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Diversity, Inclusion & Building a Better Future with Nurul Hussain & Jeremy Au

· Purpose,Podcast Episodes,Singapore,Women,Thought Leaders

If you’re like “I have a team of 300 people and two of them are women.” That's a problem, especially if one of the women is you. So we need to really be very clear that the diversity, equity and inclusion piece is not fluffy. It's real, it's numbers, it's numerical. It impacts things in real life. Just because it's about people, right, doesn't mean it's more difficult to measure. It means we're not asking the right questions as to what it is we're measuring. We need to think about that.

Nurul Jihadah Hussain is the Founder of The Codette Project, which has been operating since 2015. The Codette Project is a non-profit ground-up initiative with a mission to improve access and opportunities for minority and Muslim women in technology. The Codette Project runs classes, workshops, panels, networking sessions and social events regularly, including Singapore’s only women’s hackathon. Nurul wants to create better communities and opportunities, and diversify what success means in society to show that anyone can be successful.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (00:23)
Why is diversity so important and really what can be done for organisations to take this a lot more seriously and maybe even use it to the competitive advantage. So maybe Nurul, you’d like to go first.

Nurul Hussain: (00:47)
So I do want to push back a bit on this question because I feel like when we say let's not do diversity at face value, the two things that we're looking at. So firstly, obviously there's something called diversity washing, right? But it's like it's like greenwashing, pinkwashing, any kind of whatever washing where you're not actually committing to change, you're just making very surface level changes.
But I would say that a lot of the ways that people criticize diversity initiatives are not necessarily valid. For example, if you're improving your representation in visual examples of who's in your company, who should be your customers and these kinds of things, that's still one step forward. It's still saying, I recognise that I should not just be having one kind of person in my advertising.
So that's one step forward. And then that actually brings up the larger question, which is that diversity is a journey, right? So you have everyone beginning at an imperfect stage of their diversity journey. How do you get them to the next stage? So if you're a company where you did not know this word diversity, you did not believe in it, it's not something you considered.
Your first X may look like face value or diversity washing, but that could then be actual change later on, if you are committed to learning and to changing. For companies that already know, they know what they should do better. They know that they should improve hiring. Look at who's actually being part of the company. How do we improve results? Look at retention. Then the question is, do they have the ability and the strong value system to commit? And then that's a different question. So that’s saying you know, and you're not doing it, then that's a very different problem. So I think we've got to talk about this at every stage. I do think that organisations need to understand and need to realise that companies, as economic actors, you don't just act and impact economics, you are impacting the lives of the people that you hire, you're impacting the lives of consumers.
So you don't just have an economic purpose. You should really think about what is the good that you're doing at every level, and how can you do better. And to everyone, not just your employees, not just your consumers, push it further. What about your vendors? What about...on a very basic level for a lot of start-ups, you're incubated in a space that has an office that's not cleaned by someone you hire.
It's cleaned by an external cleaning company. Your pantry is not stocked by an auntie that's hired by you. But do you know if she's being paid fairly? Does she have to pay for her own, like, uniforms and things like that? Is this something you can do as someone that benefits from her services in order to get this access, you need to actually make sure that that goes back to the people that are helping you and amplify that at every level.


Moderator (Mohan Belani): (03:48)
So I'll go into a bit more detail later on. How do we inculcate more bottom up approach? But Jeremy, what what are your views on this on diversity and I mean, from a from a VCs hat also, right. Because you work with so many companies, you've invested in so many founders all across the region.

Jeremy Au: (04:05)
You know, I think the interesting reality is that diversity and inclusion means different things to different people. And I always think about, as a history nerd, I think about Southeast Asia has been at a crossroads between east and west. You can look at the archipelago and the different cultures. And it has been this melting pot for thousands of years.
Right. I mean, there are coins today being found today here from thousands of years ago from different cultures, right on different times. And so I think what we define as the in-group and what's the out group has varied over time. And the truth is even in Singapore, whoever we define as in-group or out group can look very different as 30 minutes going one direction are going to a different country. And so I think I often boil it down to very much like how would you like to be treated if you just travel across the border? Right. How would you like to be treated if you entered a different situation, if you are the out group and conversely, if you are the out group now to in-group, how does that show up in your life?
And I think what we want to do is have that fundamental fairness at the end of the day because that is the human and the right thing to do. And I think that's really the crux that is not only recognizable at the founder level but also fundamentally recognised and rhymes with the people who are choosing to be a team-mate and colleague.
With the customers who are choosing your services across all services and your stakeholders, right. Who recognise that not necessarily in the short term but over the medium and long term. So at the end of the day, I think it's the right thing to do. I think it resonates with stakeholders and employees. And the truth is, once we expand the so circle to suggest Southeast Asia with all the cultures or the different identities that we've seen, I think it's really important.
Just do the fair thing and treat others the way we want others to treat us.


