We live in a complex, interconnected world where diversity, shaped by globalization and technological advance, forms the fabric of modern society. Notwithstanding this interconnectedness, there is also growing polarization – both in the physical and digital worlds – fuelled by identity politics and the resurgence of nationalist ideals.
Not surprisingly, our workplaces tend to mirror the sociocultural dynamics at play in our lives outside work. Having built and scaled a multinational enterprise over nearly two decades, I’ve learned that diversity in the workplace is an asset for both businesses and their employees, in its capacity to foster innovation, creativity and empathy in ways that homogeneous environments seldom do. Yet it takes careful nurturing and conscious orchestration to unleash the true potential of this invaluable asset.
In this era of globalization, diversity in the business environment is about more than gender, race and ethnicity. It now includes employees with diverse religious and political beliefs, education, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, cultures and even disabilities. Companies are discovering that, by supporting and promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace, they are gaining benefits that go beyond the optics.
Business has the transformative power to change and contribute to a more open, diverse and inclusive society. We can only accomplish this by starting from within our organizations. Many of us know intuitively that diversity is good for business. The case for establishing a truly diverse workforce, at all organizational levels, grows more compelling each year. The moral argument is weighty enough, but the financial impact – as proven by multiple studies – makes this a no-brainer.
Disruption and innovation
The coming together of people of different ethnicities with different experiences in cities and societies is a key driver of innovation. The food that we eat every day is a result of this blending of cultures. The most successful musical genres, such as jazz, rock’n’roll or hip-hop, are the products of cultural amalgamation.
If we look at the most innovative, disruptive and prosperous urban centres in the world – New York, Dubai, London and Singapore – they all have one thing in common. They are all international melting pots with a high concentration of immigrants. Research shows that there is a direct correlation between high-skilled immigration and an increase in the level of innovation and economic performance in cities and regions.
Singapore makes a great case study. This tiny South-East Asian island nation, with a population of just over five million, is today one of the globe’s heavyweight financial centres. It scores highly in international rankings for areas as diverse as education and ease of doing business, and has been recognised as the world’s most technology-ready nation. Singapore is also highly multicultural, with an ethnic mix of people of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent, and large populations of different religious faith groups including Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
When Singapore achieved independence in 1965, its founding fathers instituted measures that would not leave racial harmony to chance. Singapore aggressively promoted racial and ethnic integration. One important measure was its housing policy, which ensured that every public housing complex followed a national quota of racial percentage. This forced people of different ethnicities to learn to live with each other, and broke up all the ethnic ghettos that were prevalent at the time of independence.
These seemingly autocratic measures have served the small island nation well in producing a well-integrated populace that values meritocracy more than race or religion. Singapore’s ethnic and religious diversity has proven to be an asset to the country, and the result is relative racial harmony – something the US would do well to learn from.
In neighbouring Malaysia, my home country, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity has always been promoted. By the time I was 18, I could speak five languages and had friends from the Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasian communities, who between them hailed from several religious backgrounds. Malaysia has one of the world’s most diverse cultural and ethnic mixes and has outperformed most of its regional partners, with a high annual GDP growth since its independence. The multilingual workforce has given us Malaysians an edge in the workplace.