By  on November 20, 2008

NEW YORK — As J.C. Penney Co. Inc. chairman and chief executive officer Myron E. “Mike” Ullman 3rd sees it, “Promoting diversity in the workplace is the right thing to do. It also happens to be a good business decision.”

Ullman was among three individuals honored for advancing the cause of women at Legal Momentum’s 30th annual Equal Opportunity Awards Dinner at the Grand Hyatt here on Tuesday. The event drew 300 guests and raised $600,000 for Legal Momentum, which educates, advocates and litigates to secure economic empowerment for women.

In receiving the Etta Froio Equal Opportunity Award, Ullman said Penney’s is focused on maintaining a workforce that exhibits the same degree of diversity as the national chain’s customer base.

“Retailing is a contact sport,” he said. “It’s also a team sport, and it’s about the engagement of associates.”

Ullman recalled that his decision to join Penney’s in 2004 really wasn’t about coming out of retirement or advancing the turnaround that was already in motion. “It was about creating a new culture” and establishing a more “people-centric, innovative, risk-taking company.…I’m proud to say basically the same team is there four years later,” he said.

Also honored was Joe Zee, creative director of Elle and an influential stylist, who received the Muriel Fox Communications Leadership Award. Zee, a former W fashion director, was the first to put a black woman, Beyoncé Knowles, on the cover of W. Zee said he arrived in New York 18 years ago as a “naïve and ambitious” Canadian looking for a job. “I never really thought that my aspirations would take me here tonight.”

Robert C. Sheehan, executive partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, received the Champion for Diversity in Law Award. About 20 percent of the law firm’s partners and 20 percent of the attorneys are women.

“Those businesses that have embraced diversity have reaped rewards,” said Irasema Garza, president of Legal Momentum. “But the challenges women face are compounded by the economic crisis. Women are more vulnerable to layoffs.”

Her speech was followed by a telling testimony from Angie Welfare, who said she was a victim of pregnancy discrimination when she lost her job as a clerk at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. “I felt lost and defeated,” she said. “Imagine planning to have a baby with no job or income.” Her home went into foreclosure, and she was forced to get food stamps. “My life became a living hell. But Legal Momentum [which provided a lawyer to present the case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] was the light at the end of the tunnel for my family and me. Thank you, Legal Momentum. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

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