Gay CEO on navigating business challenges during pandemic

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a multi-part summer series of stories taking a closer look at how a group of diverse LGBTQ entrepreneurs survived and thrived during the pandemic. The series is sponsored by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.)

Walking his sparky chihuahua-mix Finnegan with his husband through downtown Chicago is one way Skolnik Industries President Dean Ricker relaxes while successfully guiding a multimillion-dollar corporation through a pandemic.

Ricker told the Blade that diversity was their key to success: diverse products and diverse perspectives.
Chicago-based Skolnik manufactures carbon and stainless steel drums for containing critical contents from hazardous materials to California wines.

While businesses across the United States and the world are experiencing inflation and other pandemic economic impacts, American manufacturing has also been on the decline for decades.

But Ricker finds it important to resist “old world” thinking when confronting current challenges. He explained to the Blade how listening to a variety of perspectives was Skolnik’s not-so-secret ingredient to surviving the pandemic crisis.

“We don’t have to think and operate like it’s 1950,” Ricker said. “As someone who is gay and a leader of a company, I bring a unique perspective to a table where people of all backgrounds are supported.”

National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) Co-founder and President Justin Nelson also told the Blade a commitment to diversity can be critical to economic recovery.

“As the economy regains its footing in the months ahead, leading with a commitment to diversity – as a business owner and a consumer – can help supercharge our economy and our community back to where we should be with our $917 billion purchasing power,” Nelson said.

Ricker added that what set Skolnik apart was “we’re quirky.”

The upbeat executive who describes Finnegan as “the cutest dog in the whole world” is proud that his company strives for a culture where “people of all backgrounds are supported.”

And this inclusive atmosphere proved critical during the COVID-19 crisis.

‘Supplies are down, prices are up’

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the “Rust Belt” — industrial manufacturing centers located primarily in the Midwest — began its long, downward spiral after 1950 and experienced a steep decline into the 1980s.

Across this 30-year period, Rust Belt employment fell around 28 percent while manufacturing jobs fell nearly 34 percent.

The Atlanta Fed notes this decline sharply impacted industrial centers across the country, such as in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago, as well as across the U.S. economy as a whole.

While the current pandemic economic pressures such as labor shortages and supply chain issues were initially focused in the hospitality and food industries, Skolnik noted how challenges spread to the manufacturing sector as well.

In March they tweeted: “Historic trucker shortages, port logjams and labor strikes are just some of the elements that are bringing the wine industry to its knees this year. Supplies are down, and prices are up, across the board.”

And yet, while the pandemic forced many businesses to make tough decisions, Skolnik persevered and thrived.

Zoominfo reports more than $30 million in revenue for Skolnik and more than 200 employees, while Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees anonymously review their employers, states 64 percent of respondents would recommend Skolnik to a friend.

“What is important is the role that diversity plays in the organization,” Ricker said. “You’re not myopic in your thinking.”

LGBTQ inclusivity helps the economy

Ricker, a Crain’s Chicago Business Notable LGBTQ Executive for 2019, said having a “rainbow” of people at the table from different backgrounds and with diverse experiences helped diversify their thinking and their markets — a tactic critical to their survival in an otherwise challenging industry.

“When one industry goes down, like automotive,” he explained. “We saw a pick up in the pharmaceutical industry. During the pandemic we did a lot of packaging related to vaccines and hand sanitizer.”
And research indicates when businesses are LGBTQ inclusive, for example, it has a positive impact on the economy as a whole.

University of Massachusetts Economics Professor M.V. Lee Badgett, a Williams Institute Distinguished Scholar and author of “The Economic Case for LGBT Equality: Why Fair and Equal Treatment Benefits Us All” told the Blade that for an economy to perform well it needs everyone to contribute as much as they have to offer.

“The problem with exclusion is it holds LGBTQI people back,” explained Badgett, who was named one of the 20 most powerful lesbians in academia by Curve Magazine in 2008. “If they aren’t able to develop their knowledge, skills and creativity, then they are not able to contribute as much as they could potentially to the overall economy.”

Badgett said challenges faced by LGBTQ youth, such as bullying and discrimination in housing, employment, and health care, are barriers that keep them from full economic participation over time and can ultimately harm the economy as a whole.

She pointed to the current labor shortage cited by many businesses as a significant pandemic challenge, and explained how bullying in schools can lead to workforce exclusion.

“If LGBT students face bullying in schools, they have lower GPAs, drop out, and are less likely to go to college. A bullying environment is not a good learning environment, and that’s a key tie to employment,” Badgett said. “They will not have the necessary skills and knowledge to take into the world.”

This, in turn, reduces the pool of available workers, a problem further exacerbated by pandemic pressures on disparities already faced particularly by LGBTQ people of color.

“When we can [instead] reduce the level of exclusion, we make it possible for people to put their whole selves into their job and that has a positive impact on everyone,” Badgett said.

“It’s good for LGBT people to be more included economically for their health and long-term economic status,” she added. “We think that will pay dividends over time as the economy prospers.”

NGLCC provided sense of community in a crisis

As a gay business executive, Ricker also noted the important role the NGLCC played in helping Skolnik weather the COVID-19 crisis.

It provided a space where other queer business leaders could gather and problem-solve on a national level. It was also a chance to gain support and learn from each other.

“Just watching other companies going through the same thing we were and hearing their stories served as an inspiration,” he said. “One challenge right now is hiring people. Highlighting that we’re an NGLCC member and an LGBTQ-owned business helps.”

NGLCC’s 2017 economic report found companies that engaged in Pride activities saw an increase in diverse job applicants, new diverse supply chain applicants, and a deeper LGBTQ consumer loyalty.

Ricker added highlighting that membership lets LGBTQ job seekers know Skolnik is a queer-supportive place to work.

“There are a lot of businesses out there where you can’t be yourself,” he said. “I saw our company as an oasis for talented people where they can be themselves. In manufacturing there are unfortunately a lot of ‘old world’ attitudes out there.”

But despite the pandemic and historical challenges his industry faces, Ricker is still excited about the future and a possible resurgence in American manufacturing.

“Supply challenges have highlighted the importance of American manufacturing,” Ricker said. “We still need to make things here in the U.S. And it’s exciting that an LGBTQ-owned business can be a part of that.”

The idea of a recovering economy and the future opportunities it brings for his industry really “jazzes him up,” along with enjoying a nice glass of a California Cabernet aged in one of Skolnik’s barrels — the flavor sweetened from “knowing that we had something to do with its production.”

A group of Skolnik Industries employees (Photo courtesy Skolnick Industries)

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