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Diversity – why should we care?

Today, I’d like to reflect on a trendy topic of diversity. Recently, I was asked by a journalist about what I think is missing in the Polish startup ecosystem. The interview led to a heated debate on various startup groups. As I have pointed out, diversity is one of the key criteria that highlights the shortcomings of both the Polish startups and grown up companies. Something that may block them on their way to be growing internationally. In my view, some debaters’ comments in the “Startup Talks” group, show the shortage of diversity or the difficulty in understanding the need of it in the first place. Listen to this episode to find our why the diversity matters, how to understand it and what it can bring to your business and team. Are you ready?

Going back to the discussion that took place… While pointing at different areas, such as the lack of capital, the lack of ideas or the lack of managerial experience, the debaters largely overlooked diversity as something that could actually help improve those shortcomings and open new roads. These lacking elements seemed much more essential than the absence of diversity. I wonder – how do you see it in your company?

I personally regard diversity as crucial. I learnt about it at AirHelp where we could get living proof in many ways how essential it is and how tremendously it boosted the growth of the organization. For those of you who don’t know the AirHelp history, let me just remind that within three years the company has grown from 50 to 700 employees; the number of served customers from 3 thousand to half a million per month. The company currently operates on 30 markets worldwide. In my perception, to a large extent, the success of AirHelp is as a result of diversity. We share this view among our associates, investors as well as our top and mid-management.

This wide variety it’s not only about maintaining gender parity, keeping an equal number of males and females in management structures or speakers at events. Far beyond the gender context, it shows in different cultures, origins, nationalities, hard skills (qualifications and experience) as well as soft skills (personalities, communication, teamwork and social observation abilities).

Ignored as they often are, diverse social backgrounds and mentalities are no less substantial ingredients of the overall success. In our teams we may get self-made men who still continue their families’ modest lifestyle and who still haven’t or already have tasted all the hardships of going from rags to riches. We may also get those who have just come into their fortunes and can’t imagine not wearing Omega or Philippe Patek wristwatches or not playing golf. These are people of two different mentalities. As different as the mindsets of men and women, the young and the elderly, each storing different memories and open to different influences.

Apart from the gender-related aspect of diversity, nationality or cultural background is most often brought up. A few comments here on national stereotypes. We’ve all heard of those Germans, who are always punctual and organized, those Mediterranean nations (Spaniards, Italians, Greeks) who are easy-going, laid-back and social at the same time. These stereotypes might be often true, but we should be careful, working in a multicultural environment, because the reality may prove otherwise. Remember, we may just as well meet an Italian who values punctuality and a German who prefers building great relationships to being always sharp on time.

Why do we need this diversity, then? The message of this podcast I really want you to remember is that it broadens our horizons. Each of its components, the sex, the nationality, the cultural background, the age, the soft and hard skills widens the target group that understands the team and the target group that the team understands. Translate this to the language of business – if we are supposed to create a product of global, large-scale appeal and universal customer reach, a product that will grow along with the company, we must do our best to understand our target group and diverse, ever expanding future target groups, reachable as the product develops.

For example, as Marcin Kowalik of Black Pearls VC often says, 5 white pure Polish Roman Catholic programmers, even if they use trendy Java, will have a hard time to understand the target group an inch wider than 5 white pure Polish Roman Catholic programmers. Such is the importance of diversity in each founding team if they seriously think of international expansion. The team just can’t be made only off Polish-speaking people. Well, enriching your workforce mix with cultural, language and location diversity is not easy. Having staff rooted in other cultures often means opening branches in foreign environments.

Just like my father says:

no one said it’s going to be easy and he was right“.

It does take an effort to build a diverse team that will explore wider options and broader cultural horizons into your target groups.

