Employing more women and more women leaders, along with ethnically or culturally diverse individuals, is no longer only a moral imperative. Multiple studies have proven that diversity has a real impact on a company’s bottom line.


In fact, companies with higher gender diversity at an executive level are “21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than their peers,” according to McKinsey’s 2018 “Delivering Through Diversity” report.


Furthermore, the report found that companies that embraced ethnic and cultural diversity, were “33% more likely to excel in profitability”.


At the recent Virgin Atlantic Business is an Adventure event hosted in partnership with Investec, journalist Claire Mawisa hosted a panel of experts on the topic of how diversity and inclusion can drive the innovation and profitability of business.


On the panel was Faith Popcorn - futurist, author, and founder and CEO of marketing consulting firm BrainReserve; Thando Hopa - diversity advocate, model and lawyer; Dr Tashmia Ismail-Saville – CEO of the Youth Employment Service; and Dr Marc Kahn – Investec’s global head of Human Resources and Organisational Development.


What became very clear from the panel was that diversity cannot be a simple box-ticking exercise to ensure adequate representation. To stay relevant and profitable, a company needs to build a truly inclusive culture that gives all groups a voice and makes it easy for them to bring their whole self to work.

Listen to the full podcast

Learn more about why business success relies on a diverse and inclusive workforce. Listen to the full panel discussion here.

Podcast transcript

Read the full transcript of the panel on diversity building business advantage here.


  • CM: Claire Mawisa, journalist and moderator
  • FP: Faith Popcorn, futurist and author
  • TIS: Dr Tashmia Ismail-Saville, CEO, Youth Employment Service
  • MK: Dr Marc Kahn, Global head of HR and OD, Investec
  • TH: Thando Hopa, lawyer, model and diversity advocate
  • 0:00: Intro

    Faith Popcorn:  It’s not a choice anymore. These are such unordinary times. You need an unordinary everything. When there’s diversity in the boardroom, business goes up 35%. When there are females in high levels, business does so much better.  When we talk about diversity we mean mixing black and white, male and female. But that’s just the beginning. Gender fluidity is absolutely the future.


    Narrator: When it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, futurist, author, and founder and CEO of marketing consulting firm BrainReserve, Faith Popcorn holds no punches. In this podcast that was recorded at the recent Virgin Atlantic Business is an Adventure event held in partnership with Investec in Johannesburg, Faith is joined on a panel by other leading thinkers in this field including:


    • Dr. Tashmia Ismail-Saville - CEO of the Youth Employment Service
    • Dr Marc Kahn, Global Head of Human Resources and Organisational Development at Investec
    • And lawyer and diversity advocate Thando Hopa


    Business is an Adventure is a global live business event series that brings together business leaders and game changers to share their insights into the challenges facing companies both locally and internationally.

    Panel moderator Claire Mawisa starts the conversation…


    Claire Mawisa: Hello, Johannesburg, and the world. I'm Claire Mawisa and this is Virgin Atlantic's business is an adventure in proud partnership with Investec. 


    Last year the Harvard Business Review formally confirmed that diversity does indeed yield quantifiable dividends in business. But what is happening out there in the real world, and more importantly, how can we, as a business community, get better at empowering the people within our organisations? 

  • 1:57: The benefits of inclusion and a gender fluid future

    CM: Faith, I'm going to start with you. What are some of the business benefits of inclusion and how do these dynamics positively impact the workplace?


    Faith Popcorn: You know, first of all, I want to say it's not a choice anymore. And these are such unordinary times, you need an unordinary bank and an unordinary everything, and you know, we're seeing that when there's diversity in the boardroom for instance, business is up 35%; when there are females in high levels business does so much better.


    Now we're saying, diversity, so now we kind of mean, like, only mixing black and white, right?  Male and female.  But that's just the beginning.


    Gender fluidity is absolutely the future.  When we look back, we're going to say “Men and women? That's a joke!”. I mean that was nothing, and I just want to you know, people say to me when I talk about gender fluidity, and we can come back to this later if you want. Why do we have to do this?  You know, I don't want to do this.


