EAWES Inc., launched five years ago as an all-Korean architectural firm in Los Angeles, is expanding beyond the Asian niche market, hiring non-Koreans to better compete for large government and private construction contracts.
Partners Chris Pak and Steve Kim have already hired a white woman and are interviewing other non-Asians to bring aboard specialists in transportation projects, construction engineering and project management.
“It’s smart business to have a diverse working place and a diverse portfolio,” said Pak, 32, a member of the Metropolitan Water District’s board who emigrated from Seoul with his dentist parents in 1970.
While anti-discrimination labor laws and efforts to increase ethnic and gender diversity in the workplace have been around for years, their focus has historically been on creating equality at white-owned or -dominated businesses.
But as more African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and women launch their own enterprises, how do business owners who have themselves been considered “minorities,” and who have traditionally been the beneficiaries of diversity and anti-discrimination efforts, handle these same issues now that they are the employers? Are they more sensitive to the need for diversity? Or do they prefer to hire exclusively within their own ethnic or gender groups?
There is scant data on the ethnicity of workers in the nation’s 1.2 million minority-owned businesses. However, experts who study such companies say that as a rule, they are more sensitive to the need to hire minority applicants. However, at the same time, they do tend to hire from their own ethnic or gender groups--at least in the beginning.
Like most new entrepreneurs, they usually start small, often hiring relatives and friends of the same ethnic background to save money and ensure loyalty. As their business grows, new hires often are chosen for needed skills, perhaps in sales, language or accounting. At EAWES, for example, hiring practices changed when the partners began to feel that growth depended on reaching beyond Southern California’s Korean business community.
“Most minority business owners are sole proprietors, mom-and-pop shops, so you’re going to have a lot of families working together,” said George Autobee, head of World Demographic Research in Denver, which tracks minority-owned businesses for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“Yes, they are more sensitive to diversity, but how much diversity can you have if it’s a small establishment?” he said. “After that, as they grow, hiring is probably based on the need for special talents--say, if they need legal or financial help.”
The bottom line is that the first priority of the minority business owner has to be survival, said Muhammad Nassardeen, founder of Recycling Black Dollars, a 6-year-old Los Angeles-based organization aimed at helping African American-owned businesses thrive.
Sometimes that strategy is at odds with community desires. For example, in post-riot Los Angeles, some African Americans eager to spend their dollars within their communities have criticized black business owners who hire non-blacks.
“That’s just not realistic anymore,” Nassardeen said. “You can’t hire only blacks today, because of the diversity in the consumer base. Because of the demographics of Los Angeles today, if you run a retail outlet, you need to have someone who speaks Spanish.”
As minority-owned companies expand to two dozen employees and more, they, like any business, fall under rigorous state and federal rules barring discrimination.
Robert Davidson believes he owes his success as one of the top African Ameri can business owners in Southern California to the pioneers of the civil rights movement, whose sacrifices led to the passage of anti-discrimination laws.
While he is painfully aware of the high unemployment rate among African Americans, Davidson said, he won’t tolerate discrimination at Surface Protection Industries Inc., a $46-million-a-year paint and specialty coatings enterprise just east of Downtown Los Angeles.
Yet when there are openings among the 200 or so positions at SPI, he said, “We make a very bold statement when we advertise for employees: ‘We strongly suggest that both women and minorities apply.’ ”
Phil Roman presides over Film Roman Inc., one of the country’s largest independent animation studios and producer of such popular TV shows as “The Simpsons” and “Garfield and Friends,” as well as theatrical releases such as “Tom and Jerry--The Movie.”
A former grape picker from Fresno, the Latino animator worried more about artistic talent than gender or ethnicity as he built his 10-year-old North Hollywood-based company into a $30-million-a-year business.
He realizes that drawing ability knows no ethnic or gender boundaries, and how Film Roman has become a sort of rainbow coalition of animators.
“We have African Americans, we have Latinos, women managers and directors--it breaks out all different ways,” Roman said. “The only way we can judge people is by their talent and ability, nothing else.”
But he does espouse a different sort of affirmative action in his choice of summer interns. Talent being relatively equal, Roman says, he’ll select a person who comes from a small school or town, someone who has “less of a chance to be exposed to opportunities.”
Half a dozen years ago, Roman used that criteria to select Jim Schuman, a talented white artist from a small Pennsylvania town. Today, Schuman is Roman’s storyboard supervisor on “Bobby’s World,” a popular TV series on Fox.
Last summer, Roman took on three Los Angeles-area youths as interns. While they were “very rough around the edges,” they were hard-working and eager to learn, he said. All three have been kept on, including a Latino man and a white woman.
“I feel rewarded just by their progress,” Roman said. “Believe me, it’s a feel-good situation.”
Like their white counterparts, minority business owners face all manner of pressures that make it tough to succeed in the best of times. But experts say the companies that quickly realize that a diverse work force is good for business are in the best position to compete in changing marketplaces at home and abroad.
Said John Mack, president of the 72-year-old Los Angeles Urban League: “It’s not just a matter of doing black kids a favor or Latino kids a favor or poor kids a favor. It’s in our best collective economic interest to make sure that diversity becomes a given in the workplace.”