Moderator (Mohan Belani): (06:18)
I think fair point. There's also a lot of data out there showing that such policies help. But if we were to say, okay, let's say the ecosystem stakeholders or at least the people in the decision making environment. So if you look at Start-Up Ecosystem, right, you've got founders, you've also got the venture capitalists where they're the ones giving out capital.
So they have a large influence or opportunity in promoting diversity inclusion. Then you've got government policies and programmes, right, with respect to how certain grants or schemes are distributed. And then you've also got people. How do we start this process of really encouraging the stakeholders to take diversity and inclusion, incorporate it into their policies? Does it need to be a top down thing?
Can it be a bottom up thing? How will we start that entire process across the ecosystem?

Nurul Hussain: (07:11)
So when we say bottom up, we're really looking at individuals acting in their own capacity. And I think that is valid and that's powerful as a reflection of what the reality is on the ground. But I want to push back again. And it's going to have a lot of pushback, so be prepared.
But one of the things that we want to rethink is the idea that it's the people who are most impacted by inequalities that should be the ones to make that change. That's fundamentally not understanding what equality should be. We all agree equality is good, right? I mean, I'm assuming. Okay, we all agree equality is good and because of that we agree diversity is good.
Then if we agree on these two things, why do we push the responsibility to create things that are more equal and more diverse to the people that arguably have the least time, energy, power and any capacity to make that change. Why shouldn't this actually be something that you report in your annual report and that you should be proud to talk about and you should be really recognising your mistakes.
If you had a bad loan or you had a bad year and you had a bad sales, you're just going to say, okay, this is what happened. We're sorry, this is how we're going to fix it. Why don't we take this attitude for something that is clearly a moral good and take that responsibility to say, Look, we haven't done that well, but we're going to do it differently.
So I think it's not about who is supposed to take the responsibility. It's why aren't people already taking the responsibility and then being very specific and be like, tell me why? What part of this is difficult for you? And then let's figure out how to make that change. We know it's important. I don't think it's a lack of understanding of that diversity is important. I think it's a lack of willingness to commit to concrete actions that may or may not have an immediate financial benefit.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (09:14)
So let me push this one level further. I mean, we have a VC and start up audience in the crowd, right? If I were to follow on the suggestion, what you're saying is for VCs that the reports that they get from the Start-Ups to not just get the highs and lows from the companies, but also things like diversity inclusion efforts and initiatives.
And how are they scoring on that? Is that something that you think would be the right step forward for Start-Ups to be reporting that to the investors?

Nurul Hussain: (09:40)
Yeah, because clearly that could be a high or low. And I've worked with Accelerating Asia, which is also a VC, and they have a gender advisory board, which I'm on. It's something that they look at, it's not female founders, which is the next step, which is a valid step, but it's also more than that. When you're creating this company, you're a founder, you're creating a Start-Up.
You know it, you love it, you think it's good, but who is it good for? And then what's next? How do you make sure the people that are being negatively impacted by it and there are definitely people who will be, how do you mitigate that within your own company? Who are the people that are benefiting more from it?
It's not when you lead your company, you're not just leading your profit or loss statement. You're leading people, you're leading results. And in this environment, in Singapore, economy in the region, we need to think more about these things.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (10:35)
Now, Jeremy, on the on the venture side, fundamentally, it's all about returns, right? If funds are going to be judged based on that. How can diversity and inclusion become a larger part of that discussion? Should LPs start taking a heavier stand? Should VCs start reporting on a larger level? I mean, some funds have also started like more women centric funds or diversity inclusion fund.
Do you think that's the right step? So multiple themes over here. But really on the venture side, how can this be more impactful?

