Dharshi Harindra is a lawyer and the co-founder of Roshi Global, which provides strategic advisory services for startups. An organising committee member for Women for Impact, here to break down barriers to funding for Women and non-binary people of colour in Australia. A Legal Advisor to the Museum of the Future in Dubai. And an advisory board member to the data management platform for financial institutions, Fencore. But while data drives organisational decision-making in almost every way, except when it comes to diversity and inclusion, where there is still a relative dearth of data. Why?
You can listen to the podcast here:
Data is of imperative importance when it comes to inclusion and equity.
It’s just it’s a bit more of a complex and involved process to get to the outcomes that we need.
Hi, I’m Darren Woolley, Founder and CEO of Trinity P3, Marketing Management Consultancy. And welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we discuss the issues and opportunities facing marketing, media, and advertising with industry thought leaders and practitioners.
Today, I’m sitting down with Dharshi Harindra. I always … because I’ve been trying so hard to get it right.
Today, I’m sitting down with Dharshi Harindra, who is a lawyer, and the co-founder of Roshi Global, which provides strategic advisory services to startups.
She is an organizing committee member for Women of Impact, here to break down barriers to funding for women and non-binary people of colour in Australia. A legal advisor to the Museum of The Future in Dubai, and an advisory board member to the data management platform for financial institutions, Fencore. Welcome, Dharshi.
Thank you, Darren. Thanks for having me. It’s so great to be here.
I have to ask; do you have any spare time?
I’d say that I do live a pretty 24/7 lifestyle, and I may be a little bit addicted to productivity hacks and all of that kind of reading. So, yes, my life does revolve a little bit around calendar blocking.
Well, also, because so much of this is in different time zones around the world. You really are a person of the world.
Yes. I am part of, I think what was, or may still be the great resignation through COVID, and we moved ourselves to Canberra. We have been working remotely and just been enjoying having space and being able to dictate where and when we work.
And whilst the borders were closed over those last couple of years and before we could actually get on a plane, I had originally wanted to move overseas myself.
And so, when that wasn’t possible, I just made it very clear to anyone that I wanted to work with or that I was looking for work to get me that international exposure, especially because I was doing a lot in that technology space, and there’s just a lot going on around the world that I really wanted to be part of. And I don’t think it should matter where you are anymore.
Now, the question around diversity, equity, and inclusion; DE&I, as they shorten everything to a three-letter acronym — is really an issue that’s been around for as long as human beings have worked together.
But really, you mentioned the pandemic, we had some real key issues arise. George Floyd in the U.S. and Black Lives Matter, which put it into the mainstream media and really raised the issue of what are companies doing and what are corporation’s doing, about increasing the opportunities for diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organizations. Didn’t we?
Yeah, we did. And that period, and this momentum that has been growing since instances like the George Floyd scenario, which I think particularly brought about a push and momentum because it came at a time when we were also all in lockdown and really engaging with something that has actually been occurring for several years in the history of the U.S. as well.
And it meant a lot to me at the time, because it really actually brought home that I’d been working in this space or been actively involved in this space through whatever I role I was working in at the time. But hadn’t really given it that air time, even within my own sort of friendship circles. And within my communities where suddenly these issues were starting to be talked about.
And what we have seen on one hand in a really positive way is organizations verbally, at least, or in their recruitment materials, in their marketing materials, share that it is a real priority. We’re seeing this real growth in diversity and inclusion professionals being engaged either as consultants or actually within organizations.
My own fears and concerns, however, around this area are really in trying to get to the nut of how much is virtual signaling and knowing that it’s the right thing to do. And saying in a post or a LinkedIn post that we stand with X, Y, or Z, but are they really living and breathing it in their day-to-day organizational growth?
And that’s a good point because we see International Women’s Day and international — these days that occur, the LGBQ — sorry, I always get confused with the plus, anyway. But the danger is it does become just symbolism rather than a commitment 365 days, when there’s so much focus on one day. I think there’s even a Purple Day, which is also for sexual orientation.
