Breaking barriers: Louisiana women and minorities in industry make gains in the quest for inclusion


There’s a big difference between diversity and inclusion. While diversity goals are undoubtedly important, they mean little if there are inherent obstacles in the workspace that prevent employees from advancing because of their color or gender.

As Lindsey All puts it, diversity without an inclusive work culture is a lot like being invited to a dance, but not actually being asked to dance. Director of marketing, programs and business development for the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council in Baton Rouge, All recalls her own struggles as a young project manager in the energy industry.

“I worked for a large consulting firm in the oil and gas market,” she says. “I was young and female, and they would literally laugh when they learned I was project manager.”

It was hard in the beginning, but she proved herself to be capable and ultimately developed “a lot of great relationships.” As a woman, All says she brought a lot to the table. “I think being a woman in those situations was invaluable. I led a startup for a biodiesel plant in Nebraska, and we had several challenges in getting that started. I think I had an innate ability to calm a situation that helped move the project along.”

Alta Baker, president and CEO of Safe Haven Enterprises LLC in Jennings, had a similar experience when founding her blast-resistant modular building company in the late 1990s. Much like All, she had to prove that she could stand on her own. “I can remember when I used to go to facilities and the comment was always the same: ‘Look, they sent the secretary.’ That was a lot to overcome.”

Today, Baker makes sure that her own culture incorporates inclusive policies, and that she actively seeks out other WBEs. “I use women-
owned businesses any time I can,” she adds. In fact, Safe Haven recently finished a project at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut with the help of four WBEs, one based in New Orleans.

Some industrial companies are doing better than others in addressing inclusion and removing traditional barriers to advancement.

They’re getting some help along the way—each year in the Louisiana community of Robert, WBENC immerses women’s business enterprises (WBEs) that are in the energy industrial supply chain in a curriculum focusing on industry-specific topics.

Sponsored by Shell, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and others, the Energy Executive Program includes a mix of lectures, expert panels and field exercises.

In the process, participating WBEs make vital connections with industry leaders that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. A big part of WBENC’s mission, All says, is to “get women-owned businesses a seat at the table. That’s difficult for a startup in an industrial setting.”

Many companies are making a purposeful effort to hire from Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) and are launching initiatives aimed at bringing parity to education and providing equal opportunities to all races and genders. They’re also examining their work culture to determine if minorities and genders have equal access to advancement.

Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO Inc., says his New Orleans economic development group launched a multi-prong effort about a year ago that seeks to remove those barriers. They even updated their mission statement to be more inclusive: “To create a thriving economy and excellent quality of life for everyone.”

Current GNO Inc. initiatives focus on both economic mobility and inclusion. “One of the more exciting is Black Entrepreneurship, where we’re working with HBCU’s in New Orleans (Xavier University, Dillard University and Southern University of New Orleans) to facilitate startup activity among recent graduates,” Hecht says. “All of the area universities have a seat at the table.”

They also launched a website aimed at marketing area universities to a broader audience. After all, Hecht says, New Orleans has one of the highest concentrations of colleges per capita in the U.S. “We have an excellent mixture of HBCUs, but we haven’t done a good job of marketing that in critical mass,” he adds.

Through GNO University (GNOu), GNO Inc. addresses “disconnects” between curriculum and area needs, and creates a clear path for minorities to fill that need. “We identify an industry or company with a need, then find a university that can best provide the training or curriculum to meet that need,” he adds. “For example, we’re facilitating a water management program at Dillard and an applied chemistry program at Xavier.”

In the process, GNO Inc. serves as a catalyst and “a neutral third party to get the players around the table and catalyze those players into action.”

WBEC South in New Orleans saw a need for connecting WBEs to the marketplace—particularly in the energy industry—so launched the first “co-locating” space specifically for women, the “WB Collective,” earlier this year.  Located at 401 St. Joseph St. in New Orleans, WB Collective provides WBEs with temporary office space and a physical address with minimal overhead.

“It’s a space where people can come and work for a day, where they don’t have the overhead but get shared office resources and an office environment,” says Phala Mire, president and CEO of WBEC South. Mire’s region includes Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and the Florida Panhandle. The initiative has been well received, prompting WBEC to open a second facility in Nashville in October.

WBEC South also launched “WB Marketplace,” an on-line location for women-owned businesses that is searchable by type of business, skillset, geographic location and other criteria. “This has really taken off, and has been especially needed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mire says. “We can now easily connect buyers from anywhere in the U.S. with local WBEs. This gives them a vital online presence.”

Mire works closely with oil and gas companies to identify common needs, hoping to connect buyers and WBE suppliers while removing “barriers to entry” for startups. Safety and environmental concerns can become huge barriers “because the standards are so high,” she adds. “We assist with the training around that … with the help of corporate sponsors, who provide insider knowledge.

“Oil and gas is a major supporter of our organization, and were the driving force behind both WB Marketplace and WB Collective,” Mire says.

Lindsey All (Photography by Don Kadair)

A change in thought

Many Louisiana industrial owners are re-examining outdated thinking and rewriting corporate language that could be considered noninclusive.

In the process, they’re hoping to rectify social constructs and historical underrepresentation, and support a job environment where team members have the psychological safety to be open and take risks.

They’re also leveraging relationships with minority and contracting communities to foster the collection of internal and external data to assist clients in improving policies, procedures and programs—intentionally increasing the presence and voices of historically excluded individuals.

As for women-owned businesses, All says, there have been some decided improvements in the industrial setting.

That’s because WBEs have proven themselves to be more agile, creative and quick in making decisions.

“They bring a different type of leadership that’s necessary to industrial situations,” she adds. “So often we can be seen as weak or meek, but employers are beginning to see that there is a certain balance that they bring to the situation.”

Participants such as Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and others “really care about diversity and inclusion, and they’re really leading the way in trying to force this change,” All says.

Some are even changing contractual verbiage with their suppliers in order to include minority and women-owned firms.

“They’re coaching and mentoring other corporations to develop their supplier diversity programs so that they’re not just the leaders but are also helping others manage their own diversity programs,” she adds. “It’s not simply just a good cause—it’s a bottom-line game-changer with some very real benefits in an industrial setting.”