Imagine moving to Dubuque to start a new job. You’re excited about the opportunity, but that eagerness gives way to anxiety. Will you feel accepted in your new workplace? Will you be valued for your skills and knowledge?

These are typical feelings for any newcomer, but they are often compounded for people of color and other minorities. In fact, when an employee of a racial or ethnic minority joins an organization, the earliest months are crucial for retaining that worker.

This is the period when minority employees become aware of the culture in the workplace, gauge a sense of welcomeness, and determine whether they face direct or indirect hostilities. Even with efforts in place to increase retention, many minority employees exit an organization during this window.

As Dubuque’s workforce grows more diverse and the competition for talent intensifies, it is essential that our region develop, attract and retain these workers. If we can’t, our economy will be challenged. A commitment to increasing access to jobs and building welcoming, inclusive workplaces helps employers hire for hard-to-fill positions and also provides a pathway to fulfilling careers for populations facing barriers to them.

It’s a commitment that dozens of business leaders have made. Convened by the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, the Business Leader Equity Cohort includes about 30 presidents, CEOs and other top leaders from local organizations finding ways to intentionally build bridges with potential employees who historically have faced challenges entering the workforce, including minority and low-income residents. The group represents a cross-section of the region’s employers, including large and small businesses, colleges and universities, health care providers and representatives from Greater Dubuque Development Corp.

Many Dubuque organizations have long been committed to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, as the Community Foundation has seen through participation in workshops for professionals implementing these types of policies and programs. However, the existence of policies and programs alone isn’t always enough to make a difference. It takes buy-in from top executives to propel these efforts and move the needle.

That’s where the Cohort comes in. Since forming in 2018, participating leaders have met every other month to learn more about the experiences of minority workers and best practices for building inclusive workplaces that they can champion within their own organizations.

To the Cohort members, increasing inclusion of diverse populations is important to the entire business community. By taking steps like improving outreach efforts with underrepresented populations and supporting growth efforts for lower wage earners, businesses can expand the available workforce and retain employees.

At the same time, this effort goes beyond the workplace. It’s also about creating a culture of inclusiveness across Dubuque. That same new employee moving here has a life outside of work. That person might have a spouse and children who need to succeed in our schools and feel welcome in restaurants, stores, places of worship and throughout the community. It’s in businesses’ interest to nurture a welcoming, inclusive region, because if their workers and their workers’ loved ones don’t feel comfortable here or lack opportunities to thrive, they could move somewhere that offers a more supportive environment.

Today, the Cohort is shifting from learning to action. The group is exploring ways to support efforts like job-preparation for Dubuque’s diverse student population, career advancement pathways for employees of color, and a pipeline toward good-paying jobs for unemployed and underemployed workers. These goals have direct economic benefits to our entire region, as they foster upward mobility for all people.

The Cohort is seeking new members, as well. Top leaders from businesses and organizations of all sizes and from all sectors are welcome. Contact Clara Lopez Ortiz at to learn more.

Creating a culture of inclusion in Dubuque takes many different types of people, and business leaders are on the front lines of this work. Ensuring workers of all backgrounds have access to good jobs where they feel welcomed and valued is an important step to keeping people in our community and strengthening Dubuque for the future.

This work is supported by members of the Business Leader Equity Cohort. Van Milligen is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. Learn more about the organization at

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