Education first — The subject of inclusivity and diversity should start with education. For example, when it comes to women in male dominated industries such as technology, I’d suggest supporting girls from the very beginning to be curious. Destigmatising STEM subjects would encourage more women to continue within this direction. Maths, physics, engineering is for everyone. Take an example of Ada Lovelace, the English mathematician from the nineteenth century, who is believed by some as the first computer programmer.
As part of our series about ‘3 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Mimi Nguyen.
With 10 years in the industry and a background in tech consulting at Accenture and the Boston Consulting Group, Mimi Nguyen is the co-founder of Mana Search R&D Mana Labs and an Associate Lecturer of MA Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins. Mimi is also a PhD candidate at Imperial College London, Faculty of Engineering and Royal College of Art. Mimi’s research explores cross-functional remote teams and how we can increase creativity and innovation, as well as team productivity in a virtual world of work. Mimi is also a co-host of Searching for Mana podcast.
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?
I’m Vietnamese but actually my first language is Polish. My parents come from Vietnam, and met in the Soviet Union during their PhD studies, moved to Poland afterwards and hence I grew up in Warsaw. I started my career in tech consulting in Poland, but moved later to London for my MA before joining the fintech startup. That’s how I started to be obsessed with the discourse of innovation and what leads to it.
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?
I’d recommend ‘Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound’ by Tara Rodgers who promotes women in electronic music and makes information about music production more accessible to women and girls. It’s a fascinating exploration of gender and identity, showcasing twenty-four interviews with women in electronic music and sound cultures.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement” Marie Skłodowska-Curie. Marie was a Polish scientist who is also the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in two categories: Chemistry and Physics. Throughout my career working in tech and financial industries, I learnt that behind every innovation, there is a great team. It’s not just fashionable buzzwords like AI or blockchain changing the world, but individuals who are leveraging these technologies for the innovation. That’s why I co-founded Mana Search, leading Mana Labs, to help companies hire the right talents that are behind their products.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
We’re currently recording and releasing a podcast called “Searching for Mana” which explores the key characteristics of leadership and the “superpowers” driving successful business leaders — it’s something I’ve always been interested in. For me, leadership means understanding your team’s members superpowers and allocating responsibilities accordingly to one’s superpower, passion and intrinsic motivation. Team collaboration is key to success.
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?
I’m often juggling video conferencing calls and childcare in the working day so what generally keeps me calm in stressful situations is over-planning. Preparation is key. I feel that I actually become more productive with the increase of commitments as long as I’ve thought through the structure of my day and week. Exercise is also a pretty effective way for me to tackle any big decisions and helps my mind as well as my body — I find that I can naturally work through things in my head when I go for a run.
Ok, thank you for all that. 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?
Many companies have sprung into action to hire Diversity Directors or put in their emails signature various diversity quotes. But when you look at their C-Suite or Board members, it’s white males (apart from the Diversity Director). This topic has become such a PR-hook, 10 years ago that used to be CSR. There is a big problem, and I personally think that we are approaching it from the wrong angle.
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?
I grew up as an Asian immigrant in Poland (not very cosmopolitan in the 90s) and started my professional career, first, joining Analytics, later Management Consulting in Accenture, as a female employee. Thankfully, I cannot say I experienced any bias during my whole career. As I chose a STEM-related BA in Quantitative Methods and Information Systems, that was a natural progression for me. People nowadays tend to shout numbers commitments as for diversity, like 50/50. But what if 90% of the applicants were male and only 10% were female? It would mean that it’s way more competitive for men to secure a position. If you are the only female who applied, the company needs good PR and hence hires you — would you be proud that this is how you got employed? Therefore, I think that setting up quotas is not a fair solution. We should start with education, supporting minority groups to study STEM subjects and later apply to tech jobs.
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?
A 2018 McKinsey study showed that companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. The highest-performing companies on both profitability and diversity had more women in line (i.e., typically revenue-generating) roles than in staff roles on their executive teams. The relationship between diversity and business performance/productivity is undeniable.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “3 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Education first
The subject of inclusivity and diversity should start with education. For example, when it comes to women in male dominated industries such as technology, I’d suggest supporting girls from the very beginning to be curious. Destigmatising STEM subjects would encourage more women to continue within this direction. Maths, physics, engineering is for everyone. Take an example of Ada Lovelace, the English mathematician from the nineteenth century, who is believed by some as the first computer programmer.
- Removing enforced numbers commitments when it comes to hiring
Sometimes it looks like diverse hires are made because the company needs better PR. I believe that enforced numbers drive the wrong attitude. Instead, attracting the right talent to fill innovation positions should be a core priority for every company and this is usually done by investing in the hiring process and taking time to cast your net wide.
- Immerse yourself in communities and networks that actively promote inclusivity and diversity
For example, Woman in Innovation (WIN) is a fantastic community of innovators working together to create pathways for all women* to have a seat at the table — or a place at the whiteboard.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
As humans, we are constantly learning and adapting to changes. Lockdown has forced managers to shift their focus from the metric KPIs race to more human-centric management. We have put into action many previous conversations about employee wellbeing and challenged what we used to consider “collaboration” and “teamwork”. It is a hard time for anyone who has been laid-off, but it is also an opportunity to self-reflect on our career choices and skill set development.
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. 🙂
Wendy Tan White — MBE, Vice-President X, Alphabet’s Moonshot Factory. She is at the forefront of innovation in Silicon Valley, aiming to bring change to the world’s biggest challenges. Her career is an inspiration for many female entrepreneurs. And we are both from Central Saint Martins and Imperial College London!
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!