Tennessee Pride Chamber chief unpacks fallout of Tractor Supply's DEI reversal - Nashville Business Journal (2024)

Tractor Supply Co. was all set to host the Tennessee Pride Chamber's "Brewing Up Business" networking mixer this month, just as the Brentwood-based retailer had done in January.

At 8 a.m. on June 27, a Tractor Supply employee told chamber executive director Stephanie Mahnke that the company was backing out of the event. Hours later, she was reading a Tractor Supply statement that announced the elimination of its diversity, equity and inclusion roles and goals. Plus, the company would "stop sponsoring nonbusiness activities like pride festivals."

That was only part of how the region's fourth-largest public company responded to a boycott pushed on social media by a conservative activist. The protest produced stunning results in just three weeks, as Tractor Supply (Nasdaq: TSCO) said it would "refocus our [employee] engagement groups on mentoring, networking and supporting the business."

The boycott began June 6. The week before, Tractor Supply had been a finalist for Corporate Partner of the Year at the Pride Chamber's annual awards.

"Even hosting Brewing Up Business was a big signal to our community that 'we're here to support you,' " Mahnke said in an interview.

The company's new positions violate standards that chamber members are "honor-bound" to meet, so the chamber revoked Tractor Supply's membership on June 28.

"Where we’re worried is, their statement basically says the LGBT cause is not a business concern of theirs," Mahnke said. "What we’ve always argued is, it’s always been about business. It's all about inclusion of all of your demographics."

A Tractor Supply spokesperson declined comment for this story. In its unsigned statement, Tractor Supply said that "going forward, we will ensure our activities and giving tie directly to our business."

Mahnke sees several disconnects in Tractor Supply's statement, such as when it says it will "further focus on rural America priorities" and that "rural communities are the backbone of our nation and what make America great."

Mahnke noted that Clarksville just held its first Pride festival in almost 20 years. Places such as Pulaski County, near the Alabama border, have started Pride festivals in the last few years. Mahnke said chamber membership has grown in East Tennessee and is up 22% overall in the last 12 months, to about 480 members, as the organization has pursued a statewide expansion (it rebranded in late 2022, formerly known as the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce).

"To assume 'LGBT' and 'rural' are separate entities is really shortsighted. It creates a false narrative," Mahnke said.

Robby Starbuck, the activist and Williamson County resident who started the boycott, has argued that companies should not speak out on political and social issues.

"Let stores just be stores again. No politics, no far-left social values push, just good products & service," Starbuck wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. "No one is asking for discrimination, just normalcy and to not have your politics shoved down their throat."

Mahnke said the chamber is nonpartisan and has supporters and board members on both sides of the political aisle.

Mahnke called on companies to continue speaking up and play the "long game," with younger generations tending to reward companies who take public stances and branding themselves as LGBT-inclusive. She acknowledged that can be especially perilous in a polarizing election year.

"The question everyone is asking now is, if you are going to make a very public statement, can you weather the short-term storm?" Mahnke said. "We need to see that bravery. … Big corporations like Tractor Supply are perfect examples of folks who can weather that storm and should take on that responsibility."

"Not having a stance at all is taking a stance, these days. There's no way to avoid that," Mahnke added. "This is already built into your concerns with [human resources], your concerns with your employees, your customer base, your marketing — it's built into everything you do as a business.

"We're not asking necessarily for very specific niche focuses on a very specific population," Mahnke said. "We're asking for equitable inclusion across the board."

Mahnke said the chamber's contacts at Tractor Supply have been "incredible allies" over the last several years. Those contacts expressed disappointment with the company's new policy, Mahnke said.

As for the mid-July networking event, the chamber has seen an "overwhelming response" of big companies — some who aren't even members — offering to host.

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Tennessee Pride Chamber chief unpacks fallout of Tractor Supply's DEI reversal - Nashville Business Journal (2024)

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