CAPITAL REGION — The former director of multicultural affairs at Union College has a wider field to work with now, having joined the Capital Region Chamber's effort to improve diversity in the region's workforce.
Jason Benitez was named vice president of talent and inclusion in mid-July, succeeding Angela Dixon, who in 2018 became the first person to hold that title as the Chamber worked to increase workplace diversity to create a competitive advantage not just for its 2,400 member businesses and organizations but for the entire region.
Benitez, who has spent most of his career in academia, is now working to define his role and the chamber’s role in helping employers achieve that goal.
“We do know that we want to help particularly our member businesses — but not only our member businesses — assess ways in which their workplaces can be more inclusive,” he said.
Benitez was born and raised in Brooklyn and came to the University at Albany through EOP, the Educational Opportunities Program for students with economic and educational disadvantages. He went on to earn an undergraduate and two graduate degrees there, then worked at UAlbany, SUNY Schenectady Community College and Union College.
For the last 10 years, diversity and inclusion initiatives have been his focus.
While Benitez, whose heritage is mostly Puerto Rican, said he hasn’t encountered blatant racism in his career path, he has seen instances of what’s called inherent or unconscious bias, in which people who oppose bias and consider themselves unbiased unknowingly practice or perpetuate bias despite good intentions.
“I do believe it’s a little more hidden nowadays. Folks are less willing to be right up front with their biases,” he said. “I think that it’s more unconscious. I think that we all — regardless of racial, ethnic, gender, LGBTQ status — we all just have certain biases and if we are not careful, even people who deem themselves not racist, not misogynistic can still exhibit behaviors that are just that.”
One solution is to cultivate a diverse pipeline of qualified workers, Benitez said, and to that end the Chamber offers such programs as BusinessU and the Young Professionals Network. It also partners with BOCES on P-TECH, an education/vocational training program.
The new position casts Benitez as an adviser rather than a regulator, persuading rather than enforcing. So a big part of his own role will be to open people’s minds to the benefits of a diverse, inclusive workforce, which boil down internally to a greater range of knowledge and experiences and externally to a greater appeal to a diverse customer base.
“I feel like more and more, people choose to spend their dollars at companies whose morals and practices and ethics align with theirs,” Benitez said, “Particularly with the younger generation: ‘If you’re not green enough, we’re not going to spend our money there.’”
The Chamber will hold a Talent and Inclusion Summit on Sept. 19 to spread the message in a more formal setting.
“Diversity and inclusion takes work; it has to be cultivated. In most cases, it’s not just going to happen,” Benitez said.
It can be a bold decision, he added, and “Some are just not at a place where that feels comfortable to them. They feel like it’s a set-aside.”
The effort to promote inclusion comes down in part to people learning about people who don’t look or think like them, Benitez said, adding that younger adults sometimes seem to have an easier time of this, having had more exposure to unfamiliar people and ideas through social media.
He said that in his nearly eight years at Union College he was able to achieve progress by encouraging students to move beyond their circles of like-minded people.
“I felt I advanced the climate of inclusion for students from more marginalized populations through outreach,” he recalled, saying it seemed like there were two student bodies that kept to themselves — one coming from wealth, one not — at Union, which is one of the most expensive colleges in the nation.
“I feel like I helped bridge the understanding of those two while I was there,” Benitez said.
“Hopefully I can create those opportunities” at the Chamber, he added. “I think a region’s vitality and growth in some ways is tied to its diversity.”