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The magic of misfits: Diversity as a competitive advantage

Returning from the RISE Conference in Hong Kong where I spoke about Open Design, it was clear that China has already eclipsed Silicon Valley on many fronts. While there is exceptional talent in the Bay Area, a vast educational system spread across 50 states, and a high degree of tech fluency among the general population, this alone will not sustain the US as a tech leader.

The untapped potential for American tech lies in the cultural capital of its increasingly diverse population. If China’s technology ascent is predicated largely on population scale and density, then America should see population diversity as its vital and differentiated asset. With that in mind, it must reframe ‘Diversity & Inclusion’ from quotas to competitive advantage.

Company leaders often have altruistic aspirations. They want to build a meritocratic culture that represents the larger populace. But people, as social animals, don’t like change. They recreate cultural communities that are familiar and self-affirming. Talent is drawn from a wave of former colleagues, university classmates and friend-of-a-friends, which means many groups are overlooked. This has lead to inadequacies in the tech giants’ EEO1-reports, covered broadly in the media last year, and new personnel appointments to address these shortcomings.    

While cognitive diversity is a proven engine to drive superior products, this heterogeneity is tied as much to identity diversity as it is to inter-disciplinarity. The often overlooked talent pool of women, people of color, military veterans and older, mature workers can provide essential and challenging perspectives, and expose teams to greenfield opportunities. The appetite for greatness is also an exercise in embracing the unfamiliar. Misfits provide magic.

Within a homogeneous culture, biases often go unchecked, and seep into the products. For much of the 20th century for instance, the dynamic range of Kodak film favored white skin, and was calibrated against the famous Shirley card. Today, machine-learning algorithms are observed to incorporate race and gender prejudices, concealed within language patterns and image preferences. While the recent ‘cultural strife’ at various tech enclaves point to advancing stereotypes, they also serve as a warning. They remind us that in order to create transformative, human-centered products, harmful biases mustn’t be baked into the products themselves.

Though there are common excuses — lack of quality applicants, talent pipeline deficiencies and compromised search funnels, diversity shouldn’t be classed as a nice-to-have. For the tech sector, it’s a functional necessity. Enough lamenting brogrammers and the technocracy. Diversity is the signature of a winning future-facing company, and thriving industry-at-large.


Illustration by Albert Chang

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