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April 24, 2005

The Value of Diversity

The United States, at this point in history, is the only superpower. Look around the United States at the names of the movers and shakers. Politicians, doctors, professors, business leaders--the people who have made, and will continue to make, the key decisions that affect the future of the country. You see names like Smith and Jones and Williams, but you also see Denisov and Baali and Mayoral and Vassilakis and Oshima.

Now look at a similar group in another country. Will you see this much diversity? In almost every case, the answer is no. The people running Japan are Japanese. The people running South Korea are Korean. The people running Germany are Germans.

This is not a knock on the abilities of Japanese, Koreans, or Germans. My point is that the United States has the ability to tap the entire population of the world, all 6+ billion people, to produce its next generation of leaders. "Ability" meaning that people can come here and be accepted and find a community. A lot of countries are extremely diverse (although to an American they may not appear to be). Russia is diverse. India is wildly diverse. But in how many countries could the child of immigrants from another country be elected to government? Or just look at national sports teams...how many countries have "diverse" athletes representing them? Canada, England, maybe France and Australia, a Chinese gymnast competing for Switzerland...it's a pretty short list.

So as the United States confronts the new flat world that Thomas Friedman keeps nattering on about, the fact that it has such a broad talent pool to draw from is one of its biggest advantages (in addition to the built-in geographic advantage it enjoys -- large, full of natural resources, and a livable climate throughout).

(As an aside, it's interesting, if you search the web, how many countries are described as being the "most ethnically diverse" in a certain area. Obviously people see the value in this. But there's a difference between being ethnically diverse in your general population, and actually having an ethnically diverse ruling class.)

(And of course, because of its relatively short history, the notion of who is "ethnically American" is less clear than for most other countries. But for these purposes, it refers to the Northern European Caucasians who founded the country).

Now look at Microsoft. Microsoft reminds me of cruise ships in one interesting way. On cruise ships I have been on, the staff comes from a wide variety of countries. This is because non-US-flagged ships can have employees who aren't eligible to work in the U.S., which allows the company to pay people less (it also increases the chance that a guest will find someone who can speak their language, so there is somewhat of a customer service aspect to it). But the cruise lines do have a requirement that all staff can read and speak English--and in my experience, they hire people who speak excellent English. So you wind up with a staff which is entirely composed of non-Americans, yet they all interact seamlessly in English.

Microsoft has the same melting pot aspect to it. There are people from all over the world, all interacting in English. When I started in 1990, I recall being struck by how monochromatic the employee base was, compared to the startup I worked for in New Jersey. That's probably why the executive ranks today are less diverse than the general employee population. But the company overall is much more diverse now, and over time that will filter into upper management.

So Microsoft has made itself more diverse since 1990, the same period where it experienced its greatest success. And as Microsoft competes in the software industry and beyond, the diversity of its employees, and the abililty to draw from as wide a pool as possible, needs to continue to be one of its advantages. It is helped in this, of course, by the fact that the company is in the United States, and that it is situated in a "blue" (Democratic-leaning) state, which tend to be more diverse than the "red" (Republican-leaning) states (which to me is one of the main reasons that the red states tend to be so severely on the economic dole from the blue states).

It's not just ethnic diversity, of course, it's all kinds of diversity, including sexual orientation. So it is naive of Microsoft to think that supporting laws that most directly affect it (more visas, tax breaks for R&D, etc) is more important than supporting laws that promote diversity.

(The list of names above, incidentally, was taken from a list of ambassadors to the United Nations.)

Posted by AdamBa at April 24, 2005 08:37 AM

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