Former Xcel Energy manager Ramona Wilson walked into Knutson Construction 10 years ago to become its new diversity manager and nearly walked out.

The Minneapolis construction firm, which has worked on several high-profile projects over the years and is on the Top Workplaces national standards list, had hundreds of workers. But fewer than 10 of those were women or people of color.

Nominate your company for Top Workplaces 2023

"My first inclination was, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Wilson said. "This industry was so far behind the curve."

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights recommends that Twin Cities contractors have 32% workers of color and 20% women on the workforce for any contract over $100,000.

Wilson — and Knutson — accepted the challenge and spent nine years training, expanding supplier databases and pairing Knutson estimators and supervisors with business groups with Black, Latino, Asian and Native American owners.

In 2015, she set up a five-year growth and mentorship program for 15 Minnesota vendors run by people of color who today are preferred suppliers. Some help Knutson on jobs in greater Minnesota and other states, where diverse workforces can be harder to come by.

Over time, the numbers grew. Now, Knutson has 27% representation either by workers or suppliers of color.

In the wake of George Floyd's murder in May 2020, many Minnesota companies pledged to be more racially inclusive in their hiring. But some firms haven't known where to start.

In a recent interview, Wilson outlined the steps taken to move the needle at Knutson, which now has 392 employees. It is edited for length and clarity.

Q: What did you do first?

A: I started meeting with our hiring team on a monthly basis, so I could be more visible to them, and we both could become more comfortable and create a partnership. That has paid off so much and in such a positive way. The message I sent is that our crew should reflect the 32% minority and the 20% women ratios set in accordance with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights workforce standards. This should be on a constant basis, so we are not always having to restart, and so we are giving folks a sustainable income.

Q: What changes were made to tap more job candidates of color?

A: I helped them identify where we can recruit people looking for jobs. It was incumbent upon me to say, we can work with Summit Academy OIC and with Goodwill-Easter Seals, Hired, Productive Day in Hennepin County and the Minneapolis Urban League and all of those agencies. We are also members and partner with the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Minnesota.

Q: And didn't you have Knutson join the Midwest Minority Supplier Development Council (MMSDC) and the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA)?

A: They did not have that relationship until after I came in. The good news is that we have a great relationship with them now. We actually won regional corporation of the year two years ago with the MMSDC. You have to understand what drives construction companies. First it is price, but it is also relationships with subcontractors. So it's important to not always go to the same ones. Our bidding team, our estimators and our pre-con team are now always looking for new people they can do business with.

Q: How did Knutson transition to actually hiring from these business networks?

A: I started calling MEDA and MMSDC and then had our estimators call. We have about five estimators all working on different construction projects. There is a strategic reason we are part of all these organizations. We align with the MMSDC because it has a directory of product suppliers that we may not have access to. So they help us identify suppliers who may be in painting, lighting or flooring or electrical or fencing and other trades.

Q: What best practices do you recommend for other employers looking to hire more women and people of color?

A: Number one is to get a diversity subject matter expert in place. You will not know everything. Next, get to know your communities and get out there. Learn who can provide you the access to diverse employees and diverse subcontractors. You have to able to connect and provide the tools and resources to be able to get things done. What is most important is having executive support. It starts at the top. If the CEO and the owners of the company are not on board with DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion], you will not be successful. They are the ones who have to help you drive this initiative. When I went to start the Knutson Alliance Program initiative, I needed funds and needed to get trainers in. I went to our vice president and I explained what I wanted to do and why it was important to Knutson. He really heard me. He understood what I needed and gave me the funds to do what I needed to do and trusted me to do it.

Q: What about accountability? How do employers ensure their DEI efforts result in actual hires?

A: In business, what gets measured gets done. You have to have accountability in order to be successful in this space. When I meet with my hiring crew on a monthly basis, I present an update on what are the goals and how we're doing overall as far as hiring. So every month they know from our diversity dashboard where we are. Prior to me starting at Knutson, they said, "We never knew what the goals were."