What is it About Diversity That Drives Innovation?

  • by Rangita de Silva de Alwis (philadelphia)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Rangita de Silva de Alwis is the Associate Dean of International Affairs at Penn Law School and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School

The research on opportunity costs is now firmly established. Diverse teams are on average more creative, innovative, and associated with greater profitability. McKinsey's research-backed analysis of diversity in the workplace reveals that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have higher financial returns than their respective national industry medians.

Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns higher their respective national industry medians. Gender parity could add 28 trillion to the global economy. This data does not distinguish between different cultures or ethnic groups. Denying the smart economics of diversity is as costly as denying evolution.

Professor Amy Wax on the other hand, often asks, "What is it about culture that hold people back?"

When Dean Theodore Ruger, Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School wrote in his brilliant response to Amy Wax in July that white - supremacist sentiments were "repugnant" to the values of Penn Law's academic enterprise, I think he was also connecting Penn Law's values not only to the ideal of a democratic society but to a process of analytical rigor that bridges cultures and disciplines.

In "Debating Immigration Restriction: The Case for Low and Slow," Professor Amy Wax raised arguments on cultural distance immigration that relate to recent immigrants of color like me and my family.

In her most recent anecdotal conversation with the New Yorker on August 23rd, Professor Wax once again wonders aloud whether the US has "slid toward third world standards" when it comes to rigor.

She highlights Malaysia and states baldly, "One thing that is quite striking is that there is essentially no science been done there, places like Malaysia- no science, no technology coming out."

My husband grew up on a rural plantation in Malaysia, immigrated to the US from Sri Lanka and works on cutting- edge gene therapy with a team of scientists from 12 countries (Iran, US, Canada, Cambodia, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, China, India, Cameroon, Turkey, Nigeria and South Africa).

He and his team of mostly "non- white" immigrant scientists developed one of the first RNA therapies to treat rare disease. Boston which has received the most N.I.H. funding of any U.S. city for 21 consecutive years, thrives on an innovation economy which is powered by immigrant scientists like my husband.

My close friend and the well- known art collector Shalini Ganendra grew up in Sri Lanka, shared a law school alma mater with Professor Wax, settled down in Malaysia, where her Malaysian/ Sri Lankan engineer husband helped to design and build engineering feats, including the Petronas Tower which according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat ranking remain the tallest twin towers in the world.

Amy Wax dares anyone to compare "third world" Malaysia to Denmark. Malaysia is ranked 35th in GDP, while Denmark ranks 36th in GDP, according to the IMF.

In thinking about Professor Wax's concerns about immigrants coming from cultures that do not value science and technology. I think of my father- in- law getting his car stuck on a railway track in rural Kurunegala while his curious son ran up a hill to watch a shooting comet with his naked eye, because they did not own a telescope.

I think of Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google who grew up in Chennai India with no computer and with one phone in his village. Is the US going to lose bright minds because their villages had "no science being done, no technology?"

One of the questions Professor Wax ponders is whether the migration of talent creates a brain drain when "enterprising" people go abroad. In the "The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy and Society," Harvard Business School's William Kerr argues that the economics of talent clusters result in sparking global talent flows and are not a zero- sum game for the world.

Talented people thrive in environments that best harness their skills and foster global growth with the potential to make everybody better off, he argues. Kerr bemoans the recent lack of tolerance in the US and predicts that some of the talent clusters of Asia might very well bypass the US in attracting a rich and diverse set of talent and thereby drain the US of its competitive advantage and scientific rigor.

When I became an American citizen ten years ago, I spoke of growing up in the chaos of civil war in a country that Professor Wax dismisses as a failed state, but one which at the time of my birth was headed by the first woman Prime Minister in the world- the woman who taught me to read my first letters.

Growing up, I learned of civil liberties from my father who would often read to me from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia- "it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god."

Many of my fellow immigrants, women and men, bring that culture of tolerance and diversity with them, a culture that shuns bigotry and dogma is the culture that drives innovation and the possibilities of the human spirit.

*Rangita de Silva de Alwis thanks Judge Nancy Gertner for supporting her decision to become a citizen of the United States and swearing her in on the USS Constitution and for Secretary Janet Napolitano for recognizing her as an "Outstanding Citizen by Choice."

© Inter Press Service (2019) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service