Diversity and inclusion: Where do we go from here?

Published on March 26, 2019

I run a technology company, built on some pretty advanced leading-edge AI and data science.

We recruit the best and the brightest from all over the world. We work with some of the largest organizations and enterprises in the world, and we believe we are at the forefront of the technology wars.

That used to be good enough. Rally the troops, do cool stuff, and the world will beat a path to your door, and hopefully your bank account.

The truth is that is not good enough today. Something got lost in the translation. I don’t mind saying it, but we forgot who we were. There hasn’t been a particular incident or issue, but like many start-ups, the rush for results overran our understanding of how we should treat people, what values we cherished, the values that are important to us as a society.

Rightly or wrongly, these issues have been encapsulated over the past few years into one over-arching topic: “diversity and inclusion.” Can everyone enjoy the intellectual satisfaction of building, marketing and selling great technology-based products? Can everyone join the club?

The base premise in joining the technology business is simple – get an education, a really good education, the rest will follow. That’s our first “diversity and inclusion” or colloquially “D&I” problem. Not everyone has access to a good education. How does the technology business deal with this? How does recruiting compensate for this?

Our second basic premise in technology is that results matter. IQ matters, the packaging of IQ does not matter – race, creed, color, orientation does not matter. The results, the inventions, the technological break-throughs, are what really matters. This highlights our second D&I problem – is equal access really based on merit true?  Do women, or people of different orientations, really get to join the club?

Today, other issues are creeping to the forefront.  Can we hold different political views, discuss them, and not get into a fight?  Do we really believe in our system of private property rights, justice, and equality in the eyes of the law that we developed and nurtured over hundreds of years? Is capitalism still the way to go, has it outlived its usefulness?

Challenging the status quo

As a CEO in the technology business, I am faced with increasing pressure to show I am truly concerned with these D&I issues, and more. So, what to do? Do I wave my hands at the problem? Perhaps hire an expert, offer some counselling, then forget about it, unless there is a problem?

This is what the status quo looks like to me, a complete industry has built up around these questions, yet not much seems to change. I decided to approach the D&I problem differently. Ignoring the status quo. I have always thought for myself and I have always questioned everything. I always ask the same question, “is this the best we can do, and does this really solve the problem?” What is the best way forward, assuming we could start from scratch? Questioning everything does not make you popular. There is always a large constituency for going with the flow, do not rock the boat, focus on what is important.

I set out to go down a different path, one that would address the issue of D&I head on, no compromising on the goals. It has always struck me as odd that we talk about D&I more than ever, but what are the base principles we should apply to solve these issues?

For me the obvious question was: “How do we learn how to treat people fairly, equitably, the right way?” Leaders, staff, everyone learns this somewhere, is it not too late to learn this on the job? Should basic concepts of fairness and equity be left to on-the-job training?  We can remind people when they join our teams, but they need to have some basic understanding to start with.

It was sort of obvious to me, that in the past we learnt this in the faith-based communities our parents belonged to and believed in. Today, especially in the western countries, attendance and adherence to mainstream “religion” is declining steadily. How can we communicate the core tenants to our team, without crossing the line of church and state?

The way forward seemed to me to have key religious leaders sit down and tell us how they think through these issues. What better consultants than the individuals who are educated at great length in these issues. So, I initiated a series of interviews with a genuinely diverse group of accomplished leaders, which we converted into a series of podcasts. Their insights were compelling.

What did we learn?

We started with the four major faith traditions in the world today — Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. With each leader providing an overview of the core tenets of their religion, as well as their perspective on respecting and embracing people with different backgrounds and belief systems. It turned out that most people know something about the faith in which they were raised, but they do not know much about other important faith-based traditions.

First and foremost, the interview series highlighted that our guests were not part of monolithic institutions and that there are many flavors of faith-based traditions.  Each tradition has had to reconcile how they treat adherents of the various streams in each faith. Christians can be catholic, orthodox, protestant.. Jews can be liberal, conservative, orthodox, and the list goes on.

The second takeaway was the massive diversity in how the same core tenants are enabled and practiced on a day-to-day basis. Hindus do not as a matter of course kill cows, why? We found out why, economics plays a part. The more you listen to these leaders the more you realize how similar their teachings are, especially in terms of respect for individuals.

Another takeaway from these sessions was how keen these leaders were to help us think through D&I. And how easy it was for them to delve deeply in their faith traditions for examples of what they were telling us. Practical, relatable and usable examples.

Our speaker series has now expanded to include topics such as race, gender, sexuality and other relevant areas that raise diversity and inclusion issues. The questions raised in these podcasts can be taken as a given or can cause controversy. Everyone’s experiences are different.

We technologists created the Internet and gave everyone a voice. However, we now easily find people with similar experiences and like-minded views, so diversity and inclusion suffer as a result. Above all, I hope these podcasts help bridge the gap for all. I will continue to do other podcasts, as we seek to identify and deal with new issues that divide us – working towards our goal of making diversity and inclusion an everyday reality for all.

Jean Belanger is a Columnist at Grit Daily. He is the CEO of Cerebri AI. After graduating (LSE), Jean joined Wood Gundy. He left finance to start a VC fund, investing in start-ups. 3 went public. After 15 years in finance, he decided to run companies rather than finance them. The first, programming tools vendor, Metrowerks CodeWarrior, built most of the software used on the Mac in the 1990s.

When Metrowerks was acquired by Motorola, Jean was named VP Biz Dev for their semiconductor business, where he invested over $450M in M&A in 14 months. After Motorola, Jean started data science supply chain software and Internet of Things pioneer, Reddwerks.

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