By Zachariah Bryan
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Next week, from Aug. 21 to 25, nearly 1,000 businesses, aviation professionals, government officials, and individuals from around the country will descend on The Westin hotel in Seattle for the 34th Annual Airport Business Diversity Conference.
The goal of the conference, which moves around the nation, is to provide “education, advocacy, and networking opportunities that promote diversity and inclusion in airports,” according to an event description.
This year, the Port of Seattle’s Director of Social Responsibility Luis Navarro and Dawn Hunter, senior manager of SeaTac International Airport’s dining and retail, will serve as the local chairs and hosts for the event.
The conference comes at an opportune time. The airport has been criticized in the past for not being diverse enough, but with some key changes, Navarro and Hunter believe it has corrected course.
Navarro said Hunter, who is Black, and Airport Managing Director Lance Lyttle, who is Jamaican American, are helping to create “a shift in what has traditionally been white male-dominated leadership in airports.”
This is largely due to their commitment to outreach with minority communities. While the airport has attempted outreach in the past, it wasn’t done with as much intentionality or with much knowledge of what people needed to hear from leaders.
Even though the airport hired Lyttle in 2015 and Hunter just last year, it is already seeing more involvement from minority- and women-owned businesses.
“When you have people like Dawn making the process a little more understandable and real, the result is … increase in participation, interest, and real businesses being contracted,” Navarro said.
The conference will be a continuation of that work, both on the national and local level. While it has all of your typical conference mainstays — breakfasts and lunches, a golf game, an awards ceremony — it will also work toward promoting diversity.
Business owners will talk about their mistakes and successes and women aviation leaders will describe how they climbed through the ranks. There will be workshops on what to know before signing a contract, improving applications, technology, executive coaching, and various government programs.
And 100 local high schoolers will be introduced to the aviation business and will get to talk to aviation leaders.
SeaTac International Airport sets an aspirational example for the aviation leaders coming to the event.
Right now, women- and minority-owned businesses are contributing 21 percent of the total revenue from airport concessions (up from 19.6 percent in 2011), nearly meeting a goal of 22 percent set by the Federal Aviation Administration.
More are submitting bids for contracts, too. Out of 30 firms participating in the last round of leases, six were owned by women and people from minority communities, compared to four the previous round.
Connecting with the community has been one of Hunter’s top priorities since she joined the airport last year.
“When I came and started to attend community events, [starting a business at the airport] was a daunting kind of experience,” she said. “[It’s about] us being more open and transparent about the process and letting folks know we want to have you here, we want to make this possible.”
To help make this connection, Hunter participates in community roundtables and hosts quarterly PortGen events, aimed at helping people jump through the many hoops of starting a business in the airport. That can include everything from airport badging and security to acquiring the right permits.
Hunter also started doing debriefs for people who lost out on bids. It’s a chance to look at mistakes people made and how they might fix them, so they can come back with a stronger application.
“A lot of airports don’t do that,” Hunter said. “They say, ‘Sorry, you lost, bye!’ We really take time to say this is why.”
She told the story of Bambuza, a Vietnamese café originally founded in downtown Seattle and currently based out of Portland. The owners lost out on a bid for a location in the SeaTac Airport, but after a lengthy debrief, they came back with a stronger bid in the next round of leases.
“They listened to what we told them, they went and did the work, and they came back,” she said. “We said these are the rules, and if they play by these rules, they’ll be successful.”
And they were successful. Now, Bambuza is making plans for their new SeaTac restaurant.
This type of outreach work has been one of the only effective methods of increasing minority representation at the airport. That’s because of I-200, a citizen initiative passed in 1998 that prevents government agencies in Washington from giving preferential treatment to “any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.”
For the airport, that means they can’t enact any affirmative action policies to help promote diversity, even if the people those policies would help start out from a disadvantaged position.
“We noticed over the years that minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses have been left out of many opportunities” as a result of I-200, said Navarro.
So, he continued, the port has had to figure out ways to work within the confines of the law.
“The law does not forbid us to do intentional outreach, support of, and mentoring small businesses.
We can do all those things to encourage them to come to the door and apply for a contract,” he said.
As of May, the airport started the process for a disparity study looking at how minority- and women-owned businesses are faring in the airports’ concessions program. Expected to be completed within a year, Hunter said it should show whether the airport’s current programs are working well enough, or if more action needs to be taken.
The Port of Seattle published a similar study for the construction side back in 2014, showing that nearly every racial minority was at a disadvantage compared to people who are white.
The disparity study comes at a crucial moment. SeaTac International Airport is currently undergoing $3 billion in renovations, which will lead to more opportunities for business owners.
Navarro hopes the upcoming conference will show the Port of Seattle’s dedication to promoting diversity.
“The Port of Seattle is committed to equity: not to leave any voice outside of the conversation, to include all communities,” Navarro said.
Hunter said diversity — and the range of backgrounds and experiences and stories it brings — enriches the organization.
“I want it to reflect the community, and the community of Seattle is very diverse,” she said. “I think people should be able to come to the airport and see that, and see a reflection of them.”
Zachariah can be reached at email@example.com.