What we can learn about diversity by looking across continents

Havas UK chief marketing officer Tracey Barber (below) explores why we should broaden our horizons - across borders, and across industries - when it comes to diversity.

I've just returned from an eye-opening week in Botswana speaking at the inaugural De Beers and UN-backed W Summit, an event focused on engaging female business leaders on sustainable strategies for women – how senior women can ‘throw down the rope’ and support the broader equality agenda, and deliver that agenda to tap into opportunities for economic growth.

Two things struck me.  

The first, we already know: that conversation around diversity too often fails to translate into concrete action. Too many people are talking the talk, but not walking the walk. There's really not much more to say here, other than we need to get better at doing. That includes senior women, who need to show the people below them how to manage the children/work balance, how to build partnerships where it’s okay for the woman to be the highest earner, and how to build their own self-confidence – three areas highlighted by Havas’ recent Prosumer Report as barriers to success, and three areas that we can help influence ourselves.

The other thing struck me for the first time (and perhaps it took a change of scenery for it to properly register. We've talked at length about online echo chambers – and it figures that the same concept can exist in our physical working environments) - was that when we talk about diversity, we do so through two very specific lenses: the UK, and the creative industries.  

Why? There's an incredible amount we can learn from other countries, societies and industries around the issue, and vice-versa. There's a huge opportunity for knowledge sharing, and based on how much I learnt from just five days in Africa, imagine what we could learn from some proper, international and cross-industry collaboration. This is one area where we shouldn't be competing against each other - we should be working together for a greater societal good.

While in Africa, I spent time with Thandeka Tutu, daughter of Desmond, who introduced me to the concept of Ubuntu, or ‘humanity toward others’. It’s a Zulu concept, which at a basic level means encouraging people to support others and recognising the need to create collaborative communities. In the UK, you’d be forgiven for thinking of it as a platitude. In Africa, it underpins their entire society, and I met three organisations that are directly and deeply influenced by it.

The first De Beers and UN-backed W Summit

Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe founded the Motsepe Family Foundation, which aims to empower poorer communities in South Africa through health and education. Its philosophy is ‘guided by the principle of Ubuntu’, and it works with both global and regional partners, government, development partners, faith-based organisations, traditional leaders, the private sector and the community to impact key programme areas including education, health, economic development, women empowerment, sport and arts. Among other things, it has committed more than 1800 bursaries over the past five years to students from poor families who wish to study STEM subjects, business and the arts.

The Tony Elumelu Foundation aims to catalyse economic and social (there’s a theme emerging here) development in Africa through entrepreneurship. Its principles are derived from an inclusive philosophy of Africapitalism, which broadly states that private sector investment in the economy will drive economic and social development through its programme and activities. It currently oversees the largest African philanthropic initiative devoted to entrepreneurship and represents a 10-year, $100m commitment to identify and empower 10,000 entrepreneurs and create a million jobs.   

The Global Forum of Women Entrepreneurs, which originated in Africa but which launches at London’s IOD next year, aims to bring together women who are prepared to pledge time to support other women across business sectors and across borders – providing access to top mentorship, coaching and skills. Its Ubuntu-inspired ethos is led by principles of support, partnership, coalescence and scale. I have already pledged to be a part of it.

These are just three examples of many tangible, long-term, grassroots initiatives that aim to change society for the better…and all based roughly on an ancient Zulu concept. Some are specific diversity initiatives, most aren’t; instead, they are valuable means through which to encourage people from different backgrounds into industry, which in turn will fertilise diversity naturally, and from the ground up. Not specific to any one industry, but to culture. What is Latin America doing? What can we learn from China? Or Scandinavia? What can they learn from us? What can we learn from each other? 

Given that we, the UK ad industry, are in that limbo between learning to talk and mastering the walk, isn’t it time we broadened our horizons for some inspiration?


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