America's Changing Workplace

Posted by Denis Wilson on June 15, 2011
America's Changing Workplace

The American workplace increasingly resembles a salad-one that's been assembled at a very well-stocked salad bar. Some of the ingredients are what you'd predict (lettuce isn't going away any time soon), but others are unexpected: walnuts and pear slices and dried cranberries. The result is a livelier mixture than the fare of twenty, ten, or even five years ago. In real-world terms: Diversity is enriching American business in surprising ways. Just look at the five people profiled in these pages. We talked to them about the cultural shift that's changing "diversity" from a feel-good buzzword to a business reality. These are the faces of that change.


From Apprentice celeb to entrepreneur

Kwame Jackson has turned his name into a formidable brand in itself. Since rubbing elbows with The Donald on the original Apprentice, Jackson has become a public speaker, an aspiring author, and with his Legacy Holdings, a real estate developer. His most recent enterprise: Krimson By Kwame, a new line of "classic, yet contemporary" neckwear geared toward execs.

That's an impressive track record for a man of 33.  And it's emphatically entrepreneurial. Jackson has served stints at Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble, but early in his career he chose to set out on his own rather than take the corporate route. Even his decision to go on TV was an entrepreneurial step-Goldman Sachs told him to choose between his job and The Apprentice and Jackson chose The Apprentice. The gambit paid off, giving him celebrity status, which he then turned into viable business capital.

Jackson sees a clear tie between his entrepreneurial bent and his ethnicity. He notes that a look at the ethnic makeup of the country's top CEOs shows that the glass ceiling has by no means been shattered. For an ambitious African American, it can present a powerful disincentive: Why invest your efforts in a company where you can't see yourself rising to the top of the heap? "People want to look down that road and say 'Oh, that's me,'" says Jackson. "They're becoming disillusioned with the climb to the top. That's why you see the growth of minority entrepreneurs."

Of course, it isn't just skin color that determines an entrepreneur-it's also fire in the belly. "I think I've always been in business," says Jackson "I was one of those kids that sold candy on the school bus.

"I'm not going to fool myself into thinking I'm the same as everyone else," Jackson continues. He cites the three-fifths compromise in the U.S. Constitution to back up his point: "The baggage [of racism] originates from even before the founding of our country. If it's written into the formal fabric of our country-of our Constitution-imagine how it's written into our minds."


Lina Echeverria's open forum

 "I have always felt that I've been entitled to my opinion," says scientist Lina Echeverría. It was an attitude formed in childhood. Echeverría's mother, painter Dora Ramirez, would often entertain Colombia's leading intellectuals-including future Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Márquez. No matter how extreme the opinion, Ramirez ran the dinner table as a comfort zone for individual expression.

The openness of her parents' house left Echeverría ill-prepared for American corporate politics. She joined Corning in 1983, and during the early years of her career there, when she was researching ceramic materials, she suggested a procedure that flew in the face of standard policy. She had solid scientific reasons for the proposal, based on her doctoral work in geology. But the white men she worked with were having none of it.

The incident taught her an important lesson: people can get uncomfortable with ideas that come from unexpected sources. She realized that she and her present colleagues were a bad match, and transferred to materials research, where she was able to forge forward.

As a manager, Echeverría has taken a cue from her mother's dinner table, fostering a free exchange of viewpoints. It's an approach that fits Corning's culture, where innovation is paramount. She encourages her staffers to  express their whole selves in the office.

"People can't be creative if you ask them to leave the rest of their lives outside the door," she says. Case in point: A brilliant physicist who had always worked on his own. When Echeverría discovered that he and his wife were avid jitterbug dancers, she realized that he was less of a loner than anyone had suspected. She put him to work on a product team where he helped achieve breakthroughs.

By embracing diversity and creating an environment where people feel free to be themselves, Echeverría has been able to foster creativity and innovation. As she puts it: "It's difficult for a flower to bloom in the desert."


Tina Wells puts the accent on youth.

For Tina Wells, diversity is a non-issue. "I really believe that in my business the only color people see is green," says the African-American marketing entrepreneur. She knows that as long as she has information that a client seeks, it doesn't matter who or what she is: the desire to make money is a blind one.

Her company, Buzz Marketing Group, targets teens and tweens: a sought-after demographic, but one that graying corporate types often have trouble reaching. Buzz Marketing keeps in touch with its target market via "BuzzSpotters"-a worldwide network of more than 9,000 young consultants. The company then passes its findings along to clients like American Eagle, Time Inc., and the basketball gear company And1.  

Wells started the firm when she was only 16, but she had already been writing reviews on youth-oriented products for New Girl Times, a newspaper for young girls. Eventually she started bypassing the middleman and submitting reviews and suggestions directly to the companies-and the companies couldn't get enough. "Age didn't make a difference," says Wells. "I was young and had nothing to lose from being honest."

As much as Wells dismisses the concept of "diversity" as a factor in her own career, she recognizes that it plays a vital role in marketing, which by its very nature constantly seeks out cultural niches and embraces the needs of emerging groups. "I think that it's great that companies are recognizing the need for their advertising and marketing campaigns to reflect the diversity that exists in our country," she says.

In fact, diversity is so built into the fabric of Wells's work that she feels it hardly bears mentioning. "I work in youth marketing," she says. "Youth culture is urban, edgy, cool. In one word, it's diverse. It's pretty much the epitome of diversity."


Nancy Di Dia and the hidden face of diversity

"You can see I'm a woman, I'm short, and I have gray hair," says Nancy Di Dia. "But you can't see I'm a lesbian."

At Boehringer Ingelheim, Di Dia pays close attention to diversity's "invisible challenges": minorities like gays, lesbians, and people with disabilities. She's a veteran of investment banking-in her experience, a less tolerant environment for minorities, particularly gays and lesbians. "It wasn't very comfortable to talk about your sexuality-but it was okay to tell gay jokes,"

Di Dia says. She sees compassion as part of the very nature of the pharmaceutical industry. "In financial services it's all about making money," she says. "But first and foremost [at Boehringer], we're concerned about our patients."

Since joining Boehringer last year, Di Dia has established Working with Pride, an affinity group for GLBT employees. She has also expanded the company's non-discrimination policy to include transgendered people: "If one day you're John Brown and the next day you're Jane Brown, you're still the same person."

Needless to say, Di Dia sees her mandate as extending to all of Boehringer's minority employees. In her words: "I'm an advocate of human rights."


Global business, global outlook

"The business world is becoming more global and less U.S.-based," says Prasad Hedge. "It's the end of cookie-cutter culture."

Born in Australia to Indian parents, and educated in Switzerland, Japan, and the U.S., Hedge's outlook is truly international-which came in handy when he was helping move some Ariba operations to India. The problem: Every time HQ made a request, the Indian team would accept it-then fail to deliver. "I realized it was really a communication issue," says Hedge. "Hierarchy is much stronger in India and subordinates don't want to give bosses bad news, even when they have zero chance of delivering as promised." Hedge worked to facilitate communication between both sides, eventually resulting in an effective relationship.

In its way, the U.S. was as difficult. "The first time I worked here, I asked for four weeks vacation," says Hedge. "My boss called me in and asked me if I was serious about my career. I realized that in the U.S., you not only had to get your work done, but you needed to look like you're working hard." Another lesson in multiculturalism.

MBA Jungle, March 2008.

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