Posts Tagged ‘women’

Invest in me: the Malden experiment

Sunday, October 13th, 2013


If diversity is valuable, why aren’t we seeing millions of dollars directed toward it?

For many of us, a strong philosophical belief in the value of diversity translates into a trickle of charity contributions and perhaps some support for diversity-oriented government programs. But if we believed in diversity the way we believe in, say, new technologies, we should see massive amount of private capital finding its way into businesses that rely on diversity for their markets, their work force or their suppliers. And we’re not seeing that. Not even close.

What gives? Either people controlling financial resources do not believe in diversity as a competitive weapon, or there is some inefficiency in the resource allocation system. There’s arguably a bit of both. Many investors are skeptical that diversity matters economically and in all fairness, nobody has yet made a compelling data-driven case for the return on investment (ROI) of diversity.  And for those who believe in diversity, there are few investment vehicles that leverage diversity as a strategy.

And so diversity devolves into this oatmeal of bland corporate statements about the merits of a diverse work force as the firm’s most valuable asset, mandated corporate diversity programs attended by yawning managers eager to return to their daily operational tasks, or minimalist corporate charity programs aimed at diversity-owned businesses.  And so, at the end of the day, business people relieve their guilt by contributing some personal money to causes that may include diversity.

After many years of advocating for co-creation as an economic model from the comfortable perch of my teaching, consulting and public speaking platform, I’ve finally decided to put some of my money where my mouth is (literally, the project is about food). I have become a small-scale venture capitalist. I’ve rallied a few similarly-minded friends and together, we’ve decided to invest a bit of our money in the development of a diversity project. My tougher capitalist colleagues still marvel at being called angel investors. As the place for our proof-of-concept, we have picked Malden, MA, a suburb of Boston with a rainbow of ethnic groups comprising its population and strong business and political leadership. Because there is a budding food tradition there, we have decided to start an industrial kitchen that will house food trucks serving the greater Boston area, an event space that we hope will attract both local youth and foodies from downtown Boston, and we are starting a kitchen incubator that helps local youth become food entrepreneurs through education and financing. This is not a charity, mind you. We want to prove that we can earn an above-market rate of return while helping employment locally and fostering greater sustainability of the local food chain.

This has brought a new joy to my life. In some ways, it is a project like any other, with its cohort of cash-flow statements and competitive analysis, with a new layer of personal financial anxiety. The primary difference, though, is that the people I work with are real, from young high-school immigrant kids applying for the incubator, to heavily tattooed food truck drivers working 14 hours a day, to middle-aged cooks who view us as an opportunity to finally create their own business. I dream of convincing some of the owners of long-established Malden businesses, often with a strong Italian or Irish heritage, to invest with us in the latest generation of Haitian, Moroccan or Jamaican immigrants because they remember how they or their parents did it. I dream of giving local Republicans a platform to demonstrate they can be both good business people and have a social sensitivity, and of allowing Democrats to demonstrate that they also know a thing or two about business development. I want Malden to become the prototype of new economic development for the nation, with business as the primary driver of success, in the great American tradition that attracted me to this country in the first place.

The problems we face are equally real. We’re struggling to find both women and ethnic representatives for our angel investment group. It is not easy to find a suitable building that meets zoning and environmental requirements. Finding financing of the scale we require has its challenges. And bringing together a team of such eclectic background into a common vision for the business is a daily grind.

Perhaps the most gratifying part of the Malden project is that I feel whole again. As Stuart Kauffman describes it, I now feel at home in the universe. It does not get much better than that.

Business women of the world, unite

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012


Last night, I found myself watching the PBS documentary entitled Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Hosted by the two journalists Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (his wife), and patterned after their book by the same name , it took me on a roller-coaster from utter despair (when a fourteen year old Sierra Leone rape victim gets expelled from her home for confronting her predator) to powerful hope (learning how innovative some of the militant women are who help young girls or women victims fight and survive).

Unlike Kristof and WuDunn, I am not in a position to write about women oppression of the physical kind (rape, mutilation, sexual slavery), but I do witness quieter cases of women’s moral oppression in global business every day.

I’m talking about you, anonymous Yemeni woman in my Dubai class of the London Business School last year. As often in the Arab world, I was instructed not to address you first. For three hours, you patiently listened to my challenging your male Middle-Eastern colleagues without engaging, eyes mostly down on your notes. In the last fifteen minutes, you found the courage to raise your hand and suggested a brilliant application for your bank of what I was trying to teach. I can still remember your dark eyes, glittering with the excitement of a new thought.  I would have liked to put you on stage and have you teach the next class with me. But I didn’t, because this is no place of a Yemeni woman.

