On July 1, the Center for Economic Opportunity and Belonging (the Center) will become Utah’s newest independent 501(c)3 nonprofit entity.
Launched in June 2021 and incubated for two years under the EDCUtah Foundation, the Center will officially “graduate” from the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (EDCUtah) and expand its mission to work on addressing gaps not only in economic opportunity, but also in education, health, and housing in Utah.
We sat down with EDCUtah president and CEO Scott Cuthbertson and the Center’s executive director Ze Min Xiao (“Zee”) to learn more about the Center's vision for prosperity in Utah.
What’s the context for this transition?
Scott: It’s a reflection of the Center’s success and the growing enthusiasm for their mission among Utah businesses and community leaders. Think of the EDCUtah Foundation as a kind of business incubator, and the Center as a start-up that found its footing and upward momentum.
The transition will further the Center’s ability to take on issues of equity and access that aren’t directly in EDCUtah’s wheelhouse. Staying under our wing could potentially dampen the growth of the Center, and this move will enable Zee and the team to act even more quickly and broadly in fulfilling their mission.
The Center’s graduation also marks the first successful engagement of the 501(c)3 EDCUtah Foundation, which we launched in 2021 to address issues adjacent to economic development that we are unable to impact through our long-standing 501(c)6. These could include issues like quality-of-life investments, workforce development, sustainability, or housing affordability. We’ll continue to deploy the EDCUtah Foundation as a key strategy in our pivot to prosperity.
Zee: At the Center, we wake up every morning and work with communities to improve our state. EDCUtah sees value in our ability to interface with the public and private sectors, communities, and philanthropic organizations to create greater opportunities for everyone. Our work aligns with EDCUtah’s vision to create a prosperous and resilient economy for generations of aspiring Utahns.
Both organizations will continue to collaborate on strategies for prosperity. To facilitate interaction and alignment, EDCUtah’s Stephanie Frohman will serve on the Center’s board, and the Center’s team will continue to attend EDCUtah events as an EDCUtah partner organization.
Tell us about the business imperative for closing disparities and driving prosperity.
Scott: Creating cultures of belonging and driving prosperity for all Utahns is at the heart of the Center’s work, and it’s why EDCUtah became involved from the start. We saw the nexus between the needs of companies expanding in Utah and an opportunity to engage underserved communities. We’re trying to make Utah more attractive to businesses, both in and outside of Utah, who are evaluating our workforce and business environment for their next expansion. At the same time, we want to make Utah more inclusive and support opportunities for talented people who may not have found them traditionally, and in the process, address our labor force shortage.
Several studies show that companies with diverse and inclusive teams generate higher revenue, and they experience higher job performance and lower turnover among their staff. It makes sound business sense as the data shows and it’s the right thing to do from a people standpoint.
Is it fair to say that helping underserved populations gain a bigger footprint in the economy can be as impactful as attracting out-of-state talent to Utah?
Scott: They are related certainly. Providing upskilling opportunities and tapping into that potential is a way to bring more efficiency – in the classical economics sense – to our business community. We speak a lot about dynamism, that is, the ability to reallocate resources according to the demands of the market from less productive uses to more productive uses. Utahns who are underemployed can serve as a powerful resource. Helping these residents succeed makes as much “macroeconomic sense” as recruiting out-of-state talent to come here, and there’s a better sense of community when everyone has a seat at the table.
Zee: The W.K. Kellogg Foundation did a study several years ago that looked at the economic gains that could come by eliminating racial disparities, and the numbers are astonishing. The potential gain in U.S. gross domestic product by 2050 is an estimated $8 trillion. The data is clear that closing disparities is a win for the economy and for businesses.
Scott, from a personal standpoint, what’s your commencement address for this “graduation day”?
Scott: This move to the Center’s own non-profit structure independent of EDCUtah is important for their mission. And their success only strengthens EDCUtah’s commitment to supporting diversity and belonging in our organization and in the greater Utah economy.
The trend we’re seeing is that Utah is becoming increasingly diverse. There are perceptions nationally, and in the site selection industry, that Utah is a homogenous state of people of one race and one religion, but the reality is we’re more diverse than that. Right now, one out of four Utahns comes from a multicultural background. In the decades to come, that’s going to be one in three.
Furthermore, this state has a rich history; we were founded by religious refugees, who were different in their own right. There’s an understanding of how it is to be treated as “other,” and the experience of going on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints is a two-year course in appreciating different cultures. I served a mission twenty-some years ago in California’s San Fernando Valley. I learned Spanish and worked with Spanish-speaking immigrants on a daily basis. I gained a deep appreciation for their culture and struggles. It really broadened my horizons, and that’s a common experience.
All these factors add up: We can preserve, embrace, and honor that history by being more welcoming and open to people of different backgrounds who make our community richer.
In terms of perceptions, we’ve got ground to make up. Making the Center a more effective champion helps us in the long run and will help the companies we support as they look to attract, hire, and support a diverse workforce in our state.
What makes the Center unique? What is the gap the Center fills in the community/public/private landscape?
Zee: One opportunity gap we’ve identified is the lack of strong relationships between communities that have been affected by inequities and the decision-makers who want to change those inequities. The Center is uniquely effective at building and strengthening the relationships between all partners who wish to make a difference.
We look at data to inform decisions and we have a unique ability to convene. We bring decision-makers and communities together in an environment where all parties can look at and agree upon the problem, and then co-create solutions.
Our vision is rooted in the belief that those who are most impacted by disparities must be at the table to identify the problem, co-create and implement the solutions, and evaluate the impact.
What are some examples of the Center’s accomplishments in its first two years?
Zee: In less than two years, the Center has established itself as a resource for identifying and activating community-based solutions that address opportunity gaps in Utah. Our efforts have focused on research, networking, and identifying actionable solutions. For one, the Center has fostered public and private investment through our work with the Unified Economic Opportunity Commission. This includes influencing philanthropic organizations to invest in K-12 education.
We’ve also produced important data. Some have been qualitative, like focus groups that identify community assets in Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Logan. On the quantitative side, we orchestrated the New Americans in Utah study to better understand our foreign-born population, the assets they are bringing here, and the opportunities they are missing.
We supported the creation of critical infrastructure in state government, including the launch of an immigration office within the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity (GOEO).
We supported EDCUtah’s recent publication of the We Are Utah Toolkit, which provides best practices for companies looking to support employees who come from diverse backgrounds. And we’ve strengthened grassroots community advocacy by standing up a coalition called “Raise Up Utah” that helps more parents get involved in and support their children’s education.
How can EDCUtah investors support the Center as you grow?
Zee: Let me do some namedropping. We’re grateful for the support of visionary partners like the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Foundation, Bank of America, Intermountain Health, and Comcast.
They all share a vision of providing better opportunities for Utahns. By investing in the work of the Center, their support allows us to create a platform for those investments to be informed by the affected communities.
We’re expanding the Center’s investor base. Family foundations have been early to support us, and we know of additional corporations excited to participate. As we move forward, we’ll be inviting corporations to learn more about our efforts and to support that work financially.
For more information, visit The Center’s new website at www.belonginutah.org.