How tolerance is essential to growing Lafayette’s innovation economy

Roxy Black, a local drag queen, advocating for Drag Queen Story Time to the City-Parish Council Travis Gauthier

Lost amid the kerfuffle around whether Lafayette’s libraries should allow drag queens to volunteer their time to read to children is how this story potentially impacts our ability to grow our innovation economy.

If you haven’t been paying attention, Lafayette’s leaders have aspired to make the city a hub of innovation since coining the term “Silicon Bayou” 20 years ago. Most recently this has manifested itself in plans for Lafayette to launch its own cryptocurrency with the goal of becoming a living lab for blockchain innovation.

Now you might be wondering, what do drag queens have to do with innovation? Did the mythical Satoshi Nakamoto create BitCoin while in drag?

Not necessarily, but the roots of this story run deeper than that.

There’s a widely recognized connection between innovation and diversity.

A recent study co-authored by Richard Warr, a professor of finance at North Carolina State University, highlights how companies that promote and pursue diversity in their workforce tend to be more innovative, bringing twice as many new products to market per year.

This research from the Harvard Business Review showed that employees at companies that embrace diversity are 45 percent more likely to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70 percent more likely to report that the firm captured a new market.

Another way to think about this comes from innovation consultant Frans Johansson. He suggests that innovation, especially in industries like technology that are constantly changing, most often stems from unexpected discoveries. And these unexpected discoveries are a lot easier to find when you engage perspectives different than your own.

One could argue that if you think about Lafayette’s economy as one big enterprise, then we should be courting any and all ways to increase diversity in thinking.

But the impact this episode has on our aspirations to grow our innovation economy is bigger than drag queens and literacy.

Before we go all-in on fighting any culture war against diversity, we need take a step back and realize the opportunity cost we incur relative to building a culture that fosters innovation.

Being perceived as a community that’s intolerant or homophobic won’t just turn away drag queens or members of the LGBTQ community; it could also turn away anyone who participates in and supports those cultures more broadly. And that’s a segment that’s ascendant nationally, as proven by almost a million people tuning in to RuPaul’s Drag Race every week and millions more streaming the latest version of Queer Eye.

So we’re now talking about millions if not tens of millions of people who may start second guessing if Lafayette is the kind of community they want to live in. Think of it this way: If we’re going to be so vehemently against the art of drag, what other minorities might we be against?

The question then becomes: How many of these are the types of open-minded, creative people Lafayette’s trying to recruit to grow our innovation economy?

Generally speaking, tech entrepreneurs, visionaries and researchers tend to be at a minimum more tolerant of diversity and at a maximum actively engaged in supporting efforts to promote diversity. Even though Silicon Valley has been criticized for its lack of professional diversity, there’s no arguing that it has evolved in close proximity with the diverse culture of areas like Stanford University and San Francisco. And this shouldn’t be surprising given the connections between diversity and innovation.

Because the impression that this story risks creating is that our community is intolerant of people who live “alternative lifestyles” and in particular that this pushback against drag queens is really a proxy for intolerance of the LGBTQ community at large. And that comes with a cost, particularly from a big picture vantage.

So even though it’s arguable whether Lafayette is actually homophobic on the whole, when a story like this goes national it risks creating the perception that it is, which runs counter to our ambitions to grow our innovation economy.

Before we go all-in on fighting any culture war against diversity we need take a step back and realize the opportunity cost we incur relative to building a culture that fosters innovation.

Because whether you like drag queens or not, for Lafayette to become a hub for any kind of technology innovation we are better off if we’re perceived as a place that embraces diversity. Otherwise, we hinder our ability to compete for the world’s best and brightest.