Richmond Rising

Virginia's capital is a magnet for companies with ESG and diversity agendas.

America’s CEOs are riveted to new imperatives from their employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders around environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues including diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). But much hasn’t been talked about in relation to places that are ESG minded and how that is a tool for recruiting new businesses. 

In 2021, CNBC included DEI as a key factor why Virginia was named the best state for business for the second year in a row. And according to site location consultants who are involved in roughly half of all corporate relocation and expansion projects, ESG is now a key criteria for how communities are scored competitively. 

In Richmond, Virginia, the Greater Richmond Partnership president and CEO Jennifer Wakefield thinks her region offers “a unique combination of businesses and government entities that are both thoughtful and proactive about the increasing importance of ESG and DEI overall.” 

Wakefield feels that ESG-minded companies are likely to consider the Richmond region more heavily as they learn of the commitments in this area. 

Meanwhile, the diverse population of the region (38 percent non-white compared to US average of 28 percent non-white) and its universities is making Richmond a prominent stage for transformation of companies, institutions and neighborhoods alike. 

Altria is one of them. The packaged-goods giant moved its headquarters to Richmond from New York City more than a decade ago, and it’s in Richmond that the company’s strategies for ESG and DEI have flourished. 

“Richmond is a great place to do business when you’re focused on these [ESG] concerns,” says Sal Mancuso, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Altria. 

Altria’s long-term vision is to “responsibly lead adult smokers to a smoke-free future,” Mancuso says, and in the process to “make an impact on broader society” through efforts to promote the company’s strong ESG principles, from attracting and retaining a diverse workforce to promoting sustainable business practices. It is looking to cut emissions from its own operations as it supports initiatives that would curb climate change that could impact the growing of tobacco leaves and all of agriculture. And Altria is championing workers’ rights on tobacco farms overseas. 

“These are important issues for us to be viable in the future,” Mancuso says. 

Just down the road at Dominion Energy, their vision is to be the most sustainable energy company in America. To reach that goal, they are investing heavily in innovation and are currently building the largest offshore wind project in the nation. 

“Dominion Energy is committed to safe, reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy and to achieving net zero carbon dioxide and methane emissions from its power generation and gas infrastructure operations by 2050,” says Charlene Whitfield, senior vice president of power delivery for Dominion Energy. 

In the region, there are plans for a $2.3 billion GreenCity mixed-use development that will be an “adaptive re-use” of an existing 300,000-square-foot building rather than increasing the project’s carbon footprint with all-new construction. 

GreenCity is moving forward with a planned 600 rooms in two hotels; about 2.2 million feet of office space; 280,000 square feet of retail space; a 17,000- seat arena; 2,100 residential units; green space and plazas—and the expectation that companies committed to sustainability will lease space in a facility that helps them live out that commitment. U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently visited GreenCity and declared it a “poster child of what kind of world we can create” with sustainable living. 

Meanwhile, Virginia Commonwealth University is exemplifying how Richmond’s colleges and universities—including the University of Richmond and Virginia Union University and Virginia State University, both HBCUs—are helping drive the business community’s commitment to energize DEI initiatives. U.S. News and World Report ranks VCU as the number five campus in the nation for ethnic diversity. 

VCU has launched a robust program to enlist as many companies as possible in the area to provide paid internships, rather than just unpaid research and community-service experience, for LGBTQ and BIPOC students. 

“We’re reaching out to them to create meaningful internships,” says Karol Kain Gray, senior vice president and CFO of VCU. “We want to be transformative. And we want these graduates to stay in Richmond so we can create a greater pool of qualified candidates to employ.” 

In another arena, three entrepreneurial women created the Jackson Ward Collective, an incubator to revive the original spirit of a neighborhood that used to be known as “the birthplace of Black entrepreneurship.” Jackson Ward once was one to more than 100 businesses owned by African-Americans. 

Even as it specifically tilts toward boosting ESG and DEI efforts of its corporate citizens, Richmond is climbing overall in the regard of companies and economic-development professionals as a place for headquarters and significant secondary and divisional facilities. 

In fact, Richmond ranks No. 3 in the U.S. as cities where people are moving because of the pandemic, according to a survey by LinkedIn. In 2020, Worth magazine ranked Richmond as a “top 10 city to watch.” 

“We’re worth watching for a lot of reasons,” Wakefield says, “and more companies are looking at how we can help them with their ESG and DEI efforts.” 

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