I’m also thinking of you, bright young women I have known in academia or consulting over the years in the US or Europe, who never knew how good you were, and who settled for second best careers (or no career at all) because nobody told you you had the power to change the world. How I wish some senior woman in your department could have taken you by the hand and shown you the way! Images of workshops are dancing in my head, with ebullient Brazilian males listening to their head roar while women with richer experience would not dare speak, or post office women in France keeping silent on their experience of work while listening to their male superiors describing their life as if they were not there.

It’s not easy advocating for women in business when you’re a guy. I always feel a bit awkward, if not downright silly. When I timidly do, I immediately get haunted by images of male politicians discussing women’s health issues, or memories of top-level women’s sports teams coached by mediocre men. What do I know about a woman’s experience? And who am I to even try to help? And so I shut up, most of the time.

If I ever find my voice on this topic, here is what I’d like to say: business women of the world, unite. I see you everywhere, full of talent, able to do things that guys cannot do as well as you, and yet you contort yourself into the male-dominated, individualistic, process-driven model of the business world that has been oppressing you for years. Break those shackles. Let your instinct take over: focus on the human experience, starting with your own. Build communities of business women inside and outside your firm. Unleash the forces of co-creation by shamelessly slanting the resources of your firm toward women. The business world will be a better place for it. Even for the guys. (As Dr. Seuss sort of said, the guys who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind).

Women are alone in the business world. Their interactions remain mostly directed at men they try to please, because this is still often where the power lies. There are of course women’s business associations and support groups, but none of them can play the role of a company-centric community of women helping each other. Governments try to provide incentives to remove the glass ceiling, but they can’t do as good a job as your establishing yourselves into a community of powerful self-advocates.

Sometimes it’s OK to be biased. Women should also build communities outside their firm. They should buy from other women and sell to other women. Better be on the field than talk from the sideline. Use the resources of your firm for advantage. Support other women. Hire women. Promote women. Play to win. Be tough.


Why does the American press hate Angela?

Saturday, December 24th, 2011


Enough already! In their recent editions, both Newsweek and Bloomberg Businessweek are vilifying Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, for failing to solve the Euro crisis problem. The Newsweek article describes her in particularly unflattering terms, with not-so-subtle Aryan references (“the lady prefers blonds”), a Germanic over-preoccupation with rules and discipline, and an ill-advised focus on inflation rooted in the history of the Weimarer Republik. Bloomberg Businessweek’s article avoids WWII imagery, but similarly describes her as a cold-hearted incompetent leader, hopelessly stuck in a German paradigm of austerity and unable to grasp the new global economic realities.

I have been puzzled by this concentrated journalistic fire on the German chancellor in recent weeks. Why target her, when the euro crisis clearly did not originate with Germany, and when most country leaders are struggling with their response to the new economic challenge? At this stage, everybody is groping in the dark for a viable economic framework (the division of the US leaders on the virtues of tax reduction vs. stimulus spending constitutes exhibit A), so why zero in on Angela Merkel as particularly incompetent in this crowd of fumbling country leaders?

At the risk of inflaming the debate, these two articles seem to me to tap into both anti-German and anti-women-as-leaders sentiment. One way of hiding our own lack of answers is to find a common enemy, and what better enemy could there be than a German one, and a woman at that? The German thing is annoying because it reflects the continuing parochialism of some portion of the US electorate (witness Herman Cain displaying his utter insensitivity to global affairs in the infamous Uzbekistan interview) (link 4) and the willingness to mobilize against a common imaginary enemy, Germany in this most recent development (although China is the most common boogeyman, hello Donald Trump).

While the xenophobic overtone is annoying, I have particular trouble with the woman thing. I find it striking that both articles describe Angela Merkel as left-brained, analytical tendencies (the lady wrote her doctoral thesis on quantum chemistry) and highlight her lack of human warmth (“nobody really gets close to the chancellor”). What would we want Angela to be? A soft flower seeking men’s help in solving her government’s problems? A “don’t cry for me, Argentina” chancellor? Barack Obama is also predominantly left-brained, analytical and professorial, and arguably struggles with generating empathy among his electorate, yet this is not the stuff of magazine covers.

I am particularly troubled by the implicit reference to the lack of femininity of Mrs. Merkel. The unflattering pictures in both articles imply a “she’s not really a woman as we think of women” imagery, which is disturbingly sexist. There have occasionally been unflattering pictures of male leaders in magazines in the past (most recently Mitt Romney on the cover of Time Magazine), but they have not had the same gender-specific quality. Unlike many countries of the world, the US still hasn’t had a woman as its leader (Hillary Clinton came close in her 2008 presidential bid, and she generated some of the same anti-woman sentiment), so we may have to wait until then to see this ugly feature of anti-women-as-leaders sentiment finally fade away.

