Vijay Eswaran of QI Group: “Reduced employee turnover”

Reduced employee turnover. A great benefit of diversity in the workplace is that it improves employee morale and engagement. This factor alone can lead to higher productivity and revenue. Additionally, having a diverse team can strengthen your brand and help you develop a reputation for being progressive making you an attractive employer. As a part […]

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Reduced employee turnover. A great benefit of diversity in the workplace is that it improves employee morale and engagement. This factor alone can lead to higher productivity and revenue. Additionally, having a diverse team can strengthen your brand and help you develop a reputation for being progressive making you an attractive employer.

As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vijay Eswaran, Executive Chairman of QI Group.

Vijay Eswaran is a successful entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and philanthropist and the author of the best-selling book In the Sphere of Silence. An economist by training, he is the founder of a multimillion-dollar global business.

A well-known thought leader in Asia, he has written and spoken extensively about business, leadership, personal development, and life management. For more of his writing and videos, please follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up in the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country of Malaysia. It’s a relatively small country in South East Asia but with a rich history that contributed to our pluralistic society. We’ve been colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. Historically, the Malay peninsula was an important trading port and early settlers arrived here from China and India as far back as the 1st century AD. Today’s Malaysia is a confluence of all of these cultures. The world I grew up in included having friends and classmates who came from several cultures and faith, were of many different shades of skin, and spoke different languages at home. As a result, almost everyone in Malaysia grows up at the very least, tri-lingual, and that led to me being fairly fluent in about 9 languages.

When you grow up with so much diversity all around you, it is natural to develop a certain depth and range of thinking. My father was a civil servant with the Malaysian government who was transferred frequently all over the country so I went to around nine different schools by the time I graduated high school. I studied in the UK and the USA. I worked in different parts of the US and Canada before moving back to Asia and once I started my journey as an entrepreneur in the late 90s, I also lived in the Philippines and Hong Kong.

I firmly believe that this background and environment of diversity gave me the insights that eventually helped me build a multinational business that today has a global footprint in more than 30 countries.

Today, I consider myself a global citizen since I can call several countries my home. Before the pandemic restricted travel, my wife and I divided our time between our homes in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Sydney and London.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I studied and worked in America for many years and worked at a major technology company back in the early 80s. While I am Malaysian, I am of Indian origin. Today, it’s very common to see people of Indian heritage all over the US, especially in tech. But back then people who looked like me were an oddity. People often referred to me as ‘that Cuban guy’ even after I had worked there for 7 or 8 years.

This one time, the Vice President of my business unit invited us home for a barbeque. He lived in an affluent neighbourhood with beautiful big houses and security fences between neighbouring homes. I am a life-long vegetarian so there never is anything for me to eat at these parties, but I went because it was my VP and I thought I should at least show my face. As the meat started cooking on the grill in his backyard, the smell was overpowering and I couldn’t deal with it. I decided to take a walk outside and get some air away from the smoky barbeque.

As I was strolling outside, admiring the beautiful homes, I passed by this home with a beautiful front garden and an older gentleman who was watering the plants. Instinctively, I smiled and said hello. He seemed startled at first, maybe cautious as to why some random brown guy was wandering the street of this very exclusive neighbourhood, but his curiosity got the better of him.

We started talking and I told him who I was visiting and why I was out for a stroll. When I told him where I came from, he was very curious about Malaysia and asked me a lot of questions. Before I realized, we had been talking for a good half hour and I had his phone number and an invitation to visit him. I excused myself from my new friend and went back to the party. My VP spotted me and asked where I had disappeared to. I told him I’d been talking to Frank, his neighbour. My host looked blank. I explained that it was the neighbour from two houses down the road with the beautiful garden, the older gentleman with a daughter in California and three grandchildren.

My VP looked amazed. He said, ‘you mean Schaffenhauer? I didn’t know his name was Frank or that he had a daughter in California, let alone grandkids.’

He was even more amazed when I told him Frank had invited me over. They had been neighbours for at least 5 years at this point and had never exchanged more than cursory greetings.

I think this is where my multicultural upbringing and background played a role. When you grow up with people who look different from you, you get curious and ask questions about everything, from the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the holidays they celebrate. That’s why I’ve never hesitated to talk to strangers and ask questions. That’s also how I built my business. My takeaway from this incident is that when someone or something is different from you, there is merit in trying to build bridges, rather than erecting walls.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

When my partners and I started the QI Group, one thing that we unanimously agreed on is a philosophy we refer to as RYTHM. It’s an acronym for a concept called Raise Yourself To Help Mankind, derived from an anecdote we read about from Gandhi.

Apparently, when Gandhi set up an ashram in South Africa which served as the headquarters of his campaign of non-violent resistance against the discrimination of Indians in South Africa, many people volunteered their services and talents to support the movement. A young boy came to Gandhi and asked to join the movement. When Gandhi asked how he could contribute, the boy said he would do anything that was needed, odd jobs around the settlement, cleaning the premises, running errands etc. Gandhi apparently told him we have plenty of people to do that. What we need are specialized services. We need doctors to tend to the sick, lawyers to defend our people, teachers to educate the young minds. You need to raise yourself first, before you can help others. So, go make something of yourself first so that you are in a position to help the community.

