Diversity Equals Innovation, Says DiversityInc CEO

By Luke Visconti

It makes sense that a properly managed diverse student body will help students relate to a diverse world in an era of exponentially increasing means of communications.

But the real story of Rutgers University’s diversity success is enterprise-wide. As a trustee, I’ve seen how superior diversity management under the leadership of Rutgers President Richard McCormick has driven Rutgers from $1.3 billion to $1.9 billion in total budgetas the state of New Jersey decreased its funding of higher education to a lower level than 1993. New Jersey is the worst state in the country for funding higher education. The increase in Rutgers’ budget is because of increased research grants, mainly because the research is aligned in ways that directly confront our most direct needs, such as environment, genetics and nutrition.

You will not hear McCormick speak for more than 10 minutes without bringing up diversity. Although this is not the case for some of New Jersey’s other public schools of higher education, Rutgers’ freshman class was less than 50 percent white this year. McCormick understands his “compelling interest,” from providing undergraduates the best possible education (all indicators of quality in education are rising at Rutgers, including being the No. 1 university for graduating scholar athletes) to guiding the university’s research to the right places.

There was an absolute connection between diversity management and the seemingly clairvoyant direction of our research. The diverse voices at the table helped the leadership team maximize innovation.

Unfortunately, I have observed that most companies shortchange themselves by allowing diversity management to be limited to a certain aspect of operations.

Recently, the diversity-management team of a large retail company was struggling to answer senior-management questions about the business case for diversity. I asked them how they developed a specific innovation that dramatically outpaced their competition; they came up with the idea by “listening to our customers.” I asked them if they matched the demographics of store shoppers to neighborhoods. They did, and there was indeed a gap. Rather than view a lack of diversity as an opportunity to be managed, they were viewing it as a fact.

At another company, the vice president for national sales was talking about his enthusiasm for diversity, citing examples of accomplishments. But when I asked if he was driving sales by making the diversity departments of their key customers allies, he said, “I never thought of it that way.”

Now that DiversityInc has been producing The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversityfor 10 years, most of the companies we deal with are reaping the workforce benefits of a diversity-management plan. Seventy percent of our workforce will be women and/or Blacks and Latinos by 2017. Women receive 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Thirty-four percent of people with ADA-defined disabilities are college educated versus only 26 percent of the total population. Diversity management for the workforce is simple and pragmatic. It doesn’t even reach the bottom rung of “visionary.” What is visionary is to allow diversity management to transform the marketplace, innovation processes, investor relations and supplier sources. Fewer than five of our DiversityInc Top 50 companies do this on a strategic basisthe common thread is CEO involvement.

We’ve developed a flow chart for our benchmarking customers of key best practices, metrics-driven results and resources deployed. We’ll be rolling it out this year. It helps identify where a company is in its diversity-management development. We can illustrate the best possible practices to emphasize for maximum results.

Our stages go from “Stage One” through “Stage Four,” but there aren’t any “Stage Four” companies yet. As a company becomes stronger in its management, the benefits become more systemic. The beauty is in the potentialaside from the ability to attract and retain the best and brightest employees, a fully leveraged diversity-management effort will maximize an organization’s ability to innovate, “listen to its customers,” out-market competitors and build margin. The core of diversity management has a very simple premise: “I’m not different than you, I’m different like you.” When we accept differences forthrightly as assets, we can fully bring in the innovation that is at the edgesand predict the future.

Click here to see this letter as it originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of DiversityInc magazine.

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