    And by the way, it's not up to you. I mean people want to be recognised and bring their whole self to work.  So, if they're fluid, if they're binary, if they're just plain crazy, you know, if they're gay, if they're embarrassingly straight.


    You have to be unordinary, and you have to be special, and to be human in these inhuman times is a most gorgeous mission. So, is that a good start? 

  • 03:23: Including youth in your company’s diversity mix

    CM: That's a fantastic start.  And Dr Ismail, we think diversity, we have to think youth as well. What potential is still trapped within our youth, but we haven't unlocked yet?


    Tashmia Ismail-Saville: So youth are going to be your future customers, are going to be your future employees, are going to be the custodians of the South African economy, and the world economy, and currently 6.7 million of these young people, over a third of our youth population, are completely locked out of the jobs market.  And this quite often translates into lifetime unemployment...


    A sobering stat is that an unemployed person costs the country 1.2 million over a lifetime.  If we don't put these young people into work, that'll cost us R7.9 trillion as a country, and they have the potential to be brought into the workforce, and to become contributors.

  • 4:15: Who is responsible for bringing diversity into an organisation?

    CM: Now, Dr Marc you're like the big HR guy at Investec, so all the business leaders here are listening to you and they thinking, which department in an organisation is responsible for bringing in that diversity and ensuring that it happens in the workplace?


    Marc Kahn: Everyone in the company is responsible for diversity and inclusion. Yes, leadership will take the lead. Yes, the HR function will support the endeavour but everyone's responsible for diversity and inclusion. 

  • 4:47: The difference between diversity and inclusion

    CM: And Thando, in your life and in your career from law, to fashion, to advocacy what has your personal experience being when it comes to diversity?


    Thando Hopa: I think it's been a quite an interesting experience, because my career has always been involved in representation. What I noticed is, people tend to think that diversity and inclusion are the same thing, and they're not.


    Diversity is when you're dealing with perceivable differences, so race, gender etc.  But inclusion really requires you to look at change structurally, attitudinally, behaviourally, and I think, what I noticed in my career, is that people would think okay, we have this model who's got albinism and she's on the cover and tick, you know.


    But that's diversity, that's fine, but it's symbolic. Inclusion requires you to be able to hone that voice, for that person to actually participate in that sphere. So, I think that you know, there's a bit of education that's required. 

  • 5:49: Inclusion and belonging

    CM: So Dr Marc, from what Thando is saying, if I'm an organisation, can I just make sure that I've got diversity? Then automatically I'm going to see benefits, and I'm going to see better decisions being made, if I've got a diverse group of people in my organisation?


    MK:  Very good question Claire. I mean the real debate is around inclusion and belonging, because it's not enough to have representation.  Just because you've got the right percentage of this type of person, and that type of person in a team, does not mean that you will have an improved team function and/or organisational
    outcomes, or better decision-making.


    It's not enough. It is important. What is required is a culture of inclusion and belonging, because it's only in that culture that the interaction between those differences can come together in a productive way.


    And we see this is a common failure, and I think you’re spot on Thando when you say you’re on the cover, like a tick. Okay, we've got a woman on the team; okay, we've got X people of colour on the team, great, now we can all get on with business.  Fail. That's a fail. 

    First step is to get the representation, but the real hard work is to have a leadership that builds an environment where that difference can have a voice, and is not marginalised, and so often we do see this problem where appointments are made then down the line things don't go well and then the naysayers, what do they say?


    CM: They say well, it didn't work. I did everything I was told to do, I've got the team - it's all a rainbow nation, why is it not working?


    MK: Thank you, you see what happens. We put the people on and it didn't work, and what's really happened there is that they just stopped at the diversity representation point, and they did not create the environment, the culture of inclusion. So, you then had a marginalisation of those voices, you know, you're the only woman
    on an all-male team. That's great, but you never get a chance to speak, and you get asked to make the tea, you know, yes, it happens.


