Richard Branson on Why Diversity Is an Advantage

Richard Branson on Why Diversity Is an Advantage
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Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.

Q: How do you merge the cultural diversity of individuals into a profitable brand? -- Jacqueline Ferrell

Diversity is an advantage for any company, and can be an important factor in its success. Over more than 40 years of building our businesses at the Virgin Group, my colleagues and I have seen time and time again that employing people from different backgrounds and who have various skills, viewpoints and personalities will help you to spot opportunities, anticipate problems and come up with original solutions before your competitors do.

Jacqueline, regardless of the position you hold or the industry you work in, the key is to lead by example: Embrace diversity, starting with the choices you make for your first hires. An entrepreneur who hires a lot of people who are just like her and have had the same experiences will find that she’s leading a team that is less creative and helpful to customers, and ultimately produces lower profits. Plus you’d have a lot less fun!

At Virgin, our company’s rock 'n’ roll roots certainly helped us to start building a diverse team early on - all sorts of people shared our love of great music. Thinking back, I’m also reminded of a charity we launched in 1967 called the Student Advisory Centre, which offered help and information to young people on issues like sexuality, abortion, adoption, contraception, drugs and more. Our tagline was “Give us your headaches.”

The empathy, compassion and sharing involved helped to shape our organization. Those experiences taught everyone on our team to connect with a more diverse group of people, and in the long run this turned out to be an advantage. We became aware of business opportunities that we wouldn’t have otherwise known about, and as we ventured into new industries and markets, we celebrated differences, embraced change and encouraged innovation.

Research shows that companies that have a diverse workforce have a distinct advantage. For instance, according to the Center for Talent Innovation’s report “The Power of 'Out,'” the LGBT community’s buying power added up to $700 billion in the United States alone in 2011, and many people in this group prefer to buy from gay-friendly businesses. Discriminating against potential customers just makes no sense from an economic, or any, viewpoint.

The report also revealed some of the internal costs to discriminatory policies: LGBT people working in unfriendly environments reported feeling depressed (34 percent), distracted (27 percent) and exhausted (23 percent), while those who reported feeling isolated at work were 73 percent more likely to say they were planning to leave their companies within three years. A company’s best assets are its people, and if a significant portion of them are getting ready to leave, that’s an emergency that needs your attention.

On the larger scale, our team at Virgin has noticed that business suffers in nations where discrimination is sanctioned. One country I have watched with increasing concern is Russia. In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia liberalized some of its laws targeting gays - it decriminalized homosexual relationships in 1993 - and the country appeared to be on the road to equality. But now new laws have been introduced to intimidate and persecute gay people. Russian authorities have been denying permits for gay pride parades, and violence and crimes against LGBT Russians are on the rise. Activists have been arrested, and many are leaving the country. Russia is now ranked 49th on a list of 49 countries for LGBT protections.

Such backward changes are not only morally wrong, but will ultimately hurt even those who put them in place. When people work toward a common goal, they are driven, passionate and purposeful. This translates into harder work and more innovation. Fostering divisions in any group, no matter what the size, is never a productive policy.

To build bonds between your employees, make sure that you offer them plenty of opportunities, like parties and outings and other events, where they can get to know each other outside the office environment, and without the pressures of the workday. Building empathy and understanding will help them to resolve any differences and come up with new solutions.

The same could be said for governments. Nations with discriminatory civil rights policies should recognize their mistakes, address the problems they have caused, and move on. They will likely be far more prosperous if they do so.

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