How Sustainability and Diversity Can Boost Company Success

Illustration of hands in different skin tones surrounding the Earth. The image has heart shapes sprinked liberally.

Image by Ray Shrewsberry.

Early this year, I received the following post in my daily digest from the Ada’s List [source], a supportive community of women who work in and around technology.

Over the next few weeks, we’re collaborating with long time Ada’s List partners Bulb for a 3 week blog series – and we need you!  The blog series will be split into the following topics, with all places allocated on a first come, first serve basis:

Growth – All places taken
Branding and Company Values – Places available
Sustainability – Places available

I wrote back


I’ll be very interested in talking about embedding diversity and inclusion practices as a part of the sustainability agenda, both footprint and handprint.

Best, Patricia

I was invited to participate in the post. I was very pleased when I received the questions sent by Bulb to guide my contribution. There was one explicitly mentioning diversity and inclusion.

As you’ll read below, I didn’t limit the value of diversity to one answer.

Sustainability and Diversity: My take

1.- Introduce yourself and what you do.

I’m a scientific services leader and a diversity and inclusion tech evangelist. I believe that ethical and inclusive technology is an enabler for regenerative innovation and world-class customer experiences.

Through my career as global head of scientific support, training, and services at Dassault Systèmes, I’ve worked with Fortune 500 Life Sciences and Materials companies worldwide to build, deliver, and maintain science-based virtual solutions. I’ve spearheaded and guided numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives in tech and I’m a winner of the 2020 Women in Tech Changemakers award.

2.- 2020 has been a year of change. How did you cope with adapting to new ways of working and living?

I’ve been working and managing remotely for more than 10 years. Nevertheless, the pandemic had a substantial effect on my professional and personal life.

First, it’s been very helpful to pause and savour the wins, even if small; go the extra-mile to assume positive intent (e.g. reaching out to speak to somebody that just sent an incendiary email rather than doing a “reply all”), and asking for – and accepting – help more often.

I aim to take a walk every day, even if only to go to the nearby supermarket. I’ve found that the shortest walk can have a restoring effect and give me a more optimistic outlook. I’ve also tried to limit social media and news.

Finally, activities such as volunteering [source], reading books that broaden my perspectives [source], writing [source], and connecting virtually with people that are making a positive contribution towards creating a more diverse and inclusive world have energized me and helped to build resilience.

3.- What do you wish you could see more of within sustainability in businesses as we head into a new year?

I wish we could embrace sustainability beyond environmental impact [source]. There are 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) and to create systemic change leaders need to think beyond recycling plastic or buying low consumption lightbulbs. I’m an admirer of how Unilever has integrated sustainability into their mission as well as how they communicate on their progress [source].

Whilst not all organizations have the means to make an impact on every goal, they should critically explore each one to assess those that have more impact on their business and which ones they can influence more [source].

Then, set short, medium, and long-term objectives with implementation plans, KPIs, and ownership. There are free online tools like the SDG Action Manager [source] that facilitate meaningful business action through the self-assessment, benchmarking, and tracking of improvement towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

I wish I see more accountability, more examples of organizations going beyond intent (greenwashing) and show impact. I’m also very interested in seeing more businesses reporting on the financial return on sustainability activities [source].

I also believe that alliances across businesses are an untapped resource and can have a multiplier effect. Last year, jointly with a team of D&I thought leaders from large UK employers in the digital space – Dassault Systèmes, Accenture, IBM, Microsoft, and Siemens – we launched the Tech Inclusion Partnership. The aim is to share our challenges and best practices and explore how collaboration between our organisations can accelerate Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the tech industry.

I would also like to see more transparency and action towards eradicating pay gaps for protected categories such as gender, ethnicity, LGBTQ+, and disability.

Finally, I’d like to see more companies deploying diversity supply programs that empower women- and minority-owned businesses through networking, training, mentoring, and preferential terms and conditions.

4.- How would you explain the importance of sustainability within business?

Our Western philosophical traditions have built a belief system based on the supremacy of reason. Whilst humans are considered intelligent, nature is regarded as mindless, legitimating the oppression of other species and the abuse of our natural resources [source]. Sustainability aims to level the playing field with the planet.

I see businesses’ sustainability practices as their true legacy. When I was a teenager in Venezuela, I remember watching in the news that a company had destroyed the source of a river when building a road to their factory in the savannah. I don’t remember what they manufactured (their mission), but I doubt it offset the permanent damage they caused to their environment (their legacy).

Sustainability provides a framework to articulate the overall value of businesses within their ecosystem. It’s a balance sheet with our planet and its inhabitants. For example, whist double-digit growth can be very attractive for shareholders, if that growth is achieved through polluting the atmosphere, increasing the financial vulnerability of customers, and damaging the health of workers, is that truly a successful business?

