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Diversity & Inclusion: A National Security Imperative

Mr. Lonnie Garris III, is a retired U.S Air Force colonel and a cybersecurity executive. Mr. Garris has over twenty-five years of experience leading intelligence and cybersecurity activities. Mr. Garris contributes to this blog as a participant of the 2020 Yale Global Executive Leadership Program. 


Undoubtedly, 2020 will be remembered for the remarkable change brought to everyday American life by the pandemic. However, 2020 will also be remembered for the social justice protests and the wide recognition for the need to address disparities and inequalities in society. A lot of the debate surrounding diversity and inclusion too often seems to pit Americans against one another. On one side, there is a conservative element that frames diversity and inclusion as an affirmative action-driven process that prioritizes identity-politics over qualifications. While the liberal side sees the lack of opportunity for women and people of color as a deliberate attempt to uphold white male privilege, regardless of qualifications. While this debate rages on, the United States faces challenges to its national security and economic well-being. For instance, the asymmetrical weaponization of the internet by nation-states has proved to be uniquely effective and can neutralize the geographic protections we took for granted during World War II. Cybersecurity experts warn that America’s adversaries already have the digital access to damage and destroy many parts of our critical infrastructure, such as power grids and water treatment facilities. The recent SolarWinds and Microsoft Exchange cyber intrusions elucidates this reality.

It is within the ongoing dialogue of diversity and inclusion as well as discussion on how to better protect the nation against emerging cyber threats that I propose we consider diversity and inclusion to be a national security imperative. Can we find common ground in this new decade to usher in the right kind of change to maintain American competitiveness?

The Competitive Landscape

Today, the United States continues to be the most dominant actor on the world stage. U.S. Military spending at $700 billion is more military spending than the next 10 countries combined. Economically and diplomatically, the United States continues to hold influence over major international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, and in multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations. However, it is becoming clear there are areas where advantages are eroding and may be lost in the decades ahead. One such area is technological innovation and the pipeline of innovators and skilled workers needed to sustain U.S. dominance. While the United States still maintains a lead in international patent submissions, competitor nations such as China saw domestic patent submissions rise by 121% over the last year. In addition, Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is the current global leader in 5G patents.1 These trends over the last several years show the increasing competitive landscape and national security challenges facing the United States. Patents and other intellectual property growth places competitor nations on a path towards technological independence, providing them a means to influence and spread their ideology through technology exports.2 Additionally, STEM academics is an area where the United States is already facing a deficit. Competitor nations continue to widen the gap in STEM students attending and graduating from American universities.3 Furthermore, China’s extraordinary rise is being fueled by a whole-of-nation effort which prioritizes technology independence. China’s recently released 5 Year Plan prioritizes technology as a national security imperative. As such, the Chinese government will spend up to 7% of GDP annually on public and private sector Research and Development (R&D).4 Similarly, it is time for the United States to discuss national security as a whole-of-nation effort or “Grand Strategy.” Specifically, I am suggesting the United States consider diversity and inclusion as a ways and means to make the country more competitive. The Biden administration appears to understand the importance of this and in its newly released Interim National Security Strategic Guidance calls for, “creative approaches that draw on all the sources of national power: diversity, vibrant economy, dynamic civil society and innovative technological base, enduring democratic values, broad and deep network of partnerships and alliances, and the world’s most powerful military.”5

A Historical Context for Diversity and Inclusiveness

For a historical context let me discuss lessons from the United States involvement in World War II. According to famed World War II historian Steven Ambrose, up to 30% of American draftees were ineligible for military service due primarily to chronic illness brought on by Great Depression era poverty.6 Despite the very large percentage of ineligible draftees, the United States was still able to muster more than 16 million men and women into service and fight a two-front war. Our vast and expansive oceans also played a part in securing victory for the United States. The continental United States’ permissive environment allowed the country to militarize its economy and manufacture on a scale we are unlikely to ever see again. Unemployment during the war years was near one percent with women and African Americans playing an outsized role in that manufacturing miracle.7 In short, the nation coalesced together to defeat the existential threat posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The larger point I make with this litany of historical facts is that there are positive and negative lessons to be learned from our World War II experience. While inequalities existed for women (and still do) and Jim Crow was still an obstacle for African Americans, the national war effort for the most part was a diverse endeavor. The United States depended on many demographic groups to secure the victory. Unfortunately, we can’t say our World War II home-front experience was inclusive. Women were paid less than white men for the same factory jobs and African Americans were always the last hired and first fired. Furthermore, African American soldiers only saw offensive combat once there was a critical need for manpower in late 1944 during the Ardennes Counteroffensive (aka Battle of the Bulge). In today’s digital world, there is no luxury of time to train a workforce to do highly technical skills such as Python coding, Computer Aided Design (CAD), and 3D modeling and printing. The lesson from World War II is to start engaging and involving all citizens in the national economy now.

Strategies to Engage Underrepresented Communities

What can and should the United States do to ensure its competitiveness in technology? As a career Air Force intelligence officer, one of the first things I was trained to do is survey the environment. Today what we find in the United States is a nation with swiftly changing demographics. By 2045, demographers predict no one racial/ethnic group will have a clear majority.8 The lesson from World War II is that many demographic groups were needed to secure victory. Knowing this, the United States’ public and private sectors must encourage and engage underrepresented communities with non-traditional outreach efforts. These efforts should first realize the value and talents women and people of color already bring to the table. Secondly, there must be an emphasis on STEM education.