Yeah, that’s right. And I think for people that work in this space, there’s generally a big call out to say, “Please, no more cupcakes, no more just mentoring, no more saying, saying, saying stuff. How do we actually show action in this area? And how do we deploy something that is going to create real equity and inclusion?”
So, my view is that we hover a lot around diversity because it’s easy to put into tick-box exercises. It’s easy to add a few questions to the end of a cultural engagement survey. You need something to quantify our success, so it’s easy to be able to put out in your annual statements that you have X per cent of a category of person, X per cent of women, X per cent of people of colour in leadership positions or whatever it is.
And that is supposed to be a job done, but the journey of diversity, equity, and inclusion really needs to move into that equity and inclusion space in the first instance, because our communities and people, share more in common than we are different. But we all come to the table with very different lived experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds, and educational backgrounds.
And it’s not just about the sort of the categories and me as a lawyer, there are certain categories of protected people. There are certain discrimination laws that protect certain categories of people. But just ticking those boxes, does that mean that you actually have an inclusive work environment? Does that mean that you actually have true equality in your organization? Does that mean that you can just take an annual unconscious bias training and think that you’ve solved all the problems in your organization at a time?
So, it’s is an area that I really have this sort of love-hate relationship in and of itself. And Darren, you are in advertising. I feel like DE&I needs a bit of an overhaul and a makeover because everyone knows it’s the “right thing to do.”
There’s also a lot of data that will be thrown around as to how it will also better an organization’s bottom lines. We know all these things, and yet, we live in a society that is just so set in its-
Yeah, look, you’re absolutely right. I think that what you did in that explanation there, or that point of view is highlight the default mechanism; what’s the easiest thing to do? And what we’ve seen, especially in marketing and advertising, is industry bodies rush to the marketplace and carry out a census.
Now, the trouble is a census will largely tell you diversity because you’ll ask people to self-identify on a range of issues. And even then, it’s interesting how many of those census or surveys only pick a handful of categories that they pick for diversity.
It’s usually race, gender, rarely sexual orientation, rarely education, occasionally age. It’s like they almost misinterpret, first of all, how complex diversity is, because there are so many things that create us as diverse and individual human beings.
And then they drop equity completely because it’s too hard. But then inclusion it’s, do you feel comfortable at work? Do you feel treated well? It’s like quite superficial in what inclusion actually means, because inclusion’s not just making someone feel comfortable.
It’s actually creating the opportunities for them to actually be rewarded and acknowledged, and to progress within the organization and take on the responsibilities that they should be allowed to have because they bring a perspective and a capability to that role that’s unique to them, isn’t it?
Yes, and I think that you’re touching on an aspect of diversity that I’m particularly interested in as well. And that’s that idea of cognitive diversity that goes, that we all have … I sort of alluded to it earlier. And there’s a fabulous book by Matthew Syed on this called, Rebel Ideas.
If you haven’t read it, I recommend it to everyone, but really to show the impact of having … us sort of sitting in our own echo chambers of people who may look different, but may not all think differently. And the negative implications of that in and of itself.
When it comes to the idea of the census, now, this is something as well that I’ve spent a lot of time digging into and I’ve actually as part of my practice now, I leverage my diversity and inclusion expertise with all of my experiences as a legal practitioner to start working with organizations on diversity and inclusion surveys or censuses as you may call them.
And there’s a couple of things here. So, firstly, organizations are data-driven in almost all aspects of their decision-making. And yet, when it comes to DE&I, as I said there might be a couple of extra tick-box questions on a cultural engagement survey. But to your point, you can’t capture the culture of an organization and how inclusive an organization is from tick box questions.
So, the first question is what do we mean by a diversity census in that regard? Because I do think that understanding the data and the makeup of your organization is key to being able to implement or create any kind of diversity and inclusion and equity strategy in the first instance because I think today, it’s largely just sort of being made up as we go along and being kind of, we just got to say what we think is the right thing to say and do what the right thing is to do.
But have we actually looked at what our own organization is and can we do something meaningful to make our current and existing workforce feel included?