    CM: You've got a nice example of... to explain the fact of diversity and inclusion. Could you give that example? 


    MK: So, it's a cute one, diversity is when you get invited to the dance, inclusion is when someone asks you to dance, and belonging is when you dance madly because you don't care who's watching. 

  • 8:06: The current trends in gender dynamics

    CM: That's so cute. That's fantastic. Faith, you touched on it a little bit earlier, but could you give us an idea of what are the current trends, some current trends, and future trends, when it comes to the dynamics in gender and other aspects of diversity, because I don't think people understand when you said fluid, everyone was like, “I'm not sure I get what she's saying?”


    FP: Facebook recognises 71 genders. 71 okay. It's really endless, what you could be, you know, and confusing - you come to work one way, in the middle of the day or something else, and that's what millennials all love right?


    So, this HR guy, really big multinational big shot HR guy, you know, we're talking about this. So, he said, now I have to have 71 bathrooms?  I said no, you have to have one bathroom, and that explains it.  And I'll just point to my friend the clownfish - one of my favourite fish. So, the clown fish - the top fish is a female, and she surrounds herself with male clownfish.


    So when she dies, a male comes to the top - the second in command is a male - and he turns immediately into the female, and that is the model for the Fortune 200, that’s the fluidness - it's not how you think, or your religion, or this and that, it's how the millennials which are [worth]... or in Gen Z, 46 billion dollars only, do you want to really skip them? 


    They don't want to be pigeonholed. Twenty-eight percent of Millennials don't want to be identified by gender. So I think you you're going to try to ignore this, but it's not ignorable. And if you're going to, you're going to come into a lot of like friction and conflict if you don't take this in. So maybe like black and whites going to seem easy next to that, that's the next thing. That we have to be.

  • 10:11: Companies attitude towards hiring young people

    CM: And Dr Ismail, what are people's, or organisation’s attitudes towards the youth? Because as Faith is talking, I'm thinking this is a tricky bunch that's coming up, that I'm going to try and incorporate in our organisation.  Are people looking at youth as this untapped amazing potential?  Or are they thinking... I don't know...


    TIS: There's initially quite a fear of bringing young people into the workforce because if you've got labour laws that make it difficult to get a person out, you know, it can be tricky. Also, often youth are coming from very different backgrounds. There are cultural gaps, educational gaps, but this idea of turning mentors into heroes, and a lot of those positions are seen to be successful if you prepare the company for young people coming in, and saying you're the hero here, you can transfer skills and learning.


    And after a few months we have companies phoning into YES, who were very fearful about taking large numbers of youth on board, and they phone back, and say wow, they've just brought this fresh thinking. They pick up on new things so fast, they've taught us a few things and how to modernise parts of the business.


    And so if you if you set expectations, if you turn some people into heroes, and give others the space to allow those ideas to come about you can turn that around, that mindset of what it means to bring diversity in your organisation.  In our case, a lot of it is about bringing youth into your organisation. 

  • 11:36: South Africa is still focused on diversity of race

    CM: Just on a global scale Marc, could you share with us where South Africa is from an HR perspective? Are we more or less progressive when it comes to diversity in our organisations?


    MK: It's a good question. I mean, I think that it's a both/and answer.  So we are progressive and leading the world in one way, but in another way we've got some big gaps. So clearly South Africa has got a very strong history in the last 20 years of trying to level the playing field, given apartheid. 


    So when it comes to race, as a particular form of difference, this is what we would call, you know, foreground in the country, and in many ways South Africa is a role model on how to work in organisations around race, but one of the unintended consequences of that is that other forms of difference become less visible.


    So, for example, if we look at the legislation in this country, which is excellent legislation in terms of levelling that playing field, it doesn't account for Faith’s narrative around sexual orientation. So, for example, where are we in creating an environment where no matter what your sexual orientation is or what your gender identity is, you feel it's easy to be yourself in workplaces in this country?