Inspired by the story, we coined the phrase — Raise Yourself To Help Mankind, which would beautifully shorten to RYTHM, and adopted it as the philosophy on which the foundation of the company was built. We were very clear that we have a greater purpose other than being profit-driven. In today’s terms, it’s called stakeholder capitalism. The ideology of putting shareholders above all that has driven businesses for the last half a century needs a serious update.

We just turned 22 years old in September. We have been through so many challenges in the last two decades that many observers are amazed we are still around. I’d like to think that the secret sauce keeping us on track is RYTHM.

It has brought us to this point, and I am confident it will take us through to the decades that lie ahead of us.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

The onset of Covid has helped us crystallize a project that we call the Plan B. In essence, it is a collective project comprised of a number of focused initiatives that is helping us re-engineer the company for the new normal and for the new consumer that is emerging as a result of this pandemic.

It is forcing us to identify weaknesses, plug the holes, and streamline operations. As a result, some departments have been shut down since we identified them as being obsolete, others have tripled their manpower, and brand new teams are being set up to launch new programmes that will help us be future ready.

We launched Plan B at the height of the lockdown in many countries, at a time when everyone was stressed due to the uncertainties and fear of the unknown coupled with cabin fever from being trapped indoors for days. When we shared the Plan B project with our teams, the excitement was palpable. All the fears and stress have now been replaced by hope for a bright future and everyone is working towards a common goal.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Create an environment where your employees feel like they are valuable stakeholders. Find the right people and give them ownership of what they do. You need a Sherpa to find your way to the top of a mountain. The best thing you can do for your business is to turn your employees into Sherpas.

To paraphrase, I would like to quote the late Tony Hsiesh — ‘Focus on delivering happiness.’

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders about how to manage a large team?

When you have a large team, you have the opportunity to build diversity into the team. People with varied experiences, approaches, and perspectives who will help you cover all bases. I say this from experience because diversity is inbuilt into my organization. Based on our last diversity report, we had employees of more than 50 nationalities, a highly multi-generational demographic that ranged in age from 19 to 65, and around 46% women.

I am a proponent of management by consensus. This is often misconstrued because people think they need to convince a large number of individuals in order to make important decisions. It’s not about convincing others. It’s about consulting. If you want to create an environment that fosters creativity and innovation then you need to allow diversity of opinions. It’s not about giving up control but about making an informed decision. The process can be long but it’s worth it. It’s participative governance at its best, and it builds and fosters a sense of ownership.

Every organization will have a transient group of mercenaries who will not be interested in this process and that’s fine because you need people like that as well. But it is the missionaries who will take you to the next level.

Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Diversity is a catalyst for disruption and innovation. Different perspectives on customer needs, product improvements, and company wellbeing fuel a better business.

A vibrant corporate culture, one that reinvents itself regularly. A diverse work place encourages dialogue that allows for a new way of thinking. Assumptions need to be constantly challenged when you are trying to grow a business.

McKinsey’s Delivering Through Diversity report found corporations that embrace gender diversity on their executive teams were more competitive and 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability.

Reduced employee turnover. A great benefit of diversity in the workplace is that it improves employee morale and engagement. This factor alone can lead to higher productivity and revenue. Additionally, having a diverse team can strengthen your brand and help you develop a reputation for being progressive making you an attractive employer.

Globalize your business. You are better able to understand your customers and target your marketing efforts toward diverse audiences from different social, ethnic and racial backgrounds.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

While my wife and I have been doing our part to give back in any way that we can for many years, my organization, the QI Group has established the RYTHM Foundation as our social impact initiative. My wife Umayal Eswaran leads the Foundation which has global partnerships with more than 100 grass roots organizations in at least 30 different cities in South East Asia, India, Sri Lanka, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a policy, 10% of our revenues are redirected to the Foundation which focuses on three main areas that are aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals –

Providing access to education to children in remote and underserved communities. We’ve narrowed down this focus further to children with special needs and disabilities.

Providing young girls and women from disadvantaged communities with skills training and economic opportunities to help them bridge the gender divide

Supporting various rural communities with implementing development initiatives to help them become self-sustaining in the long term.

A few years ago, my wife and I embarked on a personal initiative called the Gift of Life that is very close to our heart. Whenever someone close to us celebrates a birthday or an anniversary, we make a donation in their name to a school in a rural community to help with anything from infrastructure support to education materials to furniture. We take a photograph of the kids in the school after they have received the necessary support and we send it to the person celebrating their special day, with a note from us, explaining the significance of the project. Every recipient has been very appreciative of this gift and we get a number of messages each month from friends and family to let us know that they prefer this gift over any other present they received.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Your life is your message — Gandhi

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

In Eastern Philosophy, we tend to have two types of mentors — Spiritual and Knowledge. The spiritual mentor deals primarily with one’s spiritual upliftment and growth. This type of mentor is generally found a lot later in life when you are in a better, arguably more mature state of mind to receive them.

The knowledge mentors are primarily academic, and they come in your life in ripples starting in early childhood. I’ve been blessed with many such mentors starting with my grandfather from who I learnt the art of silence, teachers throughout my schooling years who challenged me constantly to be better, one of my first bosses in America, a formidable woman who instilled in me a worth ethic that has served me well through the years, several enlightened souls who have guided my spiritual journey and my process of self-discovery. They are way too many to name individually.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

I would love to meet President Obama! He overcame so many odds to make it to the highest office in the country and then went on to helm a momentous presidency for two terms. It takes courage and substance to display grace the way he did.

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