And then we start to get in the more complex idea of going, “Oh, well, geez. That just means that we might need to have more qualitative data comprising this survey. Maybe we need actually to have some focus groups. Maybe we need to listen to the organization and then compile and analyze that information.”
And then we go, “Oh geez, that means that I have to know what questions to ask, I have to ask those questions in the right way and not cause them more of a PR nightmare saying, we want to collect this information. That means I have to have an idea that I’m actually going to do something with that information, because I’m calling on my workforce to give away really personal and shared, lived experiences with me.”
And of course, and this is always I think, a hidden fear, but what they end up defaulting to is they do the survey, and then you get, “Oh, well, compared to the industry, we’re 5% better for diversity, and we’re 15% better for inclusion.”
And it does my head-in, what does that even mean? I think the idea of benchmarking DE&I or D&I is largely ridiculous because the only benchmark you should be trying to improve on is where your organization is today, and trying to be better tomorrow.
Because you mentioned about improving the bottom line, but it is a well-documented fact that organizations that are driven by creativity and innovation, actually benefit from diverse cognitive thinking.
That the more difference in thinking that you bring into the room, the more likely you are to actually come up with something new, because the patterns of thinking get disrupted and broken by people bringing their lived experiences and their ways of thinking and their perspectives on problems and life into that conversation.
Yeah, Darren, when I’m talking to clients in that DE&I survey space, and they start asking me about benchmarking, I have to draw breath because why is this an area that we should be competing with the rest of the market for?
In the first instance, you need to be competing with yourself. You need to say, “My idea of a benchmark is that I’m showing that day-to-day, I’m living and breathing the values of an inclusive organization.” That’s your benchmark. That’s when you’re getting really positive feedback, when you are retaining staff, when you are able to hire the best staff — that is the feedback that you need not, “Oh, we’re 5% better than them,” whoever them is.
But you’re seeing this all the time, especially from industry bodies or collective groups, that they’re competing between professions, “Oh, we are better than the finance industry.” And it’s like, okay, so they have a bigger job to do, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a job to do.
And I think going back to your point as well, to do this properly requires a huge level of trust.
And an amazing level of integrity to deliver on it, because when you’re asking people to express themselves as individuals, and that’s the way I see this is that the proper framework of diversity and inclusion is about who am I as an individual and to be acknowledged for that, isn’t it?
Yes, I think that’s right. It does. It involves a huge amount of trust and involves a deep level of engagement. I think that that necessarily means that this becomes a business and a leadership imperative, rather than where we’re seeing DEI sit in the most cases as it becomes an HR sort of imperative.
And that in and of itself, actually in my view, leads to certain trust issues amongst a workforce because you really need to see it come from the C-suites down and you need to see it being breathed and lived as a business imperative in the first instance.
And I think everyone, there is no single organization of whatever size, of whatever makeup that has this down packed. And the very nature of diversity, equity, and inclusion is that it is an ongoing journey and it will always be moving and it will always be something that has to evolve with the times that we’re in.
So, every organization needs to get real with themselves and where they’re at, at this point. And that just means that we have to lean into the fact that you might not always have the pretty sort of graphs that you can show in a presentation.
It’s just actually showing a sense of vulnerability of saying, “We are committed to this. We know we all have work to do in this area, but we also know that we’re on a journey to be great at this.”
I think just showing that real commitment is a big step forward. But it’s an interesting point, this whole idea of data and diversity for me, because as a data specialist and I talk about data from all different angles, and as an early adopter when it comes to technology, I’m always interested in AI and biased in AI, and how we use it.
But when it comes to more subjective things, sometimes people button down the hatches a little bit and say, “No, we don’t need data here because that’s just tick box. Or we don’t need data here because it’s too difficult. We just got to go by an experience, and by a feeling, and by whatever the rest of the market is doing.”
But actually, data is of imperative importance when it comes to inclusion and equity. It’s just it’s a bit more of a complex and involved process to get to the outcomes that we need.
Well, we’ll get to the … and talk more about the data that’s needed and the way it should be used. But I’m sorry, many agencies, especially out of North America, are very keen, because we help clients select agencies. So, the agencies are very keen to tell us how “Here’s the graph that shows our level of diversity.” And there’ll be several criteria that they’ve cut that on.
One of the questions that we always ask is, well, what’s your best piece of work that you’ve done? And they’ll usually show a video or a film, a TV ad. And it’s amazing because everyone cast is white, Anglo-Saxon, in their twenties and thirties living the stereotypical life.
And I think diversity and inclusion will work when you start to see the products of the agency, the advertising actually reflect the diversity that they report having within the agency. So, in some ways, I’m using, let’s say unstructured data to judge the agency rather than structured data.
But back to your point around what should people be thinking about if they really want to get a handle of diversity and inclusion within their organizations?
I think it’s an interesting take; I think it’s a really interesting analysis or case study to use like advertising the advertising industry because as you say, we’re meant to use such a stereotypical scenario that even now, we’re not long after the most recent Australian census, which is constantly telling us that there is barely any average Australian that can fit into a picture. And yet, we’re supposed to use that material to sell products to the biggest and broadest possible spectrum of consumers.
I do think that storytelling and individuals and small communities stories play quite a role in starting to understand the context around which we are collecting that sort of data, because where we need to marry that quantitative, as I mentioned earlier, is that qualitative sense and the conclusions that we draw from talking to people, listening and engaging with a community to get an understanding of what their lived experiences are, and what are the challenges that people are facing on a day-to-day basis.
And once we start to pull and understand both the differences and the commonalities behind those experiences, we can build a picture of the state of play that you have. And then you can have a basis from which you can start to develop, whether it’s your product, whether it’s a strategy, whether it’s hiring.
And what is important to note when it comes to DE&I is that it will leak out into all aspects of an organization because we often think of corporate organizations. DEI will lead into, as I said, that HR space and hiring, recruiting, and retaining talent.
But that will then necessarily lead to the pools of people coming up with these adverts and the marketing. It affects your product development. It affects that accessibility. It affects every single aspect of your organization.
And so, you can’t sort of pigeonhole each of those things. And therefore, it means that, as I said, the data needs to be very, very broad, and then work into those stories to start to connect the dots into which directions you might need to take in any particular area. I’m not sure if that answers your question.
No, but it does on one level, but as you were sharing it, it made me think that what we’re talking about here is significant cultural change within organizations. And we know that culture changes in two ways.
It can change from the top down, by example. It can also change from the bottom up, which is how people work together. It’s amazing how when people work together in a collaborative way, it has the ability to rise up through the organization.
The fastest way is always top-down. And we see that in agencies, especially because many of them, even though we’ve got publicly listed global companies, the agency office is a unit in its own right. And that could be anywhere from 20 people to 500 people or more.
And when you change the management team, you will significantly change the organisation’s culture. If you’ve got an agency that’s incredibly monoculture, then for that to embrace (and I’m not using the term in the way I’d usually) multiculture or diverse culture is a significant cultural change, but not an insurmountable one, isn’t it?
Yeah, I agree. I wonder, Darren, have you found in the agency scenario clients come to you or potential clients come to you with certain requirements from a DE&I perspective that says, “We want any of our agencies to have to tick all these diversity boxes?”
Because that’s also the other thing that you say, well, back to your point of moving things from the top-down, I think in industry ecosystems, you need organizations and clients to start pushing agencies, for example and moving that ecosystem that way as well.
So, I can be honest and say yes in North America and Europe. But not as to date, and let’s draw a line in that sense, to date not in Australia or in Asia. And it’s really interesting because it’s certainly top of mind, and interestingly, even in Europe and North America, it is more procurement that is raising it than it is the marketers.
So, that’s an interesting observation, but then procurement’s responsible for ensuring the sustainable and ethical sourcing. And so, they’re also interested in things like compliance with the Modern Slavery Act, zero net emissions, etc.
So, they’re often talking about diversity and inclusion in the same breath that they’re talking about the other UN Sustainable Goals.
Yeah, noted. And that’s another interesting one of just trying to … I think that the work we have to do in that DE&I space is moving into that true inclusion piece that goes beyond, “Have we got a modern slavery statement up on our website?”
It’s a tricky one, and it’s something that, as someone with a legal background, I struggle with because I don’t believe that laws are always the right solution for this sort of thing, because you can legislate to an extent.
But then all you have is organizations complying for compliance’s sake without really getting down to the underlying values that have driven the legislation in the first place. And how do you get people to think about those, the underlying value system?
But Dharshi, this is why I don’t understand that the industry and society is not focusing on the benefits of diversity and inclusion. You mentioned before it improves the bottom line, but ultimately, innovation and moving society forward can only happen when we are much more inclusive, when we are actually collaborating with ideas and sharing ideas.
And yet, it seems to be almost forgotten, which the default is then the tick box; “Oh, look, I’m complying. I’m doing what’s expected of me. Aren’t I good? Pat me on the head.”
And look, I will confess, I go to diversity and inclusion meetings, and they always refer to the older, white, Western male. And I look around like, “Oh, are they talking about me?” Because I have to identify that way. That’s who I am.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m anti-diversity or anti-inclusion or anti-equity. These labels become pigeonholes for a shortcut to everything wrong in societies because of people like me.
Yes. So, labels are another one that I could talk about for days on, and I certainly had my battles with being pigeon boxed into labels, and it goes back to our need for simplicity over complexity, and our need to be able to say, “You tick those boxes, therefore, you are this.”
And the reality is Darren, we need more people like you, that look like you, and that identify as “the man,” i.e., the people in power that get to change the dial on these things. We need more allies basically, because the reality is that the power structures are still the old, white, heterosexual man.
Yeah. That as well, I’m that as well.
You’re that as well. You tick all the boxes.
Like I am so privileged. And so, in many ways I think anyone in that position has to be willing to make the door wider for everyone else coming through.
When you’re my age, it’s like, well, I know that this is the end, I’m heading towards the sunset. So, the least I can do … my mother used to say, “Always leave the place better than you found it.”
I love that.
So, if that means making the world more open and especially, because to me, diversity and inclusion is all about making a smarter, more creative, more innovative world. Isn’t that what business needs?
It is certainly what it needs. And again, we’re in our little echo chamber here. You’re preaching to the converted, I couldn’t agree more.
But my concerns are that one, we are not living in an equitable society. But the problem is, is that the people that have the power to change that are not incentivized to do so because things are working just fine for them.
And so, we need more people to have that community-driven approach. And I’m still struggling on how to communicate something that you and I just seems so straightforwardly right in all manners, I really have to work on how you communicate that to people that think, “Well, things are just fine.”
Or another area that is very controversial and that even myself, I’ve changed my mind several times on this, but positive discrimination, in order to rebalance the inequity in the first instance so that we can then have a slightly more levelled playing field to play from.
And that is a very, very threatening prospect to people that are already at the top and don’t need things to change because they say, well, we agree that everything needs to improve, and it needs to improve in, say a certain linear way. But that shouldn’t ever mean that those who already have the privilege and they’re enjoying those privileges should have to come down to a particular minority level.
It means that everyone needs to grow in the same trajectory. But how you close the gap between the two may require positive discrimination, and that is not an easy sell.
The bottom line is that whatever we do, we need to focus on the positive outcomes for everyone. So, the idea of growing the pie.
Growing the pie.
Now, you grow the pie; there’s more pie. The trouble is that we live in a society where you grow the pie, and the people at the top get to eat more pie.
And so, yeah, Will Storr, his book two years ago, The Status Game, really sums this up beautifully. The status hierarchy says the people in power want nothing to change. The trouble is that everyone that relies on that status hierarchy will do whatever it takes to keep it in place.
Now, what we need to do is to stop saying, “Well, this is a good thing to do,” because people will do good things because it then gives them virtue status. But it’s not a long-term solution. We need to start talking about the business implications, and we need to find ways.
So, to your point about positive change or having … I’m assuming you’re talking about things like setting quotas and type thing?
Yeah, for example. Yeah.
So, the thing about that is that’s only to overcome what’s seen as the economic imperative of the capitalist system, to still put certain people in the top jobs and other people in the menial tasks, the lower paying tasks, that’s the bit that has to be addressed.
And often, that has to be changed by positive reinforcement to get people over the hump in the first place. And yes, you’re right, it’s controversial because we all like to think that we live in a meritocracy world, but that’s rubbish. Anyone that believes that they live in a meritocracy is someone that’s benefited from the lack of meritocracy.
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And really, it is also that capitalism in and of itself just structurally requires that a hierarchy that will favour the privileged will work. But I feel like we’re treading on many landmines now.
We’ve gone way off track here because it’s marketing and advertising, which only exists in the capitalist system.
It’s not perfect, but it’s the only system that humans have managed to come up with that works enough of the time to make it sustainable. The alternative is communism. That’s the only one that’s been tried, and that didn’t work. And so, let’s stick with our capitalist system, but we can use it actually to bring about change, can’t we?
Correct. The North American market is an interesting one, and I’m also, at my core, sort of all for free and open markets. And whilst there can be an attraction to that idea of the American dream, and that everything is open to you, I think that the realities of the infrastructure in North America also show the great inequalities that can arise.
But I will ultimately come down to emphasizing the commercial benefits of diversity in particular and having an inclusive environment. And I think Darren, where you are leaning to, particularly in your industry, is that idea of that creativity and that innovation piece.
And starting to bring more naysayers into a community as well, and not looking at them as a naysayer, but just looking at them as being able to help expand that whiteboard of ideas and start just to get more juices flowing and drive people, whether they’re positive or negative in a particular environment, in a particular situation, you roll it out, you try it out, and then see what the results say.
And I oftentimes think, whereas you might have that initial reaction to suddenly a more diverse looking family in an advert, that the initial reaction from the majority is like, “Oh, cringe, that’s not really what we usually see, it’s not what we push out.”
I guarantee if there’s someone up there that is going to take the punt and start pushing it out, then the data will start to reveal the real benefits, commercially from both, as I said again, that organization. Still, your consumer market increasing… and then from that, you can start to develop, as I said, products in ways that can reach parts of your consumer base that you didn’t know you had.
And also, where I think that your industry needs to look at inclusion from that data perspective because we so often say, “These are all the people that bought your product.” And Darren, I’m not an expert. So, please take everything I say about my assumptions about how the advertising and marketing worlds work with a grain of salt.
But development tends to happen based on your data and historic data and all about the people engaging with a brand or a product, et cetera.
And then you double down on that to say, “Well, these are the people we need to reach out to.” And my confusion has always been in that area to say that that’s always only ever going to be an often-small piece of a pie that has a much, much greater subset of communities that are not getting access to your product because you’re not speaking to them properly in the first place. Therefore, they’re not going to buy it.
So, you always need to look for the gaps in data as well to know what you can open up and how you can open up a market for an organization.
And you need to look at what your future consumer could be. You must also marry that with the trends to show that, “Okay, we’re not targeting that.” And that’s probably because, “Oh, well, our previous campaigns over the past, however many years, have always kind of gone for a particular demographic; how do we try and get another one?”
We must start understanding them, research that, and then push another way. And you should slowly be expanding that to cover as many bases as you can, in my view.
Yeah, look, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that because, certainly, the marketing and advertising industry has more data than it’s ever had at any time in history. The question is how well they’re using it to inform the decisions being made.
And while data is certainly an important part of developing strategies, they’re informing strategies and even media selection; it’ll be interesting to see how much of that are now informing the creative process and the creative outcomes.
And until we get that sort of representation of that cognitive diversity there in the creative process, it’s probably … we are starting to see change. And I think we’re getting to that uncomfortable stage where people see change, but it’s not happening fast enough. Let’s hope there are enough people pushing it forward.
Look, the time has just flown by, Dharshi. I’ve really appreciated you making time, coming, joining, and having a conversation on Managing Marketing.
It’s been my absolute pleasure, Darren. Thank you.
Well, look, before you go, I do have a question for you, and that is, you have a global perspective, but which is the one company that you think is doing it well? I mean, diversity and inclusion?