April 04, 2007
A few weeks ago, I was invited to a technology conference in the famous windy city of Chicago. Nearly 900 people attended, mostly North Americans but not exclusively, brought together by the prospect of stumbling upon that next great idea, and to hear from experts what the future may hold.
In the opening address, the host paid respect to the diversity of the crowd. And looking around, there certainly was a lot of variety; many colours and shapes, from the East and the West, and I certainly wasn't the only Muslim around. Browsing the guest list as I reached the hotel, I found at least a couple dozen Muslim names, mostly South Asians but a healthy dose of Arabs as well. And in that crowd of people, at the heart of corporate America, I actually felt like I fit in.
That feeling didn't last long. Surveying the audience, I noticed the uniformity of the participants. Yes, there were black people and Hispanics and Indians and Chinese people, but somehow they all looked the same. They all sounded the same, and they all dressed the same. There was an almost robotic feel to the crowd. In spite of the multitude of traditions and customs that their ethnicities may have been known for, in this forum, everyone followed a single custom, portrayed a single personality. Even as I first reached O'Hare Airport prior to the conference, I was able to easily identify others who were attending the same event simply by their appearance and gait.
At the end of each day, the inevitable alcohol would come out, and I would disappear off to explore downtown Chicago. I was saddened to see that a number of those participants with Muslim names gracing their nametags would be drinking along with everyone else, likely out of a desire to fit in with that crowd and make key connections with industry leaders. I was often told about how important it is to network with the senior people in the industry, and networking in corporate America invariably means sharing drinks with a person. In spite of all the ethnic diversity, social interaction was limited to the practice of only the corporate West. There would be no sipping tea with these managers, and no Tim Hortons to discuss all the issues of the day; alcohol was the fuel that built relationships in this world, and I had no interest in taking part.
As I wandered through Millenium Park (pictured above), I kept thinking that the diversity that was being applauded earlier was entirely superficial. Ethnic diversity means little if one loses all the uniqueness of that ethnicity, and religious diversity means nothing if there is no accommodation for religious difference. Of course, one can't please everybody, and what is a restriction for one may be an obligation for another. So where does that leave those who won't trade their values for the sake of fitting in? It usually leaves them on the outside looking in, and that will always be their personal challenge to overcome.
I've had the honour of working with a number of outstanding people who have seen diversity beyond the superficial recognition of its existence. I've been a part of some fantastic teams that embraced diversity not just in words, but in practice - and that definitely strengthened our effectiveness. But those appear to be exceptions, and on a large scale, whatever diversity exists in the corporate world still remains shallow.
It remains a challenge, and perhaps it should remain a challenge. Perhaps our strength lies in our ability to overcome societal norms. After all, few have ever achieved anything by simply following the course. Let the current flow as it may, we must hold our place.
Update 4.5.2007: More pictures here.