Growth 2020 CEO Summit

Tips from Growth List 2020 companies on how to build diversity

Businesses that put a high value on diversity are seeing dividends. For the rest of you: it’s time to step up your pace.

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
Illustration by Genevieve Ashley

Illustration by Genevieve Ashley

When Chris Barrett was promoted to CEO at Hamilton-based Operatic Agency three years ago, he knew something seriously needed to change. His “aha” moment came when he and his team realized that the fast-growing creative digital agency needed to do more to reflect the diverse clients they served. For Barrett—a white, 39-year-old executive in a competitive industry—diversity wasn’t just a metric in his mind, but a key part of growth for the business. “I honestly believe that having a culture that embraces diversity and inclusion plays a big role in innovation and creativity,” he explains. “A variety of perspectives enables you to achieve unique solutions to complex problems.”

The company currently employs 30, of which 12 are women, six are BIPOC team members and five are LGBTQ+ employees. A mid-sized boutique agency, Operatic (No. 167 on Growth 2020) counts entities like Toronto’s One King West Hotel & Residence among its clients, as well as million-dollar franchises and multi-location businesses across North America, such as Dave & Buster’s, M&M Food Market and Weight Watchers.

The agency’s commitment to diversity has helped it stand out, Barrett says. Nowhere was this more apparent than earlier this year, when his team helped a high-profile lifestyle client expand its audience (and sales) by incorporating more inclusive language and campaigns that appealed to the brand’s non-white shoppers.

“Diversity among our ranks helped us recognize and solve a problem that the client needed [solved],” he explains.

Outperform peers

The business case for diversity isn’t new to our times. Over the years, there has been no shortage of papers looking at how diversity impacts the bottom line. But a May 2020 study by McKinsey, titled “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters,” found that “the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.”

The paper also revealed that during unprecedented times, diversity matters even more since “companies whose leaders welcome diverse talents and include multiple perspectives are likely to emerge from the crisis stronger,” it added. “There is ample evidence that diverse and inclusive companies are more likely to make better, bolder decisions—a critical capability in the crisis.”

Conversely, the McKinsey report suggested that firms who were considering eliminating inclusion and diversity (I&D) initiatives should think twice about the damage it could do to their overall brand. “Some companies appear to be viewing I&D as a ‘luxury we cannot afford’ during this crisis. We believe such companies risk tarnishing their licence to operate in the long term.”

Amad Abdullah has seen first-hand how diversity can help a company grow and stay relevant. “If you want to be competitive, you have to think competitively,” he says, which includes hiring people with “different experiences and skills.” As the president of KW Signs—a Kitchener, Ont.-based company (No. 171 on Growth 2020) that makes wire frames, stands and real estate sign holders—he’s proud that his team of 30 boasts 26 BIPOC employees who speak 13 languages. It’s that diversity that allows him to quickly hire great talent that others may overlook, he says.

Say that KW “wanted to hire five or six people quickly, just temporary for a couple of months. A lot of companies have to go through an agency or recruitment centre or spend money on some ads,” Abdullah explains. “We have the ability to hire people with different ideas and skills quickly because we have so many people from all different cultures.”

Workers can speak to a variety of clients in their native language, which helped with KW’s recent U.S. expansion.

Of course, KW Signs isn’t the only business that understands this crucial principle. Organika (No. 311 on Growth 2020), a leader in the Canadian food supplement and vitamin sector, follows a similar approach. The family-led, B.C.-based company, which employed 107 workers in 2019, encourages diversity from the very beginning (in its hiring and recruitment practices) to ensure diversity is top of mind throughout every step in the onboarding process. How?

It’s “through our recruitment pool, by extending our recruitment efforts to foreign job fairs, online job boards, social media and our team network,” according to CEO Aaron Chin. They also “proactively support team members in their immigration process into Canada.”

Play catchup

Canada has come a long way since the “I am Canadian” Molson ad in 1994 that used diversity as a prop to sell affordable beer. The 26-year-old one-minute commercial, in which a white actor talks about what he loves most about Canada, became a pop-culture phenomenon. At one point, an image flashes on the screen behind him, showing the faces of people of different ethnicities. The moment may have shown that corporate Canada was adept at commercializing (and selling) its embrace of diversity, but it was also, perhaps still, a little tone deaf.

“Certain companies will be ahead of the game,” says Hadiya Roderique, a diversity researcher and former Bay Street lawyer. “I believe the talent will flock toward those companies—and not just the talented people of colour, but the talented white people and the people of other orientations—because they will be seen as a company that is fair.”

That certainly seems true for Toronto’s FundThrough (No. 133 on Growth 2020). (The company offers an invoice-funding platform to help businesses secure payment from vendors.) For Steven Uster, CEO and founder (in 2014), maintaining diversity takes leaders who can put in the work. He should know: he oversees a team of 30 who hail from 13 different countries and speak 24 different languages. Almost half of his team identify as BIPOC. “It’s something that you can’t give lip service to,” Uster explains.

The team ensures the company pours time into recruiting diverse talent, which includes acknowledging unconscious bias in job ads. “We take it seriously,” he adds. “We will write a job description in a way so that it doesn’t exclude a certain group or person.” He dedicates energy to thinking of ways to make sure diverse hires feel welcome. “Celebrating diversity within the office and through employee meetups is one way to make people feel included.”

Have a game plan

Some companies are still catching up. For them, ensuring their companies are diverse won’t be an overnight job, says Tana Turner, adjunct professor at York University and diversity consultant. Her suggestion is to include goal-setting targets. “Targets are important. What business operates without putting forward objectives and targets for the year? None,” Turner explains. “That’s the only thing that drives change. This work is not going to happen by accident.”

The feeling is shared by Sarbjit Sahota, CEO of Kasa Supply (No. 362 on Growth 2020), a Surrey, B.C., company that provides HVAC, drainage and plumbing supplies to residential, commercial and industrial companies in Western Canada. Kasa’s 30-person business, which proudly hires diverse Canadian and newcomer employees, uses a six-point process:

1) Create diversity-friendly policies. Review existing workplace policies with a diversity lens.

2) Reassess employee benefits. Review existing employee benefits with a diversity lens.

3) Provide diversity training.

4) Establish diverse mentorships.

5) Build diverse teams.

6) Measure your efforts.

Ultimately, “It takes work, time and effort,” explains Operatic Agency’s Barrett. “Adding an inclusion statement in your onboarding manual is easy, but it’s likely to fall flat in the long term if you don’t weave diversity into measurements, set the tone with management and include it in other facets of the company.”