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Contributed photography / Lorne Steedley, the vice president of Diversity and Inclusive Growth for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

The declaration this week of a federal holiday for Juneteenth is an encouraging milestone, but meaningful inclusion, diversity and equity come through economic opportunity, said the keynote speaker at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's annual Diversify summit.

"We have to be intentional to understand business and industry play an increasingly important role in advancing what we call the equality of opportunity across our society," said Rick Wade, the senior vice president of Strategic Alliances and Outreach for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "All of these issues are really important, but underpinning those movements is the importance of economic opportunity."

Wade spoke Friday from his office in Washington, D.C., during the virtual event, and urged area business leaders to continue to work together to advance efforts to create opportunity by directly addressing inequities in systems from education and criminal justice to access to capital for Black entrepreneurs.

"The persistent racial disparities we see today did not happen by accident," Wade said. "They arose from a long history of deliberate policies that were based on race and have been perpetuated by biases that remain."

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce introduced a pledge for racial equity in May, and the document has drawn 85 signatories. The chamber is organizing outreach to those business leaders, and encouraging others to sign on, to build a coalition that can work together on equity and inclusion in the business community, said Lorne Steedley, the Chattanooga chamber's vice president of diversity and inclusive growth.

During a panel led by Dionne Jenkins, vice president of diversity and inclusion for Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, a Chattanooga chamber official said the challenges of economic development have evolved significantly.

"There just aren't enough employees to go around right now," said Justin Groenert, the chamber's vice president of public policy. "It's all about being able to recruit and grow the best workforce we can."

Collective efforts across industries, and between business and public entities, will be critical to making progress, he added.

"No one entity can do this alone," he said. "There has to be broad buy-in to make a difference in the community."

Among the successful partnerships panel members pointed to are efforts to connect public school students to free broadband internet access, and programs including Future Ready Institutes in Hamilton County Schools that prepare students for meaningful careers.

Wade also pointed to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and community colleges as "treasure troves of diverse talent."

"The data is clear that companies that make these investments today will be more competitive in the years to come," Wade said. "We understand the moral imperative, but the business case is just as sound."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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