class of 2015 and Tamara Tunie, a Homestead native (Center). Photo by Debbie Norrell

Dennis graduated 12 kids from the program last summer, and four graduates still have jobs that they work at the end of the school day.

“We need to have communities where our children are raised to understand backgrounds and cultures,” Huguley said. “That will make us more informed and more intelligent and capable.”

The challenge for Pittsburgh, as a region, is to have a sellable proposition to minority millennials.

“We are essentially competing with other regions for our young people coming out of schools,” Harrington said.

Pittsburgh is trying to market to a younger audience and retain the college students who live here. It’s still struggling to retain the diversity. Pittsburgh as a city still holds thoughts, emotions and prejudice towards minorities.

“The region is older and looming retirements will have a lot of positions to fill,” Harrington said. “We need to get our skills up, hire and bring people to the region.”

A challenge for people coming directly out of school is the lack of a network. They have to build their social networks to connect and get opportunities they want.

Thomas Jamison, who was born and raised in the Hill District, has accomplished a lot of things he didn’t think was possible for someone from Pittsburgh.

“Each step along the way, someone extended their hand to help convince me I was the right person to make that leap,” Jamison said.

After graduating from Schenley High School, he attended California University of Pennsylvania. He could not finish his degree there due to a knee injury in 2004, which wouldn’t allow him to work.

“My full-time job at Best Buy was paying for my car and apartment while I was in school,” Jamison said. “Between the inability to work and rehab, I could never get back.”

After recovering from his knee surgery, he applied for a call center job at PNC in 2005 to work alongside one of his cousins. Right after his training, PNC put him on a special project for building a business platform for its website.

“It was a trial, I was a liaison between the project managers and the customers,” Jamison said. “Anything that involved the growth of a business, you were talking to me.”

After PNC felt that the platform was good, they wanted him to find a new assignment in the bank to work on. His cubicle sat outside the Territory Business Sales Manager’s office.

“He would always ask me for help for using the operating systems,” Jamison said. “Whenever he found out about me needing a new place in the office, he pushed me to become the Banking Relationship Manager.”

He was hesitant to take the job at first, but he was convinced to help small businesses.

“It was a great experience working with small businesses for 4 years, but I was in a place where I needed to do something different,” Jamison said. “I wanted to help people in a different way.”

He left PNC in 2010 to do independent consulting and event planning for nonprofits, and along with a friend he did nightclub promotion and entertainment booking. One year after leaving PNC, he was told by a friend that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was giving away free building spaces Downtown.

The space he was given would become the Dream Cream Ice Cream Parlor, where he is the founding president.

“After spending half a decade each in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, I feel the business model of selling a product everybody loves is the best way to go about business,” Jamison said. “Ice cream lends its way to the mission of helping people by giving the proceeds towards a personal goal or charitable cause.”

Melanie Harrington the Founder of Vibrant Pittsburgh Photo by Vania Arthur
Melanie Harrington, the Founder of Vibrant Pittsburgh. Photograph by Vania E. Arthur.

In 2010, Harrington, who left Atlanta, Georgia from her previous position as President of the American Institute for Managing Diversity, received a call.

They found her on LinkedIn and told her about the renaissance Pittsburgh was going through economically and environmentally, and how they wanted to secure that with diversity and inclusion.

“They sold me on that, and I thought it would be exciting to be a part of this,” Harrington said. “I’m encouraged. There are some people in leadership roles in this community that are helping to lead the way.”

Commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion has to happen throughout all facets of the corporations and businesses.

“You might have a President or CEO committed, but maybe the mid-level workers aren’t committed,” Stevens said. “I want the commitment to be real, and a part of the culture.”


Tyler Polk is an award-winning  Journalism Major with a Broadcasting Minor. He will graduate in April 2017.