    And when you compare the two, you'll find, from a race point of view, we're very active, very progressive, but from a sexual orientation point of view, we are trailing behind the United States by some way, as an example.


    I'll just conclude by saying this is one of the tricky things about this field, is that when you start identifying groups that you need to correct for, based on history, you inadvertently marginalise other groups that don't necessarily have a voice, and that is why we prefer to have a more inclusive environment.


    I love the example of you need one bathroom, not 71 bathrooms, and that's so often the mistake. Okay, which five groups are we going to fix at Virgin or Investec? That's all great. But what about the other 70 groups, or 60, or whatever it might be, and that's why it's about the cultural context of this, not identifying and then targeting particular groups. Although we have to do that as well. Thando, I know you feel the same way.

  • 13:41: Building a consultative environment

    CM: She's nodding so hard in agreement, hallelujah, that’s what she wants to say to Marc.


    TH: One of the most wonderful experiences of my life, is I had this big client, and as soon as I stepped in the client said, “You know, we've got all of these hair products, but we don't know if you want to bring in something that you use?”  And I said, oh no, these are natural hair products. All of them are fine.


    And then they said to me, while they were doing my makeup, they said “Oh, what do you do with your eyebrows?” I say. Oh no, I keep them pale, and then they put me into this beautiful dress, and the lady said “Oh the back is open over here. Are you are you comfortable with that?” I said, yes, I'm comfortable. 


    That dealt with race, albinism and gender. I didn't feel the weight of my body. I didn't feel female. I didn't feel like I had albinism, I just felt like I was a person, in a place, and this is before we even took the shot. So I think for me that was an inclusive environment, and one of the factors that you hone out from that, is that it was a consultative framework. 

  • 14:38: Intersectionality

    CM: You are one of the hundred, hundred most influential women in the world, what are some of the barriers that you're still facing?


    TH: I think there is this particular concept, that was coined by an American professor, Professor Crenshaw, and the term is intersectionality. So, intersectionality is... I'm going to try and make it as simple as possible.


    I am in a body that has identities, more than one identity. That has a history of marginalisation, discrimination or oppression. In other words, race, gender, albinism and also being African. When I started [out] I said, “oh I want to represent albinism in a positive way”, but it was such an oversimplification, because when a project comes, I have to think about race representation, gender representation, how Africa has been represented and how albinism is being represented, and it becomes a difficult situation.


    And the second thing is rubber-stamping of representation. I struggled a lot, mostly with traditional media, in that I was expected to rubber-stamp whatever people thought my story was, instead of having equal control over representation.


    And the project that did the best, I don't think I can name brands, but the projects that did the best, and that actually won awards, were projects that allowed us to co-create in the space, and where I could have equal control over my representation. So yeah.  


    CM: Wow, do you want to add something?


    MK: And I mean, I think that's so powerful, and I can make it personal for me when I was a younger man, I used to visit my grandmother at an old age home, and I'm using those words intentionally, so now we're talking about ageism. 


    And there was an elderly fellow who was just waiting to cross the street with a walking stick, and I approached him, and took him by the arm to help him across the road, and he went like this, “I don't need your help”, and I walked off thinking, “Oh, well, you know I tried I tried, you know”. You're trying to help people, you try and help people. Okay.


    Now you see, what I missed is what you were saying. I made an assumption about his abilities based on his age. That's a form of marginalisation. And what I could have done was say, “Would you like some assistance crossing the road?” which would have given him the dignity of his own voice, and he would have said “I'm fine, thank you very much”.


    But my failure to know that I walked away judging him, and he felt marginalised by virtue of the interaction, and that's what we forget to do. That's the consultation that has been referred to here. 

  • 16:56: Putting policies in place to entrench diversity

    CM: I know we might have incredible policies written about diversity and inclusion, but what do we then do to make sure that those policies are actually enforced, and that diversity actually happens?


    TIS: You know all this talk of sharing bathrooms. I don't know if I'm ready to share yet. I have to get over that, and it takes time to get over your fears around certain things.


