Diversity: messy, difficult, necessary

19 Jun 2019

How does diversity benefit business? Beyond the optics. Beyond the proof of political correctness or token changes.

 

Leonid Sudakov is the founding president of Kinship, a new type of business created by Mars Petcare, the global leader in pet nutrition and health. Mars Petcare serves 400 million cats and dogs around the world – and many more pet owners. They’re all very different, and their needs are different, too. 

 

For Sudakov, hard-wiring diversity into business strategy and embedding it at all levels opens up space for new perspectives and leads to better-served customers. He explains why diversity is the key to creativity and success in every enterprise, and why it must be on the agenda for all businesses.

Diversity is messy. It’s not comfortable by design. Because real diversity is built on difference. It’s built on an acceptance that yours isn’t the only way. And that’s what gives diversity an edge in creative endeavours.
 
Like many executives, I’ve seen growing acknowledgement that businesses need to represent the diversity of their customers. Kinship, along with our partners, is creating the future of pet care. The way to do that is by embracing diversity.
 

How diverse talent delivers value

Diversity is good for business. In April, the WEF released a piece titled ‘The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming’ that cites research showing how diversity brings advantages to an organisation. And an eight-year study from MIT found the most profitable workplaces were those that were most diverse – gender-wise, race-wise and class-wise.
 
Diversity requires enabling a ‘creative rainbow’ of ideas that prevent companies from getting homogenised and stagnant. At Kinship, we’re creating a coalition built on difference: a network of people and businesses with different talents, open to all to realise their ambitions while overturning the stereotypes of what businesses should look like and how they should operate.
 
Difference is a very personal concept for me. Brought up in Soviet Russia, I’ve lived and worked all over the world: in China, across Europe and now back in the US. I’ve had the wrong accent at times, and not been able to find the right words – but I learned to value what my experience brought to the table in every business I found myself in. So hearing different voices and learning from different cultures became extremely important, because I’ve seen how this difference creates unique value.
 

Soviet Russia was ahead of the curve

The case for diversity is at its clearest in terms of the role of women in business. Soviet Russia has been through several periods when it has upended the traditional role of women in the society in very specific ways. Following the 1917 revolution, Lenin spoke about ‘unchaining women’ from the kitchen sink and from the nursery, and in the 1920s created an environment in which millions of Soviet women entered the workforce, particularly in the field of science.
 
By the 1960s, 40% of the PhDs in chemistry in the Soviet Union were awarded to women, compared with 5% in the US. It wasn’t all rosy: Soviet women weren’t able to scale their careers in the same way as their male counterparts. But all the same, women were educated in a way far ahead of the developed economies of the West – and a career in science became an attractive dream for many girls.

 
This is significant. According to a study by Microsoft, when girls are around 15 they stop being interested in science: social media kicks in, influencers are, well, influencing them in other ways, and so this context turns their ambitions elsewhere. The Soviets made science an attractive, liberating and fulfilling option for women, to literally ‘unchain’ them from traditional roles. Science has been a very clear way towards independence for Soviet women.
 

Putting it into practice today

Tech, of course, is still a very male-heavy sector, in part owing to the entrenched network element of the industry. There are very real structural barriers for women to break through. But when we think about diversity, we should not just think about it in the largest sense. It needs to be enacted in a very specific way. It shouldn’t simply be about showing women how to juggle all their potential conflicts – it’s about hiring more women where they can provide visible inspiration to others.
 
At Kinship, we’ve hired female CEOs for two of our businesses – global leaders in their sectors of genetic diagnostics and connected technology. We hired them because they were the best, and because we believe it is important to invest in diversity and visible leadership. And, in partnership with R/GA Ventures, we recently dedicated a week-long start-upprogramme to female founders at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
 
In business, people are forced to come together to create something. The fundamental aspect of diversity, then, is a respect for difference – and, from that, building an advantageous and creative rainbow of ideas.