Marriage ban is bad for business

  • Article by: CHARLIE ZELLE
  • Updated: June 18, 2012 - 8:35 PM

Business leaders are opposing the marriage amendment because it's the right thing to do.

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A man who identified himself as a Catholic priest carried a sign and a crucifix to the Capitol to express his views regarding the possible amendment to the state constitution banning same sex marriage.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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One of the greatest assets of Minnesota is the leadership of the business community on matters that make this state a great place to live and work. On community challenges and opportunities like education, transportation, housing and so many more, business leaders have been at the table, leading with their time and talents as well as their financial support.

It's no surprise that the latest example of business leadership comes on the marriage amendment that will be on the ballot this fall. Ken Powell, CEO of General Mills, recently announced that his company is in the business of nourishing all lives and therefore it will oppose the amendment.

Powell joins a host of other business leaders in this effort, including CEO Daniel Sparks of St. Jude; John Taft, who heads RBC Wealth Management in the U.S.; Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chair of the travel and hospitality company Carlson; and many others.

No, the shock isn't that business leaders are opposing the amendment. Quite the contrary. It would have been astonishing if they sat on the sidelines on an issue that is important both to the values of our state and to the bottom line of businesses.

Minnesota businesses reflect the values of most Minnesotans. "Quality of Life" isn't just a trite phrase for those of us who make our homes here. It is a recognition that our state thrives when we have communities that prosper, cultural and recreational opportunities that are world-class, and an environment that celebrates diversity. Business leaders are opposing the marriage amendment because it's the right thing to do.

But they also oppose the amendment because of bottom-line business issues that affect all Minnesotans. The Star Tribune reported last fall that the Twin Cities is the country's sixth most successful metropolitan area in attracting young, educated workers.

That's the workforce Minnesota needs. Our future is in industries that demand well-educated talent. A Georgetown University study predicted that between now and 2018, 70 percent of the new jobs in Minnesota will require post-high school education.

These job-creators of the future aren't here because of the weather. A key driver for young, educated workers -- not just gays and lesbians, but educated young workers in general -- is a community's openness. Minnesota's largest employers have contributed greatly to Minnesota's welcoming environment.

Our best-known companies were among the nation's leaders in creating diverse workforces, including providing domestic partnership benefits. Today, 70 percent of Minnesota's Fortune 500 companies, and hundreds of others, offer these benefits to their employees.

At a time when most states were reinforcing their laws and constitutions to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, Minnesota's business leadership on workplace diversity and employee benefits gave the state a distinct advantage in recruiting and retaining young talent. A multi-year, in-depth research project sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and conducted by the Gallup organization looked at 26 major metro areas in the United States, including the Twin Cities and Duluth.

The Knight study, called "Soul of the Community," found that well-educated young workers are attracted to Minnesota because of the area's lively cultural and entertainment offerings as well as its beauty. But a key to why people form long-lasting bonds with an area is the perception of the community's welcoming of all people. And, the Knight study found that communities to which residents have strong emotional ties are those that are among the economically strongest.

The Knight Foundation research waves some bright red flags of warning for Minnesota when it comes to openness. The "Soul of the Community" study found that fewer than 2 in 10 people say the Twin Cities is a good place for young, talented college graduates looking for work, in part because of a growing perception that the area is not open to differences in race and sexual orientation.

Where welcoming workplaces gave Minnesota employers a competitive edge in attracting and retaining talent in the past, the marriage amendment poses a new challenge. Public opinion in Minnesota and nationally, and the leadership of a few states to embrace the acceptance of all families, are unequivocal in pointing the direction in which this issue is headed. Minnesota can hold on to the past or we can be part of the future.

General Mills CEO Powell had no doubts about the right direction for his company. In announcing his position, he acknowledged that the company doesn't typically take positions on ballot issues. The marriage amendment, though, is a business issue that affects the company's employees and its bottom line. General Mills needs to attract and retain talent; its ability to do so would be harmed by passage of the amendment.

Minnesotans also should have no doubts on the marriage amendment. Doing the right thing -- voting against the amendment -- is also the smart business strategy.

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Charlie Zelle is president and CEO of Jefferson Lines and chair of the board, Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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