Making your business unordinary during unordinary times

Richard Branson and other executives discuss how businesses need to evolve to keep up with revolutionary changes.

On Thursday 7 November, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson hosted Business is an Adventure, an event sponsored by Virgin Atlantic and Investec. 

In a panel discussion, BrainReserve founder Faith Popcorn, lawyer and activist Thando Hopa, global head of organisation development and HR Dr Marc Khan, and Youth Employment Services CEO Dr Tashmia Ismail-Saville talked about how diversity builds business advantage. 

“Diversity is no longer a choice,” Popcorn said. “These are unordinary times, you need an ‘unordinary’ everything.” 

South Africa is one of the frontrunners in race diversification within companies, but there are many other areas where the country falls short. And while women are rising through the ranks faster than ever before, South Africa still has a lot to do in terms of gender diversification in terms of sexuality. 

According to Popcorn, gender fluidity is the way of the future. “People want to be recognised for who they are and bring their whole self to work,” she said. 

According to Popcorn, part of recognising people for their different gender identifications, means that you can’t have a separate bathroom for each gender. “Facebook recognises more than 71 genders,” she said. “You don’t have to build 71 different bathrooms, you only need to build one.” 

Dr Ismail said that, while she is not ready to be sharing a bathroom, “If there is a rule, that rule would become my norm. And the same applies for businesses. We need to just enforce those rules. If we don’t make the policies and make it easy for people to show what they can deliver, we will lose out.” 

“On an airplane, who is responsible for safety?” Khan asked. “Everyone. The same is applicable to businesses when bringing in diversity.” 

“People think that diversity is the same as inclusion,” Hopa said, redirecting the discussion. “Diversity is the perceivable difference between people. Inclusion is the ability to hone that voice for people to participate.” 

Khan supported Hopa’s statement, saying that just because the business has the right percentage of diversity doesn’t make the business efficient.

“What is important is having a culture of inclusion and belonging. It is only in that culture that the interaction between those differences can come together in a productive way,” he said. 

He used a school dance as an example, saying that diversity is like receiving an invitation to the dance, inclusion is being personally asked to the dance and belonging is dancing like no one is watching. 

Hopa said that businesses need to create an environment that is open to consultation. 

In another panel discussion, Branson, CEO of Investec Fani Titi (pictured with Branson), Takealot head Kim Reid, and UK trade commissioner for Africa Emma Wade-Smith discussed how companies should be doing business out of the ordinary. 

Titi said that, in business, standing still is not an option. “The world is disruptive. We need to embrace the risk and different opinions that come with it.” 

Wade said that South Africa needs to embrace the future and technology. “Education is right at the heart of this. We need to continue to learn,” she said. “We need to make sure we are creating the right future with these technologies.”

According to Reid, we can make technology more inclusive by re-evaluating our education systems. “We need to place greater focus on subjects like maths and science,” he said. “We need to put great schools in townships and we need to make transport more accessible.” 

Wade said that the future of education is in our living rooms and kitchens. “We need to figure out how we can bring technology to our homes,” she said. 

“We complicate studying a lot,” Titi said, having previously been a lecturer. “We need to make technology more accessible and the internet more understandable.”

The panels left audience members thinking more about a people-centric approach to doing business, from how they approach new types of diversification in business, like gender identification, to how much of an influence improved education will have on a business’ workforce.