Fuller: Chattanooga business community called to support diversity, inclusion efforts to grow and thrive

Close up bottom view concept of diverse business people join hands forming heart. Show unity and support, protection of business. Multiracial colleagues involved in team building activity for charity.

As the leader of a large, publicly traded company, it's my responsibility to look out for our nearly 10,000 team members, our investors and the community we call home.

Part of this involves assessing risks both near- and long-term.

In recent months I've become increasingly enlightened that the divisive rhetoric around diversity and inclusion in Chattanooga could significantly affect the growth of U.S. Xpress and other companies in the region.

I'm calling on Chattanooga business leaders, large and small, to begin taking steps toward creating a culture that's more accepting of others from different races, ethnicities, genders and sexual identities. As a larger business community, we'll struggle to attract the type of talent we need to compete in a global economy if we don't start having these conversations and enacting real change. This change won't be easy; it will take uncomfortable conversations and challenging opinions of the past. And we should face the fact that Chattanooga is behind other communities and needs to catch up.

At U.S. Xpress we have an aggressive plan to double our revenue in the next four years by investing in innovative technology. Since beginning this process last year, we've added nearly 300 new team members. The bulk of these roles have been filled outside of Chattanooga at our Atlanta and Phoenix offices, where we've doubled our real estate footprint. These cities have a robust talent pipeline, partially because they are simply larger metro areas with a bigger pool of talent but also in part because they are more diverse and inclusive.

For me, it took a while to truly appreciate the impact community culture has on attracting and retaining talent.

Don't get me wrong, Chattanooga has many positives, including a relatively low cost of living, affordable housing, access to outdoor activities and good weather, among many others. But as a straight, white man, what I see as positive characteristics of our city can be different than what a gay, Black woman may see. Or someone of Asian descent, someone who is trans or Latino.

I have done a lot of listening to others about their experiences this last year, and what I heard made me sad, angry and, at times, confused. I had no idea the pain some people feel in this community due to the belief that they don't have a voice, opportunity or, even worse, are blatantly discriminated against.

Many will say things like "why does it have to be about race, gender or sexual identity?" or "can't we just judge someone on their individual qualities?" or "I don't see color when I am hiring someone." If only it were that simple. Just saying and doing the right thing yourself will not fix the problems. We must all make change and challenge each other to do the same. We must speak up and take action to change our community.

I ask you to start down a path of exploration. Start talking to local people from minority communities - and really listen. Ask them to share their stories about how they view diversity and inclusion within the Chattanooga community. Listen to their concerns and frustrations. Put yourself in their shoes. Think about your advantages and how different their experiences are from yours. Embrace the reality of why their experiences are different.

In the previous year, I've interviewed multiple, highly-skilled candidates for roles at U.S. Xpress. We've had numerous finalists who have backed out of the interview process because they were hesitant to move to Chattanooga. While each candidate has his or her own story, overwhelmingly I heard them talk about the lack of acceptance of diversity in our city. Today's young professionals aren't necessarily choosing the job with the highest salary. They are choosing a city with other young people who share the same philosophies, a place where they can put down roots and feel welcomed for who they are without fear of hate or discrimination. And it's just not candidates of diverse backgrounds. Young people of all ethnicities and backgrounds want to live in diverse and inclusive communities and work for companies with those same values.

We do have wonderful organizations in the Chattanooga area like the Benwood and Lyndhurst foundations and the Urban League. And all our area colleges and universities are focused on supporting equality and addressing economic mobility. But we can't stand by and expect nonprofit groups, our schools, or our local government to solve all of these problems that are decades - or even centuries - in the making. To enact real change, our local business leaders must also acknowledge these issues and come together to help find solutions.

U.S. Xpress has a long way to go in developing a more inclusive culture, but we have made significant strides. We've established a Diversity & Inclusion Council led by a wide assortment of team members each representing unique points of view. The primary objective of the council is to create an open dialogue, establish metrics and make our organization more diverse and inclusive. From this council, we've also launched employee resource groups which are also led by our team members to address important issues that impact women, those of different ethnic backgrounds, the LGBTQ+ community and the many military veterans working at our company.

This year, we also published our first corporate responsibility report and have established aggressive goals around environmental responsibility and community giving. These are important topics and the right things to do for large companies like U.S. Xpress, but also for smaller, more locally focused organizations.

I'm proud to call Chattanooga home, but we have work to do. I don't have the answers; however, I know the first step is to acknowledge that change is needed. Change is imperative if we're to continue to attract, retain and nurture the talent necessary to grow our city, to develop a diverse and inclusive community and create opportunities for everyone. But without change, Chattanooga faces an uncertain future.

Eric Fuller is president and CEO of U.S. Xpress Enterprises Inc. Contact him at efuller@usxpress.com.

photo Eric Fuller / Contributed photo