But then, business isn’t done to go the easy way; it’s done to solve people’s problems. The problems big enough for the service value in the client’s eyes to exceed the price of solving the problem. This is a common truth on sales price. The buyer will not feel forced to purchase the service or product unless he regards it as more valuable than its price. That is why we do business – to understand as best we can the service value for this or that client. It’s also for a wider client group that we are not delivering anything at the moment, but that we want to understand. If running a business or expanding a company were simple, it would no longer be a challenge. This holds true for many things. The same goes for diversity. There are expenses, there is an effort, there are challenges and then there is a reward for undertaking all that. The reward in the form of considerably wider horizons, development beyond our individual potential. Wider and deeper than the perfect binary code-based understanding those 5 white Polish programmers might ever achieve. So, despite the difficulty, it is discovering the new perspectives of wider communities as well as reaching the closer understanding of employees, clients and partners that is precisely worth investing in.

Easier said than done. In one of the comments I received about the article that I wrote as a venture partner of the Black Pearls VC, someone wrote “well this is all great Bolek, this diversity and all, but how does it work in your Fund?” And it turns out that in the Fund we actually have those 5 white Poles full stop. So I don’t do as I say and even in my company things are not that brilliant regarding diversity. In Black Pearls VC we are trying to address the problem and co-invest in a variety of startups jointly with foreign funds in order to mix the financial and the human capital and learn from one another. This is why we have so many joint ventures in the portfolio that are foreign. Also, the clients of our companies, even of those of the Polish origin, such as Skyrise, a software house, come from outside of Poland, so does part of the Board of Directors of this company. These relationships give us the opportunity to learn the international, multicultural world.

My personal experience, most of all that of the last few years at AirHelp Poland (where until 2019 I was its president), has been very positive and I deem it to be the result of diversity. So, take the gender parity – a sensitive issue these days. At AirHelp, we have managed to strike a 50/50 balance of male and female workforce. This proportion is still fairly equal in mid-management whereas in the board, sad to admit, the current ratio is 2 female leaders out of 8.

All along, we should be aware that percentage parities, national or gender ones, should not be self-imposed, taken literally, or externally dictated. They should follow from the competencies available in a given team confronted with the needs that arise in this team. The element of diversity should be an extra advantage that we bear in mind while hiring new staff, but it should never be decisive in our final choice. Avoid thinking along these lines: “competent or not, we need another male in this feminized team, so we take him on”. Well, of course there are areas such as education, hugely dominated by women, just crying for some more men to balance or diversify the upbringing process. But the very decision that a man or a woman is employed should not result from any parity obligation. It should remain free and be based on competency. It is enormously important because wherever parity is carelessly demanded, just to overrule the 50/50 gender ratio, there is a danger that someone’s sex becomes the only decisive competency.

Honestly, I would love to see a multinational and multicultural variety in Polish organizations and boards of directors. I’d love to see more women – leaders and more female winners of prizes that various bodies award. For instance, I’ve recently had the honour to be awarded the Top Manager prize by Business Centre Club and Gdańsk Baltic Daily. Reviewing the winners’ list, we noticed that, ever since the prize was established 17 years ago, only once has it gone to a woman. In the future contest editions, it would be fantastic if the Jury, partly composed of the previous Top Manager prize winners, does acknowledge the women’s contribution to company leadership, with so many ladies who are doing great in this domain.

However, with regard to recruitment decisions, I think it really matters if they are qualification-based, not driven by the will to show off with gender, national or any other diversity.

In summary, there are quite a few aspects of diversity. The more aspects of it, the greater the challenge to manage a diversified team, but also the greater the chance to understand more target groups. Diversity is meant to enrich teams and organizations. Not imposed by its very need, it should follow from competencies and be appreciated as an added value that can boost the capability of the whole team.

I hope you will find these reflections on diversity inspiring. If you wish to add your opinion or just tag me on social media such as Facebook or LinkedIn, you are very welcome. I will be pleased to write you back. Thank you very much, have a nice day and remember, diversity is a gift, demanding yet beneficial, if you use it wisely.

It broadens your horizons!

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