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How Houston companies can use pandemic challenges to foster innovative corporate inclusion efforts

Two hiring managers weigh in on corporate DEI initiatives amid the pandemic in a guest article for InnovationMap. Photo via Pexels

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and over the last 18 months, that proverb has proven true across the world, from classrooms to boardrooms. Shuttered classrooms and businesses, overflowing hospitals, and social unrest spurred by the killing of George Floyd have forced communities and leaders across the world, and here at home, to find innovative solutions to a myriad of problems.

But even as many people long for a return to normalcy, the truth is that, in many ways, the bell cannot be "unrung." Remote work, which was a necessity for many at the height of the pandemic, has given rise to an explosion of hybrid working environments that show no signs of reversing course. In the midst of this physical separation among colleagues, leaders across industries have been forced to throw out the rulebook and reimagine what it means to collaborate.

Additionally, the disparate impact experienced by communities of color throughout the pandemic has highlighted the importance of programs focused on increasing diversity and promoting inclusion. It is no coincidence, for example, that roughly six months into the pandemic, the general counsels of 12 major financial institutions penned an open letter to the legal community calling for greater inclusivity in the legal community.

So, how can companies transform the struggles presented by the pandemic into a springboard for lasting, innovative inclusion efforts? The answer lies in taking risks, strengthening the fabric of connectivity, and looking to the future.

Crowdsource new ideas

The concept of crowdsourcing is nothing new, but at the corporate level, leaders may overlook its benefits. Hackathons—large, collaborative events originally developed for computer programming or coding—can be implemented across all employment levels to crowdsource innovative ideas.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, the firm implements the Hackathon concept during the summer associate program, thus harnessing the creativity and progressive ideas of younger talent. When the pandemic forced the firm's 2020 summer program to go entirely virtual, the firm decided to create groups of summer associates across all offices to brainstorm programming ideas aimed at improving and sustaining diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Together with partner leaders, these summer associate teams worked virtually to create truly innovative programming ideas, several of which the firm is currently implementing to recruit diverse talent. The program was successfully replicated in summer 2021, asking participants to hack the problem of associate inclusion. In addition to generating important programming content, these Hackathons increased participant morale, encouraged cross-office collaboration, forged new relationships across various geographic regions, and tackled the timely topics of enhancing law firm diversity and inclusion that will improve client service in the future.

Other industries—from large, global corporations to small businesses—can implement the Hackathon concept to successfully build bridges and harness innovation around inclusion. For example, MIT recently held a successful hackathon to source solutions to the problem of student inclusion during the pandemic, and Microsoft sponsored a hackathon aimed at solving the education and technology gaps of remote learning brought on by the pandemic.

Moreover, experts agree that equity and inclusion initiatives are only successful with buy-in from the c-suite. In other words, fostering an inclusive corporate culture starts at the top. If corporate leadership participates in the Hackathon experience—as a mentor, judge, or coach, perhaps—as opposed to merely sponsoring the event, it sends a message to all employees that the company as a whole values inclusion as a cornerstone of corporate culture.

Embrace virtual connections

The pandemic forced us all to navigate the world of virtual meetings, and with the popularity of hybrid working environments, virtual connectivity is here to stay. Companies must embrace this new virtual frontier and implement programs that engage employees, promote collaboration, and introduce an element of fun.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, new hires create introductory videos about themselves that are globally shared firm-wide, while veteran lawyers create their own video content introducing themselves and their practices, thus creating an immediate personal connection.

Additionally, virtual events celebrating diversity and inclusion events, such as Black History Month and LGBTQ Pride Month for example, provide opportunities for fellowship across offices and bolster inclusion efforts. Hunton Andrews Kurth hosted a virtual cooking class, based in a Dallas partner's kitchen, celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May, which was virtually attended by 132 attorneys firm wide.

Company-wide virtual events such as escape rooms, cocktail-making classes, games and trivia build camaraderie, which deepens the bonds of collegiality and strengthens feelings of inclusion and belonging. Companies should invest in virtual technologies to help facilitate this important new frontier of connectivity, recognizing that increased digital connectivity supports a collaborative and inclusive working environment.

Highlight community outreach

In global companies, high-level, company-wide diversity and inclusion leadership should work in tandem with leadership at the local level. At our firm, for example, in addition to firm-wide diversity leadership, each local office has a specified leader committed to promoting local inclusion initiatives. While virtual events help connect geographically-diverse employees, it is equally important to offer local employees opportunities to connect in person with one another and support diversity programming in the community.

For example, attorneys in Hunton Andrews Kurth's Richmond office recently came together to learn about and pool resources to support a local artist's public art project focused on creating murals to promote open dialogue around racial and social justice. Additionally, employees might select a local DEI educational experience in which to participate as a group outside of the office, then plan to gather informally (in person or virtually) to discuss lessons learned and continue important conversations. When colleagues come together to support local inclusion programs or participate in shared experiences, new connections are forged that help support a diverse and inclusive corporate culture.

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Rudene Mercer Haynes is a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, serves as a firmwide hiring partner, and also sits on the executive committee. Alex Gomez is also a partner and serves as a fellow firmwide hiring partner.

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Building Houston

 
 

Dream Harvest picked up funding to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

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