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Down With Diversity: How Start-ups in Southeast Asia Celebrate Cultural Differences

The greater the diversity, the greater the capacity for innovation

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BY Tricia V. Morente - 09 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

As a start-up founder, it’s definitely more comfortable to work with and hire like-minded individuals who share your way of thinking. Not only does this lead to less conflict within the organization, it also leads to faster decision-making, what with nobody really inclined to disagree with you on the matter at hand.

The problem with that frictionless scenario, apart from the fact that it sounds mind-numbingly boring, is that you’re doing your start-up a great disservice.

While the confrontational aspect of having different viewpoints can be complicated and more difficult to manage, this Inc. article avers that “organizations that hire and promote the same kind of thinkers are capping their potential.”

Building a diverse workforce—which can come in such forms as different cultural and generational backgrounds, personalities, genders, races and ethnicities, leadership styles, and so on—allows start-ups to respond more effectively to today’s ever-dynamic, fast-paced, and disruption-prone marketplace.

If that’s not enough to get you down with diversity, these compelling numbers will: A whopping 85% of enterprises agree, states the same article, “that diversity results in the most innovative ideas. In addition, external organizations, across industries, rated highly for diversity and inclusiveness report 57% better team collaboration, 19% greater retention, 45% more likelihood of improving marketshare, and 70% more likelihood of achieving success in new markets.”

How, then, can you encourage and celebrate diversity within your start-up?

We’ve rounded up start-up founders from Southeast Asia—the world’s melting pot of different cultural backgrounds, traditions, religions, and influences—and here are some of the ways they create a culture that revels in their differences:

1. It’s all shoebiz

When San Francisco-based Zendesk acquired Singaporean start-up Zopim, the latter’s founder Royston Tay shares that one way new management showed their respect for local culture was to uphold a particular practice Zopim initiated from day one.

Tay says, “When Zendesk acquired Zopim, it wasn’t just to get hold of the product or technology, but to acquire the team. One of the aspects I found interesting was how senior management was comfortable in retaining part of the local culture. In our Singapore office, everyone removes their shoes when they enter—it took a while for our U.S. and European colleagues a while to get used to this!”

2. It’s a date!

Singapore-headquartered start-up Nugit, which leverages artificial intelligence and big data “to help marketers make smarter decisions,” has a healthy mix of people with diverse skillsets and backgrounds from 17 countries. One way by which they encourage collaboration is a “Date your Colleague” program, where the company sets up one-on-one ‘dates’ for the team. “We’ve had over 300 dates so far, and the feedback was unanimous that it helps people get to know one another better and enhance collaboration,” shares Dave Sanderson, CEO.

Nugit also holds knowledge sharing sessions every week where “a different team member shares anything from best practices at work, to their hobbies and interests.”

3. A very vintage approach

For Vinomofo, “the most epic wine site on the planet,” celebrating diversity naturally takes on a rather wine-y turn. Erin Sing, Vinomofo’s global PR and partnerships lead, shares that the company holds monthly Themed Nights where employees from different heritages are invited to share their culture with the team. “The get-together focuses on different themes that correlates to a different wine region, and aims to celebrate diversity through food and drinks,” says Sing.

4. Not just red flags here

Sparkline, the digital analytics company co-founded by CEO Aleetza Senn, has a very diverse team spread across 11 nationalities. “We have a United Nations of Sparkline series of flags hung above our kitchen representing the home countries for the employees,” says Senn, adding that they also have “TGIF themes that celebrate cultural holidays/traditional foods/snacks, games, and cultural quizzes. And whenever members of the team go home or to another country either for work or on holiday, they always bring back snacks/sweets from that country and usually a souvenir.”

5. Food For Thought

Cultural diversity is one of the factors that’s driving the success of Wave Money in Myanmar’s nascent mobile money market. According to CEO Brad Jones, “the recognition that diversity is a strength rather than a weakness is very much practiced on leveraging the strength of our diversified workforce. We have 14 nationalities in the company—my CFO is Cambodian, my head of marketing is Kenyan, my head of product is French, and then head of government relations is [from] Myanmar, so it’s very diverse. I think really we have a shared vision, and we communicate that vision to everyone in the company.”


One way by which Jones and his team embrace diversity is through activities like their International Food Days. “Everybody brings in food from their home countries and explain how this is different, its unique aspects,” he explains, adding that it’s been a mind-broadening experience especially when it comes to their Myanmar staff. “Myanmar’s a nation of many ethnic groups, which is awesome because everyone’s learning about the cuisine from these different ethnic groups,” he says.

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