The heart of strategy

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

I have become increasingly aware of the fact that women are better at co-creation than men. My friend and co-author Venkat Ramaswamy has been saying it for a while, as we debrief working sessions or speaking engagements we occasionally do together, but I’d never thought about it much beyond those moments. It’s a terrible conclusion to reach, particularly for a guy. I wonder if this makes me a gender racist, and whether I will ostracize one-half of the populations I will address from here on. But I increasingly believe it is statistically true.

When guys think of business strategies, they talk about domination, advantage, rivalry, barriers, forces and power. This is the language of war. Witness for example how Michael Porter, arguably the most prominent business strategist to date, describes strategy in a Harvard Business Publishing video. His language evokes tanks and barbed wire, exploding shells and smell of napalm in the morning. Military strategy is the model for business strategy. One visualizes Patton looking at maps, shouting orders and admonishing troops with quotes such as: “Your job is not to die for your country. Your job is to make the SOB on the other side die for his country.” Soldiers are resources that need to be concentrated to conquer and hold territory.

Women by and large think of business as building relationships. Listen for example for how Anne Mulcahy, recently retired CEO of Xerox, describes the company’s strategy over the last ten years.  Women are interested in engaging customers, not destroying competitors. They believe employees are more than resources needing to be marshaled toward dominance; they matter as individuals. Some female managers even think suppliers are people too, and do not have to be beaten to a pulp. Many women believe that businesses need to define their place in the larger environment in which they operate, leading them to a view of strategy as the development of an ecosystem in which their company participates. I recently spoke to a group of Chief Sustainability Officers of large global corporations and close to one-half of them were women, allowing a very different type of dialogue than with a male-dominated audience.

The male conceptualization of strategy of course comes with an automatic disqualification of the softer, gentler view of strategy as unrealistic, even utopian. There is a “gotta love women” condescension that usually accompanies the female characterization of strategy as building relationships. The CEO of a large European bank, also a brilliant economist, once warned me that business and emotions do not mix and that he did not particularly care about the experience of his retail customers because “retail banking is about access to capital and the number of branches you have.” A year ago, his board pushed him into retirement because the bank had been steadily losing market share. Apparently, customers did not like their experience of the bank. I wonder whether he still feels customer experience is irrelevant.

My dream is that I will wake up one morning and find that a woman has displaced Michael Porter, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli on the Olympic strategy podium. Of course, for this to happen, it will require that the top management of large businesses and/or the strategy department at major business schools around the world no longer be dominated by men. I hope it happens before I die.

Mad Men 2010

Monday, September 6th, 2010

She could be from anywhere. In her case, she works in high-tech. She’s sharp as a tack. She sees things the guys do not see. They quietly ignore her. She does not give in. They pay a bit more attention. She’s a bit frustrated, but she keeps smiling. She knows that if she tells them they’re a bunch of insensitive males who overstate the firm’s bargaining power with customers, she will be rejected as weak. And so she bobs and weaves in macho land, day after day.

The sad thing is she’s right and they’re wrong. The firm’s power is still strong, but has eroded. With her feminine sensitivity, she sees that in every meeting. She’s in a good position for that. She’s the account manager for one of the largest customers of the firm. She knows what she’s dealing with. They coach her from behind, because they’re more senior than she is. They tell her how to leverage the firm’s position for advantage and be tough. She’s a soldier in another nation’s army.

She’s on her second career. She did well in the first and rose to executive rank once already. But she had cancer and had to stop working for a while. She restarted at the bottom and is working her way up again. But she’s not any younger. She knows she’s under-utilized and wants to do more. She has a million ideas for collaboration, people she’d like to go see, new joint programs she’d like to initiate with partners. She was born for co-creation.

But then there are all these guys who look at the world in this strange left-brained way, searching for killer algorithms within the walls of the firm, rather than seeking to engage the firm’s customers in new opportunities. Because she’s afraid of looking soft, she too speaks of business intelligence, clickstreams and support assets, rather than co-creation initiatives. She envisions a collaborative ecosystem, but they’re thinking dominance. She believes in people, but they want systems. Her organization has an increasing number of women in power, so herein lies hope for her. Perhaps women who’ve done well will reach out to her, although she’s not sure how strong women’s solidarity truly is. After all, women executives have their own battle to wage.

The guys drink a bit less than in the TV series Mad Men and the sexual harassment has become a bit less blatant. As for the rest, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.