Jeremy Au: (11:08)
The fundamental role of entrepreneurship is creating something new and something new because the world is changing, the reality is changing and people's needs need to be solved faster, smoother, more cheaply, more convenient. And venture capital is about supporting founders to achieve those changes. Because I can tell you that my great grandparents, they set up a little shop house with no capital, borrowing money from family and savings and that was not very long ago. And so today, I think we ask founders to do way more tremendous things than just a shop house. And in return, we provide the capital to support them on that journey. To allow them to be able to grow a company, to be able to eat and not take on that personal risk on a personal basis.
And where it boils down to at the end of the day, and I love this phrase all the time, is that talent is equally distributed, but opportunities are not. And what it means by that is, yes, we are still in the fundamental core supporting exceptional founders. And exceptional founders should come from everywhere. And the commercial way of looking at it is if you are not looking for that talent in places that are not as visible, then you're missing out commercially.
I think that's the most transactional way to look at it. Another way of looking at it is the right thing to do because everybody needs support, help and so forth. And when technology is built by certain in-groups, then we have a situation where it's all built around those core assumptions which are fundamentally not in the spirit of entrepreneurship, not in the spirit of innovation and not in a spirit of the future that we're trying to build.
Because today, this year, we are living in the future that our parents built, our grandparents dreamt of, and our great grandparents had no idea could ever happen. And that future that we are living in today with all of us around this room sharing this topic will be the base and foundation for our children, for our grandchildren. And I think that we all have fundamental responsibility. And I think that starts with founders being recognised wherever they are and venture capital supporting and innovating and making sure to push forward on that. Whatever format that happens to be.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (13:52)
Can this responsibility be further cemented in a way where there's an expectation from stakeholders to have it, as opposed to putting the onus on a level where it's just okay, it's something nice to do or good to do, right? Like if I were to use fitness as an example in the Singaporean culture like growing up, you would have to take that NAFA test and it’s literally on your record book how well you did and it's in your face that hey look, take your health and fitness seriously.
Is there a way that the government or organisations can do that in a more structured manner. So it's not meant to feel like, oh, this is a nice to do, but something that you should really, really be focusing on. Can there be a framework around this that can be set up.

Nurul Hussain: (14:43)
For context, do you enjoy your NAFA test?

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (14:46)
I did not. I was a fat kid. I was made to go to the tough clubs, so no, I did not enjoy it.

Nurul Hussain: (14:52)
Yeah. Because then there's a problem, right? People are going to be like, Oh, I hate the NAFA test. I don't want to go. Do I think it's a responsibility and it should be measured in more concrete ways? Yes. Do I think I have a perfect answer for you as to how that can be done?
No, I don't think there will be, because going back to the idea that diversity is a journey, anything that we create now will only measure and look at a certain part of the journey, and it will need then to keep improving as we move on and as we try and bring more organisations and society and everyone else further along the journey.
So I think that's quite difficult, but there definitely can be a lot more done to normalise and encourage the presentation of really these difficult questions about diversity, equity and inclusion for all parts of the start up process. And that's a good question. But I don't have a clear answer for you.

Jeremy Au: (15:49)
I'm always supportive of organisations systemising the aspirations of the employees and stakeholders and you know, I think that is a responsibility of employees and leaders to ask for that. And I think it is also the responsibility of the leadership to say, hey, this is the balanced scorecard that measures what our aspirations are as a company, not just economic, not just financial, but also human and societal responsibilities.
I think we've also seen the rise of ESG, which is a tremendous amount of work, I think, done by limited partners and capital allocators out there who are requesting venture capitalists or actually requiring disclosures around what are the possible upsides in terms of how they apply to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as well as being aware and disclosing the risks or potential downsides of technological change that's there and that's honestly the step in the right direction.
I think there has been some pushback recently about things like format, as you said greenwashing or other washing. I'm always like would you rather go back ten years and not have those things? I ‘d rather have those. And for us to continue measuring, continue improving, and even today, I can tell you right now, like when we do venture capital investments, at least our organisation, we do look at filling out our ESG and evaluating how it's going to create jobs, save lives, improve environmental quality and so forth.
And I think it's a relief, honestly, because you do it. And it's like, oh, this is even better than I thought, right, that this is the story. It is the journey that all of us can sign up on. Right. And end of day, in terms of investment process, it ends up helping us exclude those that we don't feel contribute to a future that we all want to live in, but also helps build a future that we want to build on.
So that can be replicated not just at VCs, but also at start ups, large organisations, even hobby groups. You know, there's so many organisations where we just can do it.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (18:18)
So that the last question was in context of things like ESG climate scoring, like next year, organisations know there’s going to be a carbon tax coming and all that, right, and now they are very clearly defined frameworks, scorecards, metrics that you can use to, to compare yourselves. I guess the challenge with diversity inclusion is that it revolves around people and the last thing you want to do is put metrics and measurements around people and all that, which just complicates the entire situation.
So I think that's the part where I was trying to figure out…

