HOUSTON -- While attending the first Diversity Business Summit in Chicago last year, Jim Crane, still in his early stages as the Astros' principal owner, expressed interest to Commissioner Bud Selig in hosting the second one.
Given its rich history as one of the most diverse cities in America, Houston seemed the logical choice to host such an event, and Major League Baseball agreed. Hundreds gathered at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Wednesday for the all-day event, designed to give unprecedented access to minority- and women-owned businesses looking to partner with MLB's 30 clubs. There was also a job fair, where team representatives met with young people pursuing careers in the industry.
Coordinated by Wendy Lewis, MLB's senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances, the Summit drew an impressive group of executives, including several with local ties. Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan gave the welcoming address at a ribbon-cutting ceremony emceed by Astros radio announcer Robert Ford. A few hours later, Crane and Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, along with manager Bo Porter, dropped by the convention and attended Selig's keynote address.
"We think it's a great idea," Crane said. "It gets people talking to each other and making some connections. This creates an opportunity to get your foot in the door. All 30 teams are here with their representatives. There's a lot of opportunity to get your foot in the door and work your way up the ladder."
According to the City of Houston Planning Department, the demographics in the Bayou City have changed drastically over the last 30-plus years. Many minority groups have more than tripled in size since 1980, with the Hispanic population increasing from 281,331 in 1980 to 919,668 in 2010. The same goes for the Asian population: 34,259 in 1980 to 129,098 in 2010. The African-American population has held relatively steady, from 436,392 in 1980 to 485,956 in 2010.
In recent years, the Astros have taken aggressive measures to ensure their front office reflects that same diversity in their growing city. Luhnow described the effort as "critical."
"We want to represent our city of Houston, and we have a very diverse city," he said. "We want to have a diverse front office, and we do have a diverse organization. Bo Porter's one of the few African-American managers in baseball. We have a farm director [Quinton McCracken] who's African-American. We have Hispanic people up and down through the organization, Asian people, people of Middle Eastern descent. It's critical for us to represent society at large and America. We're a melting pot. We want to be a melting pot at the Astros as well."
Diversifying baseball has been an ongoing effort for Selig throughout his tenure as Commissioner. He has placed special emphasis on hiring practices, making sure teams identify minority candidates when searching to fill positions from the very top on down.
Interviews conducted at the job fair were labeled "exploratory" with no guarantees for employment, but the face-to-face time between the teams and the candidates could prove invaluable when positions become available in the future. Turnover at the middle and lower levels of a front office is an inevitable reality of the industry, giving Summit participants a possible leg up when opportunities arise.
"All 30 clubs are represented here," Luhnow said. "There's a constant flow of people in and out of organizations, so there's always openings. We've gone through a lot of transition in the past 24 months with the Astros and hired a lot of new people. That's going to be an ongoing process. It's always good to get passionate candidates who want to work in the industry."
In addition to the 30 clubs, executives from MLB Advanced Media, MLB's central office in New York, MLB Network and Minor League Baseball were on hand to meet with attendees. Roundtable discussions included "The Business of the Game" with a panel of owners and high-ranking executives and "Stadiums and Facilities" with MLB and club representatives responsible for building operations and safety at ballparks across the nation.
The job seeker trade fair and supply chain matchmaker sessions ran most of the day, helping draw approximately 600 attendees to the summit.
"We want to be an industry that's accessible, and we are an industry that's accessible," Luhnow said. "I'm an example of that. I did not play baseball professionally or even in college. I had three different careers before I came into baseball. I didn't think I'd ever get into the industry. What we're trying to demonstrate to everybody is that there are opportunities in sports.
"There are opportunities in baseball and the more you learn about it, the more you can find that one job that makes sense for you. Regardless of whether you played in the past, or where you come from, or your color, or what country you're from ... there's definitely opportunity in our sport."