Stars of all stripes

One company makes its case for the advantages of a multicultural workforce

It's noontime at Obongo, a fast-paced Internet start-up in Redwood City, Calif., and the line for the lunch buffet already stretches around the corner of the lunchroom.

But the spread on the counter isn't limited to the typical dotcom fare of pizza and deli sandwiches. Instead, plates are piled high with exotic dishes - from batata wadas to biriyani to banitza.

Here at Obongo, workplace diversity is demonstrated, not declared.

There are no "celebrate diversity" posters and no affinity groups. Yet among the 85 employees at Obongo, more than 20 different ethnic backgrounds are represented at all levels of the company. Roughly 40 percent of Obongo's workforce is female.

"There's no glass ceiling here," says Soraya Bittencourt, vice president of engineering, who previously worked at Microsoft, where she created the company's popular Expedia software. "If you're good, you're good."

While this degree of employee diversity is far from widespread in the American workplace, it does display the effect of shifting American demographics - and the growth potential for companies willing to tap into a much broader employment pool.

Does the formula work? The year-old, privately held Obongo declines to trumpet its earnings. But amid widespread flight by venture capitalists away from dotcoms, Obongo's recently been at the receiving end of $25 million.

The company's location puts it at the forefront of a new demographic trend. According to Census Bureau estimates, whites are no longer the majority group in California, which, at 33 million people is the most populous state in the union. Taken together, the state's various ethnic minorities now constitute a new majority.

Obongo's workplace diversity also reflects the growing realization that doing business in today's economy can be easier for a company that's multiculturally staffed.

"Companies that are serious about competing in a global economy understand that a diverse workforce will add the fresh perspective and creative thinking that will appeal to an increasingly diverse marketplace," says Preston Edwards Sr., CEO and chairman of iMinorities Inc., the parent company of IMDiversity.com, a career Web site for minorities and women.

Cap Gemini Ernst & Young (CGE&Y), an international consulting firm, has a comprehensive diversity program for its 57,000 employees. It releases, for example, a monthly planning calendar to help managers schedule meetings on days that do not conflict with various religious holidays or ethnic/national celebrations.

The program has helped the company to retain and recruit minorities and women. "We find that the diversity of thought that comes from the diversity of [employees] leads to a better product for our clients," says Beth McCarty, director of the CGE&Y's Office for Diversity in Chicago.

The Silicon Valley model

While CGE&Y has been involved in the move toward the creation of more inclusive and multicultural workplaces for much of the past decade, newer workplaces like Obongo's, says Ms. McCarty, are worth studying.

"Silicon Valley has been a leader, and we watch what they do because we recruit many of the same people.... We're always looking to find a better way to do business."

At Obongo, that means hiring people with the most talent and potential to produce and support the company's unique product - a Web "toolbar" that allows users to simplify log-in, password, and form-filling tasks at any Web site. While the toolbar can be downloaded for free, Obongo generates most of its revenue by co-branding and customizing it for high-profile corporations.

Founded in September 1999, the privately held company already has small field offices in New York, London, Munich, and Bombay. Co-founders John Hunt and Jai Rawat say that as central as workplace diversity may be to their success, they pointedly chose not to formalize an affirmative-action hiring plan.

Mr. Hunt, the British-born Irishman who serves as the company's CEO and Mr. Rawat, an Indian-born technological wizard who is Obongo's chief technology officer, say their multicultural workplace is simply a logical outgrowth of the company's search for adept and well-versed employees.

"It's one of our greatest strengths that we can have this diversity and therefore all these divergent ideas," enthuses Toks Olushola, the company's strategic alliance manager. Ms. Olushola lives in New York and is of Nigerian heritage.

Some still left behind

But the absence of an affirmative-action policy in hiring also means that Obongo's relatively small workforce does not have a high percentage of employees from the groups most underrepresented in IT, relative to their population: African-Americans and Latinos.

"There are many social roots to the lack of representation [of people of color] in IT," says Oliver Chin, director of marketing and acquisitions. "Companies in general need to place it as a higher priority to improve their representation of certain groups."

Several employees of Obongo are brought in under H-1B visas, which are allotted for highly skilled foreign workers. Last month, President Clinton signed into law a measure increasing the annual cap on these visas from 115,000 to 195,000 workers. The measure also sets up a $1,000 visa application fee that will fund programs to retrain 150,000 US workers for technology jobs.

Hunt says he is aware of concern among some labor groups and minority organizations that H-1B visas are a substitute for hiring US-born workers. But, he says, it's also important to remember that these imported workers have been - and continue to be - an integral part of the success of American IT companies.

"We're not paying lip service to some politically correct mantra," he insists. "We see daily how the exchange of culture and education generates [wonderful results]."

'Positive friction'

Sonia Wong joined Obongo as a business development manager in October 1999. By March she had been promoted to director of product management. Ms. Wong's new role means sometimes arguing with the top boss.

"There's not too many places where you can openly challenge the CEO, but I do," she says.

Hunt views such disagreements as the greatest asset of multiculturalism - something he calls "positive friction." Creative competition is encouraged at many firms. But Hunt says a deep mix of backgrounds like the one at Obongo adds a spark.

"We argue a lot," he boasts. "I believe that creativity and innovation flourish where cultures meet. I would look to the history of the [world] to support that argument."

In particular, Hunt says he takes inspiration from the world's coastal societies, which have produced great accomplishments out of the inevitable exchange of commerce and culture.

While conversations are lively at Obongo, not all are free of miscommunication. The everyday challenge of a multicultural workforce, says Rawat, is learning how to better understand the cultural context that shapes the way in which people behave.

In certain cultures, he explains, "people are not as open about their feelings and emotions."

At some meetings, says Ms. Bittencourt, subordinates were not asking important questions when managers were present. Those employees, she says, grew up in cultures which expressly discouraged the public questioning of people in power. After the meeting, they would scramble to get clarification from their peers instead.

To remedy the situation, Obongo created a "front-line-managers group," so that each department could appoint a peer to serve in an intermediary management capacity. Employees who would otherwise feel hesitant to approach superiors with questions were entirely comfortable with speaking with these front-line managers, says Bittencourt, who is of Brazilian descent.

Another strategy Bittencourt's engineering department has implemented to address the special demands of its workers: an informal policy allowing generous vacation leaves so that people can visit relatives in far-away countries.

"Companies that have a more diverse workforce have policies in place that foster a good work environment. That kind of environment is not only good for minorities, it's good for everybody, whites included," says Mr. Edwards of iMinorities Inc.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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