Nurul Hussain: (18:51)
But we do measure people even if it's just a performance review, even if it's just numbers in hiring and growth. How many people got laid off? I think we do measure people. And one thing that I think is very dangerous is for us to actually think that we cannot measure some of these achievements because and I guess it might be a slightly separate point, but ESG and diversity are not two separate pieces of the puzzle to try and make things better.
They are part of the same piece for many places in the world, including, I believe, Singapore. A lot of these impacts are interrelated. A lot of these impacts when it comes to the environment, when it comes to sustainability, they don't always impact everyone equally. There are different groups of people that will be disproportionately impacted by certain environmental factors.
That's a fact. So if we look at, okay, we can do ESG because we can measure like carbon offsets. We're also not looking at what is the cost to people. If we just look at people from a non ESG standpoint, we're not looking at the full picture. So we need to look at all these things as part of the same picture, which is that if we want to create economic good, what is the cost for us in whatever way?
Is it social? Is it environmental? Is it political? Like, what are the costs for us? And that's real. So when we look at diversity, diversity is not fluffy. Diversity can be measured. If I want to go out to any Start-Up Founder, right. And if I asked you the question, do you know how many women you hired in the last month?
And you can't tell me that's your problem. And that's something you need to measure. Then if we look at it one step further and I ask you, compare it to the lowest paid person on your team, how many times of that are you taking home in terms of your pay? That's something you should know too because that's your responsibility as a founder.
That's your responsibility for diversity, and that is numerical. So if you give me a number where you're like, okay everyone in my organisation, we've got ten people, we're all getting paid a differential of like maybe 20% between top and bottom. That's very different from saying actually differential between top and bottom, even though it's ten people is like 200 times, you can measure that.
That's equality. If you’re like. I have a team of 300 people and two of them are women. That's a problem, especially for one of the women is you okay? So I think that we need to really be very clear that the diversity, equity and inclusion piece is not fluffy. It's real, it's numbers, it's numerical. It impacts things in real life.
Just because it's about people, right, doesn't mean it's more difficult to measure. It means we're not asking the right questions as to what it is we're measuring. I think we need to think about that. So one of the questions that we look at when it comes to, for example, how long do women stay in the workforce and why do they leave?

You're looking at not just measuring how many women are there in your workforce at a specific point in time. But what is your turnover? When do women leave? What is your attrition rate as your attrition rate over time? So it's just asking different questions. So I really strongly disagree with this idea. That any part of this is fluffy because it's not and people are not fluffy.
We're actual real people. So it's not imaginary. The effects are not imaginary. So it's there. We just really have to ask the right questions.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (22:25)
So in the last few years at least, right. I mean, with the pandemic, the pandemic environment shifted the idea of like hiring and all of that, right. So in the last few years, has the diversity inclusion issue become worse? Or has it become better? And this is on both sides.
I see you from an investment side. Right. In your view, has it gotten better or worse? Is it in the right direction or do you feel that it's gotten downward and we need to do more, a lot more work?

Nurul Hussain: (22:52)
I think that some organisations have done better, so some organisations have committed to like no work from office, which is great, more flexible hours, hiring people remotely, better benefits. But a lot of people have not and a lot of people have genuinely made enormous profits off what was suffering. And we've not really rewarded the people that were on the front lines of that like.
And that's everyone from the frontline health care workers to the grab drivers that are sending you like I really need Panadol right now and it's all the people that were part of this environment. Not all of us benefited equally. And that really worries me because I'm very concerned that we've come out of a pandemic where we had to face our own mortality, each of us, because none of us really was spared.
But what we have left with is not necessarily a commitment to making things better that a lot of us are still doing things in the same way, or a worse way. Not everyone. Of course, there are a lot of organisations, a lot of people that are not doing enough and that should be doing more because as a society, as a community, as a nation, as a region and as a like honestly on a global scale, we cannot continue to have this enormous and unequal divide between people. If we each really face this global issue where different groups of people died at different rates.
Different groups of people are vaccinated at different rates. We need to then say like a lot of the issues that came up globally, they will happen again. How do we build better and not just go back and say, okay, we did enough? Like we clap like thank you very much like nurses or whoever.
Like, that's not enough. What is an actual next step as a Start-Up Founder, as a person, how do we actually build that so that we create more equal communities, more equal societies, because that's creating a more resilient ecosystem?

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (25:00)
And then on the venture side has got a better at all. I mean, there are more women led funds and all that? Right. But are there just like token kind of things or has there been significant improvements?

