Mark Warner was on the campaign trail, running for governor of Virginia, when he met with a group of African-American business leaders. He was looking for their support. Warner gave a good accounting of all that he'd done as a venture capitalist to generate more opportunities for minorities in the state, including the creation of a high-tech internship program for students at predominantly black colleges. The one area where there hadn't been much progress, Warner said, was in venture capital. The problem was a familiar one: There weren't enough blacks with the necessary background.
One of the leaders sitting in the audience that day was Joe Watson. Watson heard what Warner said - and decided to let it slide, at least in public. But after the speech, Watson told Warner, "You're wrong. They're out there." And to prove the point, he set up a meeting between Warner, some members of Watson's network of talented minority business executives, and a group of VCs. Warner was impressed - so impressed that, after he won the election, he made Watson a part of his transition team. Working pro bono, Watson orchestrated an extensive talent search that turned up women, blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans, among others, to fill the Warner administration, particularly at the highest levels. The result: In 7 of Virginia's 10 cabinet departments, either the cabinet secretary or the deputy secretary is a minority. "It's significantly more diverse than it was before," says Warner. "I think it reflects the changing face of Virginia."
One notable omission on the staff, however, is Watson himself. "I've tried to recruit him twice," the governor says, "but he's committed to his business."
"What I have a real passion for is helping people who get overlooked," Watson says. The founder and CEO of the executive search firm StrategicHire.com, based in Herndon, Virginia, Watson has become one of the most connected African-Americans in the high-tech community around Washington, DC. He specializes in finding and placing highly skilled minority candidates in high-level slots.
Watson's business is addressing a common lament voiced by seemingly well-intentioned executives: "I'd hire more women and minorities, but I can't find qualified people." Sometimes it's just a dodge; sometimes it's a genuine concern. Either way, the idea remains an obstacle to greater social progress and corporate diversity.
"We need to talk about 'can't,' " says Watson, 35. "I love to challenge folks on that word. If you want to find talented women and people of color for your organization, you can. But you have to make it a priority. And the last time I checked, priorities take money."
Watson, who worked in sales management and marketing at Kodak for eight years, encourages companies to get serious about diversity not only for reasons of social equity, but also because it's smart business strategy. If you want to satisfy clients and customers from diverse backgrounds, Watson says, you need a diverse mix of employees who are more likely to understand them. Diversity can also stimulate creativity: People from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds offer different perspectives that can spur innovation.
This type of inclusion, says Watson, "isn't about joining hands and singing 'Kumbaya.' This is about improving corporate performance. Inclusion is a mind-set. You open minds by bringing people together."
Sidebar: Clues to Inclusion
More and more companies are struggling in their attempt to build multiethnic staffs these days. Some say it can't be done. Joe Watson says it can. Here's how.
1. Get out of your comfort zone. "People say they want to be inclusive, and I believe many of them mean it. But people are also scared to death about the steps necessary to do it," says Watson. "If you told them that Howard University is having a job fair, and they need to drive a car through Washington, DC, park on the street in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and walk into a room filled with African-Americans, let's be honest: That would make a lot of people uncomfortable. They haven't done it before."
2. Hire minorities in the middle. "Some organizations get a person of color or a woman to be their CFO or COO, thinking it's going to be a panacea," Watson says. "The problem is, those executives don't hire that many people. If you want to make a company more diverse more quickly, you have to hire diverse people into middle management, where the majority of hiring is done."
3. Focus on the fit. One subtle aspect of recruiting: getting a feel for the match between the culture of an organization and the work style of candidates. "I try to crawl inside the organization to understand why people there succeed and why they fail," says Watson.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.