I spent the last week of November 2012, in Tunisia, in North Africa, talking with private equity and venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, development banks, NGO’s and State Department personnel on the topic of post-investment portfolio support. There was high interest in understanding and implementing Silicon Valley’s best practices for supporting and growing startup portfolio companies to enable them to achieve their milestones.
After visiting dozens of countries during the past 5 years, this was my first visit to Africa. One clear take away from the trip, and an essential element for a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem, is that diversity, tolerance and open mindedness have always been a cornerstone of the Tunisian economy and culture. I met some exceptional people that can trace their heritage to France, Spain, Turkey, Italy, the Middle East, and nearly every part of the African continent. There was tremendous diversity in building architecture; the beautiful Tunisian doors and Roman mosaics. The food was delicious and quite different with incredible hints of cinnamon, basil, cardamom and hot peppers. The faces of the Tunisian people reflected that cultural mix as well, with their beautiful round faces, chiseled faces, dark skin, light skin, heads covered and uncovered. They have it all.
Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began in January 2011. With help from social media, a revolution occurred that quickly overthrew a dictatorial regime and replaced it with a regime that, today, is beginning to look a lot like the old regime. Nearly 2 years on, there is still no constitution in place, and frustration is increasing and tensions rising, as quickly as the unemployment rate. It seems this new regime is less tolerant and seeking more homogeneity. Worldwide, we see that intolerant governments and ‘closed’ countries do not attract the tourism nor the foreign direct investment that creates jobs and improves economies.
The Silicon Valley ecosystem is founded upon openness, diversity and tolerance, although with a much shorter history than Tunisia’s. More than 120 languages are spoken in Silicon Valley and it’s not unusual to see a startup team comprised of people with multicultural backgrounds and ties to India, China, Korea, and Eastern Europe. While they may not eat the same foods for lunch, their diversity generally is an indicator that they will build both a better product and company.
I find the CEOs of these inclusive companies are usually more self-aware as human beings, because they have to be much more sensitive to the range of perspectives within their team and have to be highly effective at both building consensus and leading the company-- especially when things don’t go according to plan, which always happens in a startup.
Take a look at your team, your colleagues and your friends. Does everyone think alike? Do you choose like-minded individuals to hang out with? Or do you sustain yourself with a variety of ideas and perspectives? Within your company, is there freedom to think creatively? How are contrary points of view handled? Are they accepted and debated, or rejected and eliminated? Can you challenge the status quo? Do you feel more empowered when with people who are the same or different from you? The answer to that last question may be the most telling.
Great companies are built over time and in many different ways. Diversity and openness, in both the employees and the company’s approach to the market, is generally a strong indicator of better products and services and ultimately, a better world. Our differences truly do make us stronger.