Jeremy Au: (25:11)
I think there has been significant improvement over time, especially in the recognition of a problem and the search for it. I think the search representation on investor teams has never been higher. You know, it can and should improve over time and I think that's one way to look at it. I think that as you shared Nurul, I think the past few years has been tremendously painful.
And I think we cannot underestimate the actual human and medical cost of this. Right. You know, the truth is if you have more privileged, well-off, I had more access, you’re alive, not just better off, but you get to be alive. Right. And I think there's a tremendous human cost that is invisible because they don't vote.
They don't they can't vote anymore. They can't be present anymore. They can't speak anymore. Right. Where I think one small benefit over time is a trend, I think that start-ups and entrepreneurs led the way from remote work and work from anywhere. I think that it has unlocked a certain set of paradigms around in-person and certain transactions that had happened in-person that really affected, for example, parents who had caregiving responsibilities, which disproportionately fell on women in Southeast Asia but it also allowed for people to access roles from all across the region wherever they may be because away from the business district within Singapore or in different countries.
And I think I'm not saying is the full ingredient for everything, but I think it's one ingredient that combined with leadership from the teams and from venture capitalists, I think can make this a more equitable place over the next ten years.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (27:03)
Okay. I want to spend the last few minutes for the session discussing actionable next steps, right? So let's put it into three hats, right? So we've got the investor or the venture, the VC investor hat, we've got the founder hat or the executive level and we've got the employee hat. Right. So within this room, right as a key next step.
What can people start to do? Are there books, is there a particular book of framework. How can they kind of say let's take diversity inclusion seriously, let's kind of come up with a framework to measure this? And how can we come up with a six month plan to start maybe improving this entire process?
What is the key next steps that we can start doing?

Nurul Hussain: (27:46)
I would like to have a framework. I'll set it to you all. I don't have a framework, so I can't tell you. I do think that from so I'm going to speak from the employee perspective and then the founder perspective. I think from the employee perspective it depends where you're at, but as an employee, it's important to take responsibility on the kind of environment you're building and the kind of thing that you're seeing.
So what by this I mean, if you are an underrepresented employee and you feel like there is a gap within the workplace when it comes to your capability, your achievements and where you want to be, then for you to recognise that and address that will often take the brave step of speaking to someone about it, looking for options outside and really committing to the risky move of deciding, Well, maybe this is not a place for me. Can I go somewhere else? So I think for employees it's that if you're an employee that's not underrepresented, you've in a place, you're comfortable, you're doing well. Then I think the question is, how do I make someone feel and do better where they're at? How do I create a place that's better and more welcoming for everyone? So that's an.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (28:51)
So just so it's more like cultural day to day interaction kind of things that you're talking about right.

Nurul Hussain: (28:56)
Now for employees? Yes. For the founder perspective, I think a very simple next step is really just having data and looking at it. And I think a lot of that is really looking at customers and customer demographic breakdown. It's looking at employees and employee demographic breakdown. So once you have that and you are looking at that, I can guarantee you there is going to be a problem.
Almost everyone will have an issue where they're not performing, where they should be. And then how do you move whatever resources you need to move to improve that part? So I think that that's quite a good thing. I believe that for founders you have access to that data and that's where you should start moving.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (29:30)
Jeremy anything to add?

Jeremy Au: (29:33)
You know, I love reading science fiction and growing up I love reading. And I think it represented, I think a very in retrospect, a European or Western or American male perspective the greats like Isaac Asimov. And you talk about the Ender series and so forth. And I think what I've really enjoyed over the past three years has been reading much more diverse science fiction.
So, for example, like Lucy saying on a Wandering Earth series to the the Murderbot series, which is and a whole bunch of different series that are by female, by African authors, by different groups, because I think it just let your mind set free and kind of wander away from what we solve today, what we solve tomorrow.
But what could that future 100, 1000 years could be? And I was watching for example, Star Wars and those like The Mandalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And I was this mind blown because I felt like there's something different about the way it was done, it was so fresh. And I realised very quickly that it was actually being shot by Bryce Dallas Howard and Deborah Wong and these were the first two female directors that ever shot any Star Wars content.
And so they had that very deep real perspective that obviously I enjoyed as a reader because it's fresh, but also I think helped me break a lot of those paradigms about what that future looks like. And so I think that's a great way to be part of the future, because if we love technology, we love the future, I think that's a great way is to kind of broaden that reading on a fiction side, because I think they get to explore these new crazy ideas.

Moderator (Mohan Belani): (31:29)
Changing your entire consumption habit would change your perspective. I think this has been a tremendously good learning session for me. I hope it has been for all of you. I hope all of you take away the very important, urgent need for a serious look at diversity and inclusion in all of your organisations. And please join me in thanking the panelists for this session.

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