Diversity breeds innovation
Fresh ideas and perspectives are critical in a corporate environment that is increasingly global in nature, requires renewed attention to changing demographics, and is confronted with economic turmoil, said Citigroup executive Elinor Hoover when she delivered the keynote address at the fourth annual Johnson Diversity Symposium on Oct. 18. Hoover addressed a diverse audience that included Johnson’s residential students as well as faculty and staff, and also prospective students who came to campus to experience life at Johnson during Johnson Means Business, Johnson’s annual diverse student hosting event.
“Innovation increases with diverse populations, and in financial services we need innovators from a variety of backgrounds,” she said, noting that diversity includes, but is not limited to, racial and gender-based differences. Diversity must be a priority across the board, to corporate leaders and to the rank and file alike.
“The ‘new normal’ environment of uncertainty in capital investments requires that we think about risk controls and risk management, rather than focus primarily on financial growth,” Hoover said. “These are people-oriented issues and we need a culture of diversity in thinking and a diversity of talents to address them.” She cited the recent U.S. government shutdown and the recession as prime examples of this uncertainty, which is reflected in rising leverage in global markets and a polarization in the marketplace.
A nimble, diverse workforce needs to develop new strategies to address striking demographic trends, including an aging population impacting U.S. retirement funds, and women emerging as major influencers in consumer-oriented economies worldwide, Hoover said.
The good news for MBAs is that such challenges are opportunities for those who can anticipate where the markets are headed, and for those who bring fresh perspectives on where to place future financial bets, she said.
Given her own diverse background, Hoover serves as role model for diversity in the corporate realm. As an undergraduate at Yale she was a music and science major, with no background in business. Her interest in biophysics and biochemistry, however, led her to accept an investment banking position job with a health care group, advising biotech firms on foreign investments.
“My experience is that you must embrace change: Be open to new opportunities and go where you have passions,” said Hoover.
In concluding her address, Hoover sounded a positive note while emphasizing the influence individuals can have on creating a more diverse corporate climate. Early in her career, she was asked to give a presentation in Korea, in part because she is of Korean descent. But, because women don’t typically deliver such presentations in that male-dominated society, the hosts were reluctant to let her speak. They relented when her company said it would leave the meeting if she could not speak.
“I thought it was a bad presentation and the experience led me to vow that I would not return to Korea,” said Hoover. “But I later learned of the profound effect that presentation had on the Korean audience. There were some who said that if an American woman can take on such a role, Korean women could do the same — and a women in finance program was launched by one company following my presentation.
“The lesson is, don’t underestimate the impacts of your actions, because you don’t know what those impacts will be down the road.”