Global Diversity: What It Means at Home and Abroad

Jennifer Gilhool had worked in corporate America for almost 20 years before she made a move to China that changed her life. She had begun her career as an attorney both in private and public practice. Eventually she transitioned into business development and leadership at Ford Motor Co. When she left the U.S. to lead a regulatory team spread out across Asia, she was astounded at the many adjustments she had to make to her mindset to respect her co-workers and get the job done. Returning to the U.S. she wrote a book about her experiences and decided to begin working to help American companies adjust their global diversity perspectives with an initiative of her own, called Pink Streak Ink.

Gilhool recently spoke with Diversity Executive. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

What’s the difference between working for diversity and inclusion in the U.S. versus globally?

In the United States, the focus is often on identity, but an individual alone is not actually diverse. You have to place that individual into context to understand his or her diverse nature. In other words, a Cambodian woman is not diverse unto herself, but in a group composed of Americans of any race, she is diverse both in her identity and in her thought process. Her life experiences are unique within the group and her approach to problem solving is likely different. She will ask different question and see different solutions. Adding her to the group may render a more elegant solution to any problem simply because of the questions she may ask and the answers those questions elicit.

Traditionally, Americans focus diversity training on highlighting our differences and focusing on ignoring them. I think we should focus more on what makes us similar — what bonds us together so that we will rally together for a common cause. Our differences come into play in our approach, our life experience, in our questions and this is what needs to be respected. We need to respect that our lives and our approach to problem solving are different and that, in fact, is a very good thing. This is particularly important in a group setting.

My experience overseas leads me to believe that — not unlike the United States — the world population does hold certain biases, whether they are gender, ethnic, sexual orientation or race-based. But, in the United States we tend to focus more on the issue of identity diversity than cognitive diversity because we assume we all “come from the same place, that place being the United States.

More companies are looking at diversity as a global issue. What does this mean in your experience and why is it necessary?

Companies should look at diversity as a global issue. The cognitive diversity of world citizens is significant. My experience in Thailand taught me that the Thai people are extremely generous and kind. They are incredibly welcoming people. But they also do not seek or enjoy confrontation. Their approach to problem solving is more conciliatory and collaborative. Relationships are very important in reaching agreements and solving problems.

In the United States, we tend to be less averse to confrontation. Business is business; it isn’t personal. In Thailand, it is important to build and to seek to maintain relationships. Business is not just business; it is also personal.

Diversity awareness is not just important for doing business but for gaining business. Our likes and dislikes from music to food to color choices are different depending on where we come from, what we encounter and what surrounds us in the world. Getting to know your marketplace and those who comprise it is keenly important to launching a product.

How would you describe Pink Streak Ink’s mission?

Our current project centers around three social issues: gender equity, LGBT equity and environmental stewardship. We are focusing on these three issues because they represent some of the most pressing social issues of our generation but often are viewed as “extra” issues.

By that I mean these are often tagged as “nice to do” rather than “must do” items when talking to business and political leaders. It would be nice to support gender equity, but it isn’t directly tied to our bottom line, so it is not a must do. This thinking must change for these issues to finally be addressed and equality achieved. The same is true for our commitment to environmental conservation.

In truth, companies that embrace diversity perform better. There is data that shows companies having a critical mass of women on their board of directors will outperform those companies without women on their boards by as much as 26 percent. There are studies showing that more diverse workgroups will outperform less diverse workgroups even if those less diverse workgroups have more individual talent — better problem solvers — in their group.

What practical ways are you trying to accomplish those goals?

Our concept involves getting information to consumers to empower them to make decisions based upon their social conscience profile.

We believe that if you can give credible, objective data to consumers about issues that matter to them and provide them with convenient alternatives, you can drive social consciousness into the purchasing decision funnel. This, in turn, will drive corporations and others to recognize the impact of these issues and their position on these issues as part of their business model.

Mary Camille Izlar is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.