Be Ambitious: Not a dirty word. Among other things, ambition for me denotes imagination. If we aren’t being ambitious, then it is very difficult to break free from many of the structural drivers that prevent an inclusive and equitable society. So, thinking big and away from orthodoxy in our professional, but also personal lives, is critical.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Bilal Baloch.
Bilal Baloch is Co-Founder and COO of GlobalWonks, a tech-enabled expert network that delivers market and industry insights from around the world in real time. Prior to starting GlobalWonks, Bilal was an academic at the University of Pennsylvania where he taught at the Lauder Institute, Wharton School of Business while working as an Associate with Macro Advisory Partners in London. His new book, on government decision-making during times of crisis in developing democracies, is out in 2021 with Cambridge University Press. You can follow him on Twitter.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Thank you for having me. I grew up in a working-class household in east London, UK among a sea of first-generation immigrants, from Pakistan to Jamaica and Yemen. As the youngest of four in a large family, I quickly developed a thick skin and a deep appreciation for mentorship.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
For the longest time, I found reading burdensome. So, let me mention the one book that changed that unwise trend, which was Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was hooked to the narrator of the book, “Chief” Bromden, whose story is an allegory for so much of the tragedy and triumph we see everywhere around us. Above all, his was a story of a patient pursuit to escape the environment he did not choose, and I found that story compelling when I was 18.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
That’s a much tougher question than the plethora of cliché’s out in the world! I’ve always leaned back on an often-repeated message from my father, to “Engage everything in moderation.” When I reflect on it, especially coming from a parent, it covers a whole array of actions and sins. But ultimately, it’s often influenced me to pause and check my views or actions, so it has been a helpful internal gut check and balance mechanism.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
This is perhaps one of the most important questions we face today, as we have seen how large effects can result from the few. I define leadership differently in distinct contexts, depending on the challenge or puzzle faced. Sometimes you direct actions purely through principle, even if your surrounding context shouts and screams to the contrary, like Abraham Lincoln displayed. While at other times, I see a deep value in leading through clearly defined material interests, like the leaders of all successful enterprises share. Overall, however, I think the red thread is empathy. For me, authority with empathy is the mark of true leadership, and seen in people like Nelson Mandela.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
This is a constant battle, as I often find that I overlook the steps that lead me to a stressful place, and it is those steps that you need to be mindful about. I meditate as often as I can (through the usual apps) and exercise regularly. I find running boring but physically and mentally a superb stress-reliever, so I listen to podcasts while I run. I also recently started swimming more often, which, as someone who is 6’6”, has been a game changer for relief.
However, in the high stakes moments, I find myself remaining even keeled which is a direct result of my upbringing. One tool I find useful is keeping a pen and paper handy at all times in important meetings so I can map out my thinking and the argumentation, so as to not get caught up in impulse.
Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Look, this is a complicated question for which my answer here, or certainly any one view, will not suffice. But from my experience, the observation I keep returning to is we need to stop punishing people who have been left out. When the struggle for rights and integrity gets knocked back in blatant and subtle ways through daily practices, from the workplace to going for a walk in a park, then we end up where we are today.
In this picture, it’s not only the case that people of all different types feel left out in their specific contexts, but by not implementing sustainable change through the way we design institutions, represent communities in public forums, or build business incentives, we have punished them further and compounded the loss of agency.
There are several established mechanisms that do give people more access to opportunities and improve education of at-risk or minority groups. We have seen them before, some successful, and others very much not. But the part that will take longer and needs all our energies to solve, is the compulsion to punish the already burdened — conscious or subconsciously. Without this, the current situation will only go on to create other groups that feel left out and will lead to more groups being punished.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
As a former academic, and now a business owner, diversity and inclusion are inherent goals in my professional life. There are many examples to share, but perhaps the most pertinent is the very existence of my company. I built GlobalWonks because I saw firsthand that verified information was critical today more than ever before to interconnected organizations. Whether it is a small retail outlet in Philadelphia that sources material from Vietnam, or a large private equity firm looking to understand political risk in Mexico. Shared, among them all, was a need to access verified, on-the-ground insights. But the typical sources for expert insights, due to their business models and design, have not been able to capture the growing and underutilized talent around the world that is able and ready to consult with global organizations.
