28 May 2014

Why Diversity Initiatives are Important

One late night in the New York City United Nations World Food Programme office, I looked out of my window and stared straight down the Manhattan skyline at the new World Trade Center building in the distance. I needed to rest my eyes from the French presentation I was preparing that I would help make in Senegal to a room of West African government representatives. The presentation required a lot of fine details, as it was on the mechanics of a macro insurance mechanism that has the potential to revolutionize how food insecurity due to drought is managed on the African continent.

Over the previous year, I had made the startling realization that I actually found the principles of insurance and risk financing interesting. The realization was startling considering how concerted my efforts were in the latter half of my undergrad to avoid the business school from which I graduated with my Bachelor’s. Now there I was, actually relishing the details of what the financial model predicted, and of why countries could only insure a certain layer of risk, of why we needed a particular amount of money to capitalize the risk pool for its lifetime. There I was, actually enjoying the practice of insurance principles I had learned nearly a decade prior.

Until that day, I had always told myself that the reason I hated the idea of going into any kind of finance profession was because it had little to no relevance to poverty reduction, economic empowerment, human rights, gender equality, or simply making the world a better place. And indeed, much of the world of finance, insurance, marketing or other general business is not in place to make the world a better place by any of those measures. Much of the business world will continue to serve an abysmally low percentage of the world population – the few people of the world who can actually afford and use such services. That day, however, I realized the reason I hadn’t enjoyed the actual disciplines of finance, insurance or marketing wasn’t because the practice doesn’t do much to make the world a better place. I realized that day the reason I hadn’t enjoyed the actual disciplines was because of the environment in which I had learned.

By any modern measurable account, I went to a conservative university for my Bachelors degree.[1] Much of the student body watched Fox News without any sense of irony or disbelief – they watched Fox News as an actual news source. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a homophobic slur slipped into casual conversations. It wasn’t uncommon to witness a racial, religious, or falsely patriotic gesture on a weekly basis. And those were just the overt comments. As I mentioned in a previous post on racism, often the worst forms of discrimination are not explicitly expressed.

Sitting in my midtown Manhattan office, that night I finally understood the impact such a negative environment had had on me – a brown woman who is smart, intellectually curious, socially progressive, and abhors bigoted environments. I thought back to the many efforts I had made my first two years in undergrad to integrate myself in the business school – my attempts at joining the business school’s organizations, hanging out with fellow business school classmates, seeking out advice from professors*, or trying to start projects that applied what we learned in the classroom to an international context. I thought about how each of those attempts had been a spectacular failure.

For a long time, I thought these attempts were entirely due to my own shortcomings. Surely, as a young kid with no real business background, part of the reason these attempts failed was indeed because of my own shortcomings. But looking back at how I ran students organizations that did become a resounding success, I saw how I applied what I had learned in my business classes to real life. In the year that I ran our International Relations Organization (IRO), I had an ROI of nearly 300 percent, hosted statewide conferences, and spearheaded a microfinance trip to Togo (West Africa) that helped land me a place in grad school. So why did IRO thrive while my attempts at the business school failed? My guess? The environment.

The comparison between the students who populated IRO and the students who roamed the business school was stark. Certainly not every student fell into one category simply because of their IRO or business school affiliation, though it was plainly apparent that by and large, the socially progressive and open-minded cared more about the state of the world’s poor than they did about the stock market. Unsurprisingly, the progressive people tended to be a part of an organization such as IRO, not the “Young Investors Club of America.” Naturally, I gravitated towards an organization such as IRO for this very reason. And with that gravitation, I brought my business acumen, ability to lead, and most importantly – undying passion and hard work. Less than six months after I took over the organization, I was regularly invited to participate in meetings with university deans, senior administrators, professors, and even the university president. I needed the right environment to thrive.

Looking at the student profile of the university (at least while I was there), the average student was white, straight, Christian, didn’t travel abroad, and came from a middle class family. Those who were interested sought out different people, experiences and ideas. But the vast majority of the students either didn’t think to do so, didn’t know to do so, or didn’t care to do so. With few formal mechanisms to correct this imbalance in the business school, in the process, we were all cheated. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, being who I was effectively drove from participation with the business school because I never felt comfortable in that environment of relative close mindedness. And those in the business school were not exposed to even a sliver of what this incredibly diverse country and planet has to offer, and what that diversity means in more than a superficial context.[2]

The very principles of investing stress a diverse portfolio to achieve sustainability, robustness and growth. This very principle also applies to real life. This very principle is one of the main reasons why diversity initiatives are so important. The majority of the world is not white, Christian, and straight. When entire groups of people are cut out from a conversation, there is a lot of inherent value that is also cut out. It is illogical to create environments that are not welcoming to a diverse audience. In the long run, it is unproductive, inefficient, and detrimental.

When diversity is cut out from an environment, everyone is cheated. People like me take their ideas elsewhere and devote countless hours to another talent pool. Others are discouraged and never find a place for their talents. And those left behind are subject to a groupthink is laughable given the resources and demographics of the modern world. Diversity initiatives are important not only for those in the diversity categories, but for everyone. Diversity initiatives, by practice and definition, make for a stronger society.

[1] I knew this going in. I did everything I could to go to a progressive school elsewhere, though my parents would only pay for an in-state school, and the idea of leaving undergrad debt free was too good to pass up. Part of me constantly regrets the decision, though I fully acknowledge how lucky I am to have parents who were willing and able to pay for my education in the first place.

[2] One minority (in race, religion, or thought) casually placed throughout a pool of thousands of students is should not be relied upon as sufficient to change the environment. Minor attempts at diversity inclusion, one minority, should not be obligated to represent all minority thought.