There are also more tangible links between sustainability and business: Risks, reputation, and returns. For example, when Volkswagen was found to have manipulated their emissions test, they suffered their first quarterly loss, criminal charges, and substantial fines [source]. On the other hand, there is evidence that consumers are seeking sustainable goods, even if that implies paying additional fees. This is especially true for millennials, who would pay between 10 and 25% more for sustainable products or services [source].

In summary, customers and employees are becoming real stakeholders in companies, not only interested in what they do, but in how they do it. For example, the handling of employees’ safety during COVID-19 has strengthened the brand of some businesses whilst it has tarnished the reputation of others [source].

5.- Apart from environmental sustainability, what else is important for entrepreneurs to consider when starting out a business? For example, diversity and inclusion.

If diversity and inclusion is a core value of your business – and there is plenty of evidence of its financial rewards – then you need to embed it from the start. It’ll become harder to retrofit it as the business grows.

Where to start? The obvious place is the diversity of your executive team and board. You also want to explore the opportunities of diversifying your potential target user to uncover untapped market needs or an unfair advantage of your offering. For example, services such as internet and close captions were designed with Deaf people in mind.

Then, your workforce. Work culture is a key pillar of any business. It determines the behaviours of your employees, who in turn dictate your product, customer service, and user experience. As business leader, you’re setting the work culture from the top, and your actions and behaviours – more than your words – signal what are the priorities. From the diversity and inclusion perspective, those should include adopting processes that mitigate bias in hiring and promotion, enforcing inclusive behaviours, monitoring the distribution of stretch projects among staff, a robust harassment and misbehaviour policy, and tracking and reducing pay gaps across different demographics.

Once you start designing your product or service, you should aim to review its degree of inclusion at four stages: prototyping, user research, UX design, and marketing [source]. It’s especially important to assess who is being excluded and the potential risk [source], e.g. Is your product making your user more financially vulnerable? Is your non-accessible website excluding potential customers [source]?

Finally, as you begin to build partnerships, consider checking the make-up of the workforce of your supplier and if they would subscribe to a sustainability charter, which typically contains clauses against discrimination.

6.- What’s your view on technology and how do you see that playing a role in a more sustainable future?

Technology can be both a catalyst and a barrier to a more sustainable future.

Among the positives, technology is already helping to track the progress– or lack of thereof – towards the SDGs targets. Social media and the internet have amplified the influence and networks of very diverse groups across the globe lobbying for a more sustainable future. Edtech is contributing to making more accessible higher education. Artificial intelligence is speeding up the research of new drugs and vaccines [source] and helping to detect deforestation from satellite imagery [source]. Blockchain has the potential to positively transform food security, digital identity, access to financial services, and the supply chain in general [source].

On the flip side, social media has fostered polarization and unrest, artificial intelligence has consistently shown to reinforce stereotypes – leading to biases and inequality – and it can be very energy greedy, as some cryptocurrencies.

In summary, technology can have both a regenerative and a devastating effect. It’s up to humans to make conscious decisions to harness its power for good.

7.- Whilst it’s been a difficult year, the changes we’ve seen have also opened up new opportunities. What are some of the learnings you’ll take with you into the new year?

I’ve been amazed by people’s generosity. In spite of the challenges, I’ve had innumerable opportunities to network online, introductions to sponsors, feedback on personal projects, ad hoc mentoring, and very fruitful collaborations across disciplines. 

It’s also made me rediscover volunteering. With lockdowns and the restrictions to travel, I dedicated most of my free time to produce research to visibilize the impact of COVID-19 on the unpaid carework of professional women [source]. I also joined We and AI in 2020, a charity aiming to increase awareness of artificial intelligence among the public [source]. Both activities have increased my sense of purpose and connected me with great people beyond my traditional networks.

8.- And with those learnings in mind, what advice would you give to people launching their own company?

Be authentic; communicate clearly the why, how, and what of your business; build your network; ask for help; and pay it forward.

The Article

Things got even better when I read the published text. It incorporated the insights from 4 amazing women: Shaunagh Duncan (Sustainability Lead at Bulb), Eileen Willett and Nancy Zeffman (co-founders of Cucumber Clothing), and Claire Rampen (Co-founder of Reath).

The cherry on the cake was the title of the post: How Sustainability and Diversity can help lead to greater company success. I was delighted to see diversity sharing the spotlight and given the credit it deserves as an enabler for regenerative innovation.

Back to you. How does your organization leverage the power of diversity to deliver on its sustainability goals?

You can read the original post on Medium and on Ada’s List website.

How does this article resonate with you?