Enter GlobalWonks’ real-time tech platform. Our mission has been to take freelance opportunities to top global knowledge talent, no matter where it resides, so that immigration, borders, schooling, or cultural issues are not a barrier to delivering reliable and quality insights to decision-makers. Today, we have over 15K global knowledge experts in over 180 countries working with over 100 clients from Fortune 500 companies to universities. Our experts range from scientists and journalists, to small business owners, and former bureaucrats that reside in emerging and frontier markets. Our ambition is to unearth top talent all over the globe, so that professionals who want to work from home, contribute to their local communities, or just work more flexibly to stay healthy, can do so while being financially rewarded.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Without doubt it leads to better outcomes. By now, most of your readers will have come across the trove of growing research which has triangulated and proven that diverse teams lead to quicker innovation as well as profitability. But, on a daily basis, diverse teams also manage conflict better.
My forthcoming book looks at the ways in which governments behave when they are faced with a credibility crisis. The overarching conclusion I reach after interviewing hundreds of senior government officials across different countries and deep archival research, is that a diversity of backgrounds and socialization lends itself best to a diversity of worldviews. This is a necessary ingredient in managing conflictual, operational, personnel, or other decision-making policies, especially when you don’t have all the information for a particular crisis at hand. This trend goes beyond government and resonates with my experiences in business and managing organizations.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Be Empathetic: I think this has been pretty clear in our discussion today. Empathy is value-neutral and so, even if it doesn’t come instinctively, we can all strive for it. Empathy doesn’t, or certainly shouldn’t, mean passivity or acquiescence. Rather, it is perhaps the most valuable tool to ensure we are being inclusive not just of people, but, more importantly, their experiences and voice. There is perhaps no more important place to start.
- Be Ambitious: Not a dirty word. Among other things, ambition for me denotes imagination. If we aren’t being ambitious, then it is very difficult to break free from many of the structural drivers that prevent an inclusive and equitable society. So, thinking big and away from orthodoxy in our professional, but also personal lives, is critical.
- Be Present: Perhaps it has never been harder to be present when my generation handed, quite literally, so many distractions, sources of information, and an inherent anxiety around “missing out.” But how much of it actually matters? For me, the pandemic has laid bare the deep value of being present and being grateful for the people and places we have around us.
- Be Learning: An obvious, but a time-tested, one that has lost some of its verve in recent years. The irony of our current informational environment has meant that more is less. Overly curated news feeds and social circles are not how knowledge networks grow or spread. It’s therefore important to actively seek our deeper and longer investigations into what is happening all around us, the people and histories that shape us, and to engage with them critically and not impulsively.
- Be Principled: Most of the above I have found valuable as inductive devices, but what about situations that are unknown, uncomfortable, or simply novel in some other way? We should all work on our own constitution, our own principles, for how we behave and treat people. And we don’t have to look far — there are clear lessons in history and philosophy, but one under-rated source is seeking out older mentors. Generational differences have become a dividing line on what it means to be progressive in recent years, but there is a lot to be gained by imbibing the lessons that our elders have gone through. They don’t need to be taken on wholesale, but should provide pause and influence your own compass.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am. I lean on very basic reads of the world (as I fully comprehend an issue) when faced with complex episodes like the one we are facing. I fundamentally believe that in free(er) societies, where people have the power to gather, advocate, and fight power, these sorts of environments can be kept in check and institutions can be changed. What I don’t know yet is how sustainable the change will be, and how the losers of those changes will react.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
Full disclosure: my answer to this question every time throughout much of my life would be Steven Gerrard, the former Liverpool football player and all-round legend. However, I recently finished Phil Knight’s superb autobiography and was moved, among other things, about his personal journey and reflections on building a business, a lifestyle really, and balancing family life. As a new father, I’d love to sit down with him and talk to him about his lessons learned more intimately, where he would double down if he could do it again (if at all), where he would pull back, and what guidance he would have for today’s business owners who have a renewed responsibility to society as well as their own enterprises and households.
How can our readers follow you online?
The best way is through Twitter, @bilalabaloch
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you. This was fun.