Diaspora Leadership

November 2nd, 2014

Ratna OmidvarAt a recent academic panel discussion in Toronto on “The Power of the Diaspora Networks in Canada” at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange (GDX) chose to focus her remarks on diaspora leadership.

Focus on diaspora leadership

Ratna Omidvar: I want to focus my remarks on diaspora leadership, because I think a discussion on the rise and influence of immigrants in the areas of trade and investment must be about the rise and influence of political and business leaders who are immigrants.

In other words, it’s not the size of the diaspora communities in Canada that makes them influential, it’s the success of individuals within those communities. For example, how does a Canadian bank expand in Latin America? A successful business model aside, they will be better able to attract those markets by employing people who understand Latin America, and just as important, who have business connections in Peru, Columbia, Mexico, and Chile.

The good news is that diverse talent is a Canadian strength. We boast some of the world’s most diverse cities, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Toronto is Canada’s most diverse city, with more than half its residents not born in Canada. Close to half (47%) are visible minorities. Together, we comprise more than 200 distinct ethnicities and there are over 140 languages and dialects spoken.

It’s worth taking a minute to talk about the natural advantage of immigrant success in a company, which is the attendant diversity. And you’ll notice that I will be interchanging the words “diaspora” and “diversity.” I don’t want the language we use to get in the way of our common goal: To me, to leverage our diaspora is to leverage our diversity.

To leverage our diaspora is to leverage our diversity

My organization’s work on promoting diversity has focused not only on hiring immigrants into entry-level positions, but on addressing the barriers to immigrant employment in management positions. And in our research, what we’ve found again and again is that achieving a diverse workforce makes very good business sense. There is a growing body of evidence, but let me highlight one study particularly relevant to today’s focus on trade and investment:

In research published in 2013 by the Harvard Business Review, authors Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin offer compelling evidence that diversity unlocks innovation and drives business growth. In this study which included a survey of over 1800 professionals, 40 case studies and numerous focus groups, the authors focused on two kinds of diversity; inherent diversity – i.e. traits you are born with such as gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation; and acquired diversity, which involves traits you gain from experience – i.e. travel, learning or studying another language in a different part of the world, or marrying a person not born in your country. They call this 2D diversity. They concluded that companies with 2D diversity out-innovate and out-perform others. Employees at these companies are 45% likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year, and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market.

This diversity advantage of “thinking outside the box” – of solving problems in new ways, connecting with new people, and finding new market information – is part of the solution to what we’re discussing today. The typical marker of underperformance by the diaspora is our non-diversified trade: Canada’s top trading partner is the US, at 74.5% of trade, and all the way down in second is China with just 4.3% (DFATD). To diversify our trade, we need to diversify the teams making those connections.

Let us turn now to diaspora networks. To help me examine their influence, I went to an influential friend to help me understand the different value propositions of his own networks. Loosely speaking, we can group the business networks used by the diaspora into two categories: ethno-cultural-specific, and industry-specific. They don’t have to be exclusive of the other, but more often than not, they are.

Ethno-cultural networks and chambers of commerce are influential in connecting members to employment. It is not the network’s only advantage, but it is a major advantage to members. The social capital that can be accessed by these networks is invaluable in a job market that prizes not only what you know, but who you know. As a business owner, my friend uses the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce to connect with the Indo-Canadian community.

But where does he go for targeted business networking and industry news? He’s a business owner in the food industry, and so he networks with the food industry.

This is instructive.

Our challenge is not only to make ethno-specific networks more powerful in what they do to connect members to employment and mentorship relationships. Our challenge is to saturate Canada’s powerful industry networks with diaspora leaders. That is how we will leverage our diaspora leaders, when they are represented in influential positions in the industry. Think about the trade delegations that are most successful in generating actionable MOUs. They are not the general meet and greet, ambassadorial types. They are the focused missions, where green tech people from Canada meet green tech people in China.

Our goal should be enabling industry networks to actually function as a diaspora network, and they will do this only with a diverse membership.

Now, if that is our objective, how do we get there?

I ask the private sector: Is your own house in order? Do you have a diversity policy with measurable goals? Does that policy cover senior management positions?

I ask the government: Do our rules have unintended consequences? Does our selection policy serve our goals as a nation? Do residency requirements that prevent immigrants from travelling for business harm their prospects? Are we keeping up with the global competition for international students?

In the areas that call for regulation, is there compliance and education? Should we be asking for “International experience” instead of “Canadian experience”?

Are our immigrant entrepreneurs being supported?

And, finally, I ask individual immigrant leaders: How do you engage with ethno-cultural networks? You are a role model for all of us. Tell your story, share your experience, mentor someone.

For the Ryerson  Power of Diaspora Networks event description, see here.

 For a discussion of diaspora networks in Canada, see Diaspora Nation: An Enquiry into the Economic Potential of Diaspora Networks in Canada, by Maurice Bitran & Serene Tan (Toronto: Mowat Centre, 2013)



More Stories - From November 2014

Defining Urban Resilience in Christchurch

On December 3, 2014 the 100 Resilient Cities Campaign will announce its 3rd cohort of resilient and liveable cities.  The Resilient Cities campaign...

Swedish with your baby – an interview with Karin Bruce

Cities of Migration spoke to Karin Bruce, Project Leader, LärOlika, at the Tallberg Foundation,...

Arrival City Book Club

This January, join readers around the world for an online reading of Canadian journalist

Cities United for Immigration Action

Cities matter! In an unprecedented show of support, twenty-five US mayors from some of America’s biggest cities have formed a coalition to support and help...
Looking for Past Issues?