The U.S. Military seems to understand what is at stake and we are seeing the Services implement diversity and inclusion initiatives. In particular, the Air Force has transformed its recruiting structures to create partnerships with underrepresented groups to expose “youth, young adults and their influencers” to the Air Force mission and way of life.9 Over the past two years, Air Force recruiting efforts have directly mentored more than 39,000 underrepresented youth by working with organizations such as the Latino Pilot Association, Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, and Women in Aviation International to create a new pipeline of citizens to Airmen.

The military represents one avenue of engagement and upward mobility; however, we traditionally have looked to the United States’ vast post-secondary educational system as the great equalizer. Arguably the finest university system in the world, U.S. universities unfortunately are not capable of scaling to meet the nation’s educational needs. The rising cost of education and resulting indebtedness will inhibit many from obtaining a four-year degree. Unfortunately, industry is overlooking a source of STEM talent residing at historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs). According to the American Society for Engineering Education, HBCUs produced 31% of the nation's black engineers in 2019. In a New York Times report from January, five HBCU presidents spoke with Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai, to discuss the glaring lack of minority hires at Google and other tech firms. Google since has pledged to train 100,000 black women in digital skills and announced a second initiative aimed at HBCU students to promote technology skills.10 Missed opportunities to engage, develop and hire African American engineers cannot be repeated. The tech industry and the government (writ large) need greater investment in this homegrown talent pool not only because it is right but also because they represent a pool of STEM-trained American citizens eligible for national security positions.

Outside of formal education, there is a growing patchwork of skills-training organizations throughout the country which connect underrepresented groups with companies needing skilled workers. Take for example MakerSpaceCT, the Hartford, CT-based non-profit that teaches Computer Aided Design (CAD) and 3D printing skills to Hartford teens and young adultsleading to credentialing and careers with defense industry firms. Companies can also partner with Year Up, a non-profit skills-training organization with a proven model to prepare disadvantaged young adults for careers in business and information technology. Year Up founder and CEO, Gerald Chertavian, challenges companies to scrutinize job description requirements to determine if a four-year degree is actually necessary. Job advertisements that require a four-year college degree automatically disqualify 75% of African Americans.11 There is also the newly formed OneTen initiative co-chaired by Merck chairman and CEO, Ken Frazier, and former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. OneTen seeks to create one million jobs in ten years for African Americans by connecting job seekers, skill-credentialing organizations, and participating companies. These efforts are excellent platforms to get underrepresented groups engaged in the economy, but the nation needs to do more to build the STEM pipeline to keep the nation competitive.

Diversity and Inclusion is Smart Business

Are there incentives and other benefits to be gained for companies who embrace diversity and inclusion? Research has definitively shown diversity provides better outcomes in terms of every positive measure of merit. McKinsey and Company first published a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) report in 2015 highlighting this and a second report in 2020 reconfirming that organizations which embrace diversity and inclusion perform better.12 Specifically, McKinsey noted that companies with “executive teams comprised with more than 30% women are more likely to outperform those with fewer or no women.” A McKinsey business-case for ethnic and cultural diversity in 2019 found that “top-quartile companies outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36% in profitability.” The McKinsey and Company report also stated D&I performance outcomes are highest for ethnic and cultural diversity than other types of diversity groups. The financial powerhouse Citigroup is leaning forward with regard to diversity and inclusion by implementing top-down strategies such as its HBCU Innovation and Leadership Symposium. According to Citigroup Global Head of Talent and Diversity, Teri Hogan, “We are not debating any more whether D&I is the right thing to do … we just need to get down to delivering.”13 The byproducts of diversity and inclusion should not only benefit the private sector but should benefit the government sector as well. The federal government is hemorrhaging human capital as Baby Boomers retire and younger workers seek careers outside of government.14


If the United States is to remain competitive in this digital century, it cannot rely on the innovation and leadership of just one or two demographics. The United States needs every mind working to its highest potential to meet the scale at which competitor nations are capable of operating. This thinking is personified in the accomplishments of Ms. Katherine Johnson celebrated in the film Hidden Figures. Just think of where the United States space program would be without Ms. Katherine Johnson and her contributions to space science. Sure, without Ms. Johnson’s contributions to NASA the United States would have travelled to the Moon and back but would it have been before the end of the decade as boldly proclaimed by President Kennedy? The old arguments that there is a dearth of qualified female talent and or talented persons of color no longer are viable given the diversity and inclusion success at companies like Citigroup and McKinsey and Company. Business leaders and particularly government leaders must consider the indicators of innovative decline and treat them as existential threats that imperil national security and economic prosperity. Leaders must also understand that diversity and inclusion is simply a ways and a means to make the nation more competitive. Once we as a nation embrace diversity and inclusion, it is crucial that we retain this talent. Retaining talent starts with treating people with dignity and paying them an equitable salary. If we don’t retain our talented citizens, they will simply take their talents elsewhere-away from government service and even out of the country. When the United States finally makes the whole-of-nation effort to meet the challenge posed by our competitors, we can then be assured of continued American competitiveness and prosperity.

Works Consulted

6. Jacob S. Potofsky, “The Poor State,” Congressional Digest 28 (1949): 92. Potofsky posits five million rejections with a thirty percent rejection rate.
7. Stephen Ambrose, “New History of World War II,” American Heritage (1997)