Embracing Diversity and Inclusion in India

A Zambian, a Kenyan, a Moroccan, a Ghanaian, a Malagasy, an Indian and a Slovak walked into a cafeteria. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this was what our lunch table often looked like at African Leadership Academy. Every meaningful conversation about diversity takes me back to this special place where I had the opportunity to work for four years. Located in Johannesburg, South Africa, African Leadership Academy (ALA) is an incredibly diverse organization with staff from over 25 countries and students from over 45 African nations.

With an ambitious mission to develop the next generation of African leaders, ALA is a remarkable organization in many ways. But what makes it truly special is how the diverse mix of talented teachers, staff and students who populate its campus embrace each other’s diversity. When I joined, I had waltzed into a cultural melting pot unlike any other I have ever come across and I became part of this open-minded group of people with differences in every possible aspect. With people from so many different backgrounds and cultures, one would assume that cooperation would be challenging. Yet, what I witnessed at ALA was an environment in which people who had little in common set aside their differences and came together because they were bound by the same core values, a superseding common purpose and a strong sense of community.

Over time, I came to understand that this environment had come about because of thoughtful and deliberate practices established to embrace diversity by design. From the beginning, it is made explicitly clear that diversity is one of ALA’s core values. Every student at ALA is part of an advisory family which comprises of five students, one from every region of the continent and two adults from faculty and staff (remember the group that walked into the cafeteria?). The group attends assembly together, meets for lunch weekly and participates in various events and activities together over two years. Students are deliberately paired with roommates from different parts of the continent. At Assembly, the community stands up for every national day in that week as all the members of that nation go up on stage to sing their nation’s anthem with pride. Every major religious festival is celebrated with pomp, including, much to my surprise, Diwali. For my first Diwali in Johannesburg, I helped my Nigerian and Zimbabwean friends wear sarees and worked with Mauritian students on a Rangoli before sharing a home-cooked Indian meal with them – one they had cooked for me! All these practices bring about remarkable effects. They help people understand and celebrate each other’s differences, gradually shed their preconceived notions, build respect for each other, bond and collaborate towards a common goal. Driven by a common mission and vision, we felt a strong sense of community and belonging. In such a setting where open-mindedness is the norm, one feels included and often pays it forward.

I attended one advisory family session in which we explored the difference between acceptance and tolerance. I was in a room with 16-19 year-old students who were spending two hours understanding these concepts on a meta-level, thinking about how to work with diverse people – an exercise that is sure to leave them better prepared to create a more positive working environment throughout life. When diversity is embraced wholeheartedly in this manner, the impact is evident. With diversity of thought, perspective, gender (a whopping 50% at all levels) and nationality among others, ALA has been highly successful in its work towards its mission.

When I came across Serein, I had just returned to India and was delighted to learn about their work in Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). I called Ishani and made an appointment to meet her and Chryslynn immediately and spoke about my experience at ALA. We connected instantly. A few months later when they proposed writing an inclusion handbook for India, I was interested to explore the current scenario in the Indian workplace. Our workforce in India is incredibly diverse – in terms of region, religion, language, work experience, and even our preference for food. But can we say that we host a genuinely inclusive work environment in which people feel respected for their differences because of their diverse perspectives and backgrounds?

As I set out to research and explore this with Serein, I found that the challenges are many. But gone are the days when D&I was delegated to HR and conducted as a checkbox activity with no impact. Organizations in India understand the impact of D&I and are genuinely looking to create, as well as sustain D&I to create value. Yet many do not know how or where to begin. Others battle with long-standing challenges such as unconscious bias which are not yet well-known or accepted concepts in the workplace.

At ALA, the positive work environment came from having a strong culture, driven by the founders and leaders, to be open-minded, accepting and tolerant of others. This culture was developed in keeping with their core values through deliberate design. Drawing on my experience of having worked in highly diverse settings in India, Mauritius, USA and South Africa, I was excited to explore how organizations in India could design and implement strong inclusion practices. The inclusion handbook that follows, shares strategies in recruitment and selection, work culture and career development. These strategies aim to eliminate bias by design, build a community that embraces diversity and make every member of the organization feel included.

With their rich experience working in this field, Serein shared with me practices that are already proven in the Indian setting. These practices are featured throughout the paper to showcase how organizations are focusing on building inclusive workplaces. As I went about my research, I clarified some commonly misunderstood concepts in D&I, which are included in this report as 'Diversity Principles’. You’ll see these boxes scattered throughout the paper with lighthouses – helping you home in on them quickly.

It is time for us in India to start thinking about D&I more broadly - to accept or tolerate differences even if we do not see eye-to-eye, embrace these differences and build on common values towards common goals.  I believe it is possible for our work environments to resemble the concordant microcosm I experienced in Africa, if we make a conscious attempt. I hope you find these strategies useful, easy to implement and impactful.

The inclusion handbook is available here: serein.in/inclusion

 Vaishnavi Tekumalla is currently HR Business Partner and Head of HR Communications India at Continental AG. She has 10 years international HR experience in the technology and education sectors, working with highly diverse teams in South Africa, USA, Mauritius and India. Previously a software engineer, Vaishnavi is excited about bringing a data-driven and analytical approach to HR decision-making. Vaishnavi holds an M.S. Degree in Organizational Behaviour, Systems and Analytics from New York University. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion.