* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The lived experiences of LGBT+ people often translate into product needs that differ from straight consumers
Eric Silverberg is chief executive and founder of SCRUFF
The social and political minefields of 2019 have made starting and managing a successful business more difficult than ever. Consumers evaluate companies based on the fitness of their products, as well as their understanding of, and connection to, social and community groups.
Boycotts seem to emerge regularly, and seem to be having more profound effects. To prevent such controversies, businesses need to anticipate, if not outright avoid encountering them. How?
Diversity. When employees are able to speak openly and honestly about themselves and at least a portion of their personal lives, businesses are made stronger because it helps them better understand their customers and/or the social context in which they operate.
As the chief executive of the largest LGBT+ owned-and-operated software company in the world, I know first-hand the importance of connecting on an emotional level with customers. As I’ve gone through my journey in business, I’ve found these three steps to be essential to building and maintaining a diverse team.
Understand your customer
Companies rightly focus on the success and usefulness of the particular product they sell, but often they lose sight of the mindset and psychology of the consumer whom they are serving. The lived experiences of the LGBT+ community often translate into product needs that differ from those of straight consumers. For example, privacy and security features on a dating app hold different importance for LGBT+ customers who might be at risk of losing their jobs or facing discrimination if outed.
Ethnographies – basically hour-long interviews that cover a wide and serious range of topics – can give you a full picture of your customers as people, and can help business leaders understand the emotions and lived experiences of their customers.
Encourage empathy amongst your business leadership
Empathy and diversity go hand-in-hand. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another enables you to appreciate their motivations and the limits of your own perspective. I have found that the results of ethnographies, as described above, can drive changes of understanding and perspective in teams very quickly. For example, my team completed a months-long ethnography of gay, bisexual and transgender men of colour, and had our eyes opened to the depth and seriousness of racism that continues to persist. This research enabled our team to realise that thinking about the GBT+ community as a monolith was flawed, and we recognised the importance of, and market need for products and services targeted specifically to GBT+ men of colour.
Make different decisions
It’s one thing for leaders to commit to the importance of diversity, but how does that manifest itself in a business?
I argue that businesses have to be able to point to new and different decisions because of this commitment to diversity. In some cases, this can be achieved by hiring consultants with diverse backgrounds to educate and inform deciders.
Yet, there can be no substitute for elevating diverse people into leadership positions, hiring a diverse group of employees and building a diverse network of advisers.
Invest in professional groups that support diversity
“The pipeline is too small” is perhaps the most common refrain amongst companies that struggle to achieve diversity. Though many valid rebuttals to this claim exist, I believe the most effective way to help companies find and hire diverse candidates is to invest in professional groups and support structures, something the LGBT+ community is now starting to embrace.
LGBT+ centres and colleges around the country have specialised career fairs, and new professional organisations in major cities have emerged that bring together mid-career lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans professionals. In New York, these professional organisations move their events between different headquarters, which means that each month offers a new opportunity for a company to introduce itself to the LGBT+ community and signal its commitment to diversity.
Ultimately, building an empathetic and diverse business culture is a long-term investment, but for those leaders who are committed, it’s an investment that will improve the company, the community and the world at large.