Dr Saundarya Rajesh was a woman, who after a career break, was seeking to return to the workplace. Despite burgeoning career opportunities in a globalized economy, Dr. Saundarya noticed that women were receiving a raw deal. This was even more aggravated in the case of women who took breaks in careers. Observing the loaded inequities in the workplace for all underrepresented talent pools, she set up Avtar – a social enterprise focusing on creating diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations. Today, she is recognized not only as having created several thousand careers for women on breaks, but also for pioneering the discipline of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Indian workplaces.
26-year-old Maitri often felt like an outsider, growing up. And it is for a reason that was both simple and complex at the same time – she was left-handed. Apart from struggling to do basic things from opening a refrigerator door to scissors to even using a pencil sharpener, she often felt ostracized due to superstitious beliefs around her. Instead of getting through life, with a ‘little adjustment’ as suggested by the family, Maitri decided to use her uniqueness to her strength. And thus, Maitri Wadher started ‘The Left-Out Store’ in Bangalore which sold products meant exclusively for left-handed people – a very profitable niche, one that presented a business opportunity built around a universal truth – that people are different.
The world as we knew it underwent a paradigm shift with the COVID 19 pandemic. This unforeseen and disruptive health crisis which we continue to live through, has challenged the way we function and operate. It necessitated adapting to change in several dimensions across individuals’ lives – both personal and professional. And since organizations are made up of individuals, the challenges of flourishing in the ‘new normal’ are manifold. Anecdotal experiences and scientific research both point towards the fact that DEI will be one of the critical differentiators in how companies weather this storm.
What is diversity and why is it critical for the business of tomorrow
It is a natural human tendency that we like people who are like us, who think like us and who respond the way we do. In the workplace this results in an extremely homogeneous employee base which is then challenged to service a heterogeneous customer base. Is this desirable and sustainable? The answer would be an emphatic no. It is apparent that customer cohorts of today act very differently basis their age, generation, geography, gender, demographics, social sensitivities, economic status, race, ethnicity, etc. In an era where customers expect hyper-personalization, it is imperative that business structure and decision making is inclusive and caters to the aspirations and requirements of various customer cohorts. Any misstep in this journey can be very expensive as has been seen in the recent social media backlash faced by some of the most prominent brands.
Research over the past few decades has proven categorically, that companies that are diverse, equitable and inclusive have a clear advantage over their counterparts that are not. And these advantages are overt, measurable evidence for the business in terms of revenue, peoplepower, and the culture of the workplace. A Boston Consulting Group study looked at companies with diverse management teams and found that, on average, they enjoyed a 19% increase in revenue compared to their less diverse counterparts. According to the 2021 Avtar and Seramount Best Companies for Women in India (BCWI), the annual DEI analytics study that identifies the 100 best companies for women in India, pursuant to a year-long process of assessment, 62 companies recorded an increase in operating profit, 52 companies posted improved innovation revenue and 81 companies reported an increase in customer satisfaction, during a time-frame women’s representation grew up by 2.9% as shown in figure 1.
How to incorporate DEI to be of strategic importance for the organization
Going a step further, does only having a diverse employee base suffice to build inclusive products? A diverse workplace with limited scope for expression and acceptance is under-optimizing the investment on inclusion. To fully leverage the power of Diversity, organizations must invest to create an inclusive work culture – one where every individual feels included, belonged, supported, heard, and cared for. When Inclusion becomes the way of life, diverse views are encouraged, newer opportunities, ideas are unlocked and expensive mistakes avoided thus making the business resilient, sustainable and on the growth path.
An island of inclusion?
This is easier said than done. Data from the PLFS Quarterly 2022 reported that the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) had dropped to 20.3% in March 2022 compared to 21.2% one-year prior. 92% of India’s trans population are unable to participate in any economic activity. These stats point to the bitter truth that the abundance of diversity in the society has not translated much into participation in the labor force or some form of economic activity. Hence the time is ripe for us to evaluate the need of an ecosystem where enterprises can proactively fuel economic and social change for India.
Organizations that are vanguards of inclusion have to show the way. Some of India’s top organizations which have consistently won laurels for creating diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces, have proven that not only is it possible (with some effort) to create careers for the under-represented, but also an eminently successful business practice. Companies which today are veritable islands of inclusion, can transcend from being inclusive spaces for only their own employees to becoming influencers of a virtual spiral of change that extends beyond the walls of their own businesses. Organizations which have traversed the journey of building diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures can lead this from the front by impacting businesses of different sizes (start-ups, MSMEs) within their own eco-system. Championing this change will not just result in a positive cycle of community development. It will be the start of a tremendous revolution of inclusion that opens up growth opportunities all around.
The BIG Campaign
At Avtar, we have launched the “Business is Good” (BIG) initiative, a corporate mentoring program for the champions of inclusion to support the new entrants into the journey of DEI. Through this program, we aspire to help larger role-model organizations to offer their support to partners within their sphere of influence in understanding the nuances of DEI as a growth influencer. We aim to empower the forerunners in the inclusion journey with tools that will help them share both subtle and overt changes linked directly or indirectly to DEI. Besides being stellar corporates that have achieved the pole position of being an exemplar of inclusion, our corporate leaders will also be recognized as brand that create positive 360-degree business influence.
How big is BIG?
We estimate that BIG will impact around 1,00,000 employers in India in the next 5 years and through this process improve the labor force participation rates of women and other under-represented groups. BIG meets two objectives – one, giving an opportunity to organizations to be an inclusive change agent and second, to create stand-out brands.
Progress cannot happen when few are making efforts and others are simply watching. Like the popular quote goes “It takes a village to raise a child”, now is time for enterprises to create an ecosystem to drive change and support others to get initiated on the DEI journey. It is time we realize that it is no longer a “choice”, but a business imperative for businesses to be good. A good business is not only good for its employees, but for its customers, shareholders, suppliers, partners, and society at large. It takes a BIG campaign to create development for this big country of ours!
About Dr Saundarya Rajesh, Founder – President, Avtar Group
Dr Saundarya Rajesh‘s social enterprise, Avtar, is India’s only organization that provides both strategy and implementation solutions in Diversity & Inclusion. Dr Saundarya’ s work in the space of gender diversity & inclusion in the workplace, is unparalleled in India. Not only is she among the earliest and most impactful voices on gender inclusion, but through Avtar she has also helped hundreds of companies hire thousands of women professionals.
An inspiring speaker, an author, and a very sought-after DEI strategist, Dr Saundarya’s vision is to see young girls from underprivileged families create empowering white-collar careers for themselves. This she influences through Project Puthri.
Dr Saundarya’s book ‘The 99-day Diversity Challenge’ published by SAGE in 2018 has won several acclaims from industry leaders, including winning the first prize for the Book of the Year Award 2021 from the Indian Society for Training and Development.