Professionals of color are leaving Minnesota at record rates, according to Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, CEO of the Rae Mackenzie Group (RMG). She aims to help keep those professionals in the state through her company, which she describes as a “diversity and inclusion marketing firm [that helps] top Minnesota corporations build stronger, more authentic relationships with communities of color.”
“Minnesota is on record with saying that we have a problem with recruiting and retaining professionals of color,” Smith-Akinsanya said.
When Smith-Akinsanya first started RMG in 1997, her focus was “working with corporations, teaching them how to do better business with communities of color.” But, around that same time, she said she noticed that even though the Twin Cities was becoming more diverse, it was also losing its professionals of color.
“If you take a look at the statistics, professionals of color are 77 percent more likely than their White counterparts to leave Minnesota,” she explained. “They cite the number-one reason for leaving is because of the lack of connectivity and cultural relevance in their lives.”
This led her to shift her focus to “recruiting, attracting and retaining professionals of color and creating a way for them to create community,” said Smith-Akinsanya.
“What RMG does is, we help solve the problem,” she continued. “We’re action-oriented. We’re getting in there and we are helping people get placed, and we are also helping them stay here.”
She noted several ways her company does this, including the bi-annual POC Career Fair, which connects thousands professionals of colors with top Minnesota companies.
“What the career fair does is give professionals of color an opportunity to meet up close and personal, face to face, as opposed to doing everything online,” she said. “I’m like a matchmaking service, you know. I can’t make you fall in love, but I can get you close.”
Smith-Akinsanya said all of the participating employers have been carefully selected and are not just there to check off a diversity box.
“When you partner with me, you know that my team has vetted those employers. We work with those corporations and employers who are dead serious about increasing diversity in the workforce,” she said.
This year, she noted, the fair will host at least 30 employers, but she is “hoping like hell we don’t have a thousand professionals.” Seeing that many people lined up around the block to get in, she said, gives her mixed emotions.
“I’m like, well, okay, that’s good that they’ve found us,” she explained. “But, I’m like, dang it, we’re still doing this thing.”
Not everyone will get a job at the career fair, but that is not the end of access to opportunities. “Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you can go on POCCareers.com and see which companies are trying to market to you. So, you want to keep your profile active, you want to stay engaged.”
The next Career Fair is scheduled for Oct. 10 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Smith-Akinsanya’s personal journey as a professional of color in Minnesota began in the early ‘90s. Six months after moving to the Twin Cities from her hometown of St. Louis, she was hired by the late legend Prince to serve as marketing director for his nightclubs. She went on to start a nightclub of her own, called The Lounge. This was her first attempt to retain professionals of color in the Twin Cities before starting RMG in 1997.
When people meet Smith-Akinsanya, she said, they think the success she is experiencing now is indicative of how it has always been. But all of the projects and programs mentioned have started within the last two years.
Like many, she was hit hard by the 2008 recession, causing her to lose her home. “I had to take my daughter out of private school. It was just me, my mom and my daughter. The big beautiful house in Blaine, we lost it.”
Instead of giving up, she put entrepreneurship aside and, in 2009, took on a job as the lead fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund. Seven years later, she was able to go back to working full time at the RMG.
“Since 2016, it’s just taken off,” she said. “But I didn’t start here. I worked for many, many years preparing for this day, making sure that I had the tools, advice, resources that I need to be able to contribute to my community.”
Today, Smith-Akinsanya is working on a series of initiatives, including POC Bizlist MN, an online directory service of businesses owned by people of color across the state.
“It is a one-stop shop where you can list and find businesses that are owned by people of color” she explained, adding, the website also gives small person of color- and indigenous- (POCI) owned business’ an opportunity to “market their business in a cost-effective way.”
She is also starting POC Connect, a new membership-based website and app that will provide culturally relevant social events to members.
“POC Connect is all about retention and socialization…to make sure that professionals of color have a way to connect culturally and be together in what makes Minnesota great,” she explained. The expected launch date, she said, is January 2019 or sooner.
A book and a podcast are also on the way and are expected to be ready around the same time as POC Connect. The podcast, she said, will center on what it takes to have a “really true, diverse and inclusive workforce” and will focus on “tools, tips and best practices” for achieving better workplace diversity and inclusion.
The book, with the working title CEOs Living Out Loud, will give Minnesota business leaders a platform to showcase where they stand on diversity and inclusion in the workplace and argue their case for why Minnesota is a worthy place for professionals to live.
All of Smith-Akinsanya’s and RMG’s programs, so far, have had an in-state focus. “Everything I do is about this region because this is my home,” she said.
While she said she knows the problems facing Minnesota, in terms of underemployment and unemployment, as well as retention of professionals of color, are not exclusive to the state, she is not yet ready to expand.
“This mission is about making Minnesota better… The focus is here to make sure we get it right.”
In five to 10 years she said she hopes to have employed 50-100 people and to have done as much as she can to solve the problems she’s identified in Minnesota. Then, “We can talk about going other places.”