Businessman Tomas Perez moved his family from Chicago to the Twin Cities a decade ago on the promise of good jobs and schools, but he says they’ve never felt completely at home. He and his wife, Elizabeth, wonder now if they should move for the sake of their 14-year-old twin sons.
If they leave, the Perez family would join a growing exodus by people of color who have found that the chill in Minnesota applies as much to social interactions as it does to weather.
Sixty percent of the Twin Cities professionals of color who took part in recent focus groups said they plan to leave the state in the next three to five years, according to Greater MSP, a regional nonprofit focused on jobs and economic development.
In a surprising twist, even those born and raised in Minnesota expressed a desire to leave.
“The Twin Cities is a cliquey region. If you were not born here or married into a family from this place, it’s very hard to break into small circles,” said Perez, a naturalized American citizen born in Venezuela who is part of a team working on Greater MSP’s project. “It’s not just perception. It’s a reality.”
Greater MSP is surveying professionals of color to figure out why. The Bush Foundation and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce are helping with the project. The goal is to lay bare the personal and professional reasons that appear to be driving many people of color to consider moving away so that policymakers, business leaders and nonprofits can do something about the issue. Business leaders say the region’s bottom line depends on it.
University of Minnesota Prof. Myles Shaver has found the Twin Cities ranks first in overall professional talent retention among the 25 largest U.S. metro areas. But that same analysis of U.S. Census data concludes that the region ranks 14th for retention of professionals of color.
“That won’t cut it. You can’t have that number and feel good about our business community,” said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. “You recruit them. You train them. They are part of the team and they move. It’s a huge financial loss for the company. It’s a community loss for Minnesota.”
While Shaver’s analysis suggests that professionals of color with school-aged children are less likely to leave Minnesota than their childless peers, luring and retaining more black, Asian and Hispanic professionals could play a critical role in reducing the state’s stark income disparities.
Minnesota’s black median household income has hovered around $30,000 for several years, less than half of the $66,979 reported by white households. Hispanic families fare slightly better at $43,380. Asian households outpace whites at $72,344.
“I really think local companies understand we’re approaching a crisis situation in being able to retain the talent we need to grow and to be competitive,” said Duchesne Drew, Bush Foundation community network vice president. “We have been losing people at a higher rate than is healthy. If we don’t do something, that churn will kill us. We won’t be able to fill critical jobs.”
In May, six focus groups composed of 65 professionals of color provided some preliminary feedback and helped to shape the survey. The goal is to recruit 500 to 1,000 respondents to an online survey and present the findings this fall. Respondents determine whether they qualify as professionals of color. While the participants won’t be chosen at random, organizers believe it will provide valuable insights. It was developed and will be analyzed by Janine Sanders, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas.
There aren’t much data now on migration of Twin Cities professionals by race. Neither the state Demographer’s Office nor the Metropolitan Council, which is the state’s affiliate to the U.S. Census, tracks it.
An online survey, which takes about 15 minutes to complete, asks respondents about feelings of discrimination, relationships with co-workers inside and outside of the office, the availability of restaurants, markets, hair salons and the dating scene for professionals of color.
The findings from the initial focus groups, which were balanced across race, ethnicity, gender, age, occupation and other factors, hint at some of the reasons why people leave.
At the office, some perceive a glass ceiling. Because some see few paths for advancement, the Twin Cities becomes a training ground where young professionals of color cut their teeth and then move on.
Some believe the only path to success is to hide who they really are. “In order to fit in, they need to lose their identity,” Perez said.
Some say they can never shake the outsider status with co-workers personally and professionally. “Relationships with co-workers outside the office really speak to whether you’re connecting on a deeper level. It’s about really fitting in and feeling valued,” Drew said.
Many singles complained of difficulties finding a partner or a spouse. Some said too few restaurants and clubs cater to their tastes.
“As much as you may be happy with the work you are doing, you really want fulfillment with your whole self,” said Greg Cunningham, U.S. Bank’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. He said the survey is a “fantastic idea” that’s addressing a real problem for Minnesota businesses.
“If we don’t prepare ourselves and we don’t have organizations and a workforce that mirrors our customers and community, we won’t thrive,” Cunningham said.
U.S. Bank employs 12,480 people in Minnesota. He said it’s not hard to sell prospects on the idea of moving here.
“It’s clean and safe. We get a lot of credit for our outdoors, our lakes, our parks. Recruitment has not been the issue,” Cunningham said. “It’s how do we keep people here.”
He said employers can do things to help their professionals of color develop deeper connections to the region. He urges his employees to participate in company initiatives that seek input from its black, Hispanic, Asian and LGBT employees to improve the business.
The groups also create opportunities for networking and friendships that sometimes cross company lines.
“I want to meet my counterparts at 3M, General Mills and Best Buy. It expands your network and your ability to make those human connections and really be part of the community. If we can help people plant roots personally, we can retain them,” Cunningham said.
Perez, director of sales for a financial services company, and his wife, a real estate agent, moved to the Twin Cities 11 years ago, when their twin boys were toddlers. They said the neighborhoods, schools, and relatively low crime rates in the region seemed more family-friendly. They did make friends among 10 couples who were also transplants to the Twin Cities. All but two of those couples have since moved away.
Both Perez and his wife have enjoyed professional success, but they say they still feel like outsiders.
For years, co-workers would talk of trips to family cabins and other quintessentially Minnesotan activities. Perez said his family felt left out.
Once, he said he half jokingly said to a colleague, “ ‘We’ve spent more time together than we spend with our families. When are you going to invite me to the cabin?’ They laughed and completely ignored the question.”
Jareesa Tucker McClure, originally from Michigan, moved to Minnesota seven years ago. She had attended the University of Minnesota, so she knew the area.
“When you come to work for a company in Minnesota, you are probably going to be the only person of color on your team, or your floor, or maybe your company,” she said.
McClure, who is a project manager for Target, and a friend started a group called the Black Professional Social Network to make those connections.
With about 1,000 members, the group plans brunches, movie outings, cross-country ski trips and dinners out.
Within the group, people often talk of the struggle to feel part of the community.
“This comes up in my group quite a bit,” she said. “People find it very hard to break in.”
McClure said companies must make a serious commitment to keep their people of color. “We have to think differently about how we access cultural fit and promote within the pipeline,” she said. “Right now everyone has the same cookie cutter lifestyle.”
McClure and her husband, a mathematician, are expecting their first child in December. They are considering all options about where to raise their family.
“The Philando Castile shooting weighs very heavy on me,” McClure said. “I worry about the achievement gap in Minnesota. Some people don’t recognize there are black professionals in Minnesota.”