    So if there was a rule that there was one bathroom, and that rule is enforced, it would become my norm, and I think if we can start to create these types of rules that turn this behaviour into the norm in a country, but we have to enforce those policies.


    We have primal wirings, and then we have societal layers over those primal wirings, and sometimes those societal norms are just very unhealthy.


    Everybody struggles with this. It does hold you back. It does create barriers, and everyone deserves a chance to be able to move through freely. And I think that great legislation and policy making an enforcement of that, gives people who have valuable contributions, a pathway to be able to make it, because if we don't make the policies, and make it easy for people to show you what they can do and deliver, we lose out on vast talent that would otherwise have really taken us forward as a country.

  • 18:14: Final thoughts

    CM: Now just quickly to wrap up, I want to ask each one of you - we’re speaking to leaders, we’re speaking to organisations today. What is your final golden nugget that you would like to leave with them when it comes to diversity giving business an advantage? I'll start with you Faith. 


    FP: You know our company looks out, and then looks back to the present, right?  And I would say if you really want to understand this, do Snapchat because you can be a hippopotamus, you can be a monkey, you can be anything you want, and looking down the road, understand where it's going, because it will give you a bit of perspective.


    But nobody's going to be pregnant. We're going to have our babies in like, you know, beautiful tanks. There's not going to be genders like this, is going to be like incredible fluidity. We're going to cross with robots. We're already doing that. If you have a knee that's robotic or shoulder [that’s robotic], you've done it already.  As a matter of fact, you have already married your phone.


    So, I'd say, you know, don't think about yourself, think about them. And I think that that would do it. And put your arm around them, put your arm literally, and you know have your lawyers there...


    CM: There just in case…


    FP: ...put your arm around them and you will get what you deserve.


    CM: Thank you. Dr Ismail, what would you like to leave with the people that are listening to this conversation today about diversity giving that organisation an advantage?


    TIS: I would like to use science to make points really firmly. They looked at indicators, communities or business clusters around the world. And what were those variables? What were those factors that made those communities innovative?  Because we know innovative is one of the best ways to confer business advantage, innovativeness, and it was the proportion of homosexuals in that society.


    That was the biggest predictor of the innovation level, and it speaks to the fact that those are spaces where homosexual people feel comfortable, and therefore it is a place that is tolerant and accepting, and gives a voice to people of who make that sexual choice. 


    And so, I don't think we can put it any more plainly than the science says, empirically, it's proven that the more diverse and open you are to wider thought and acceptance, and  giving it voice, the more competitive you will be. 


    CM: Thank you. Dr Kahn, what would you say?


    MK: So, I'm going to quote Investec's vision for diversity, inclusion and belonging, and I want to share it, because I love it so much. Our vision is... it's a place where it's easy to be yourself, and we underline the word easy, and I offer this as a way for leaders to think a little differently about diversity.


    Diversity is not about numbers and representation, and having these groups - yes, that is a component - think about the individuals, the human beings in your environment, and consider how easy it is for them to be themselves.


    How much of themselves do they need to put aside in order to work in your space?  No matter what they are, where they are, who they are. That’s the vision.  Other companies can have it too...  it's fun. It's not copyrighted.


    CM: You're giving it away... And Thando from you?


    TH: Do you know what I've noticed - and I think Marc has already also said it - is what would set your business apart is values. It's what your business values are.


    I think they will shape the kind of leaders you choose, and they will shape the kind of policies that you have, and with respect to diversity, if you approach it as an obligation, and not as a place of opportunity, like just a wealth of untapped potential, then it's not going to work for you.


    But if you approach it with opportunity and a wealth of untapped potential, then you'll be able to hone the creative energies of all the individuals in that space to your benefit. 


    CM: Wow, phenomenal. Thank you.  Diversity of backgrounds, race, outlook and gender has definitely been shown to be an advantage in business, and in an era that's becoming more and more competitive by the minute, to stay ahead of the curve is to bend the curve and define a new normal. Thank you so much to our guests for your thought-provoking discussion. 


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