In the latest of a series of occasional dialogues with senior business leaders, we speak to ELENI KITRA, Founder & CEO of Dubai-based consultancy PeopleFirst, about diversity and inclusion and how her organization helps others unleash the power of people.
After a distinguished career in business development and team leadership with some of the world’s leading tech brands, Eleni decided to deploy her considerable experience to helping others – both individuals and large, global companies. An engaging, passionate, high-energy presence, Eleni spoke to us about her career, her consulting work, and the role of D&I in transforming corporate culture.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation and a video link to the full-length interview.
MATTHEW PITT: I’m delighted to be joined today by Eleni Kitra, who is an author, a speaker, and a thought leader across many human capital subjects including, perhaps most importantly, diversity and inclusion. She is also the founder and CEO of PeopleFirst, a Dubai-based consultancy that helps clients build and foster inclusive organizations. Eleni, welcome.
ELENI KITRA: Thank you for hosting me. Great to meet you and have this inspiring conversation.
MATTHEW PITT: Likewise. To begin with, I wonder if you could tell us a little about your background and explain why, after a long and successful career, you decided to start PeopleFirst.
ELENI KITRA: Okay, so I’m not sure that everybody wants to hear my story, but for me, its important to remember how I completely transformed my life, especially in the last 10 years. For more than 30 years, I lived and worked in the corporate world, usually in setting up new business units and business development roles in tech-enabled or tech-driven companies like Sony, Multichoice, and Omnicom Group. For the last 10 years, I was with Facebook here in Dubai, working with global clients, and I was also doing a number of things that had to do with the community, internally and externally. I was always very much interested in this sort of initiative, but I also came to realize that, at heart, I am an entrepreneur, and this was what was driving me, this was why I kept on setting up things from scratch!
And behind everything I was doing, I recognized my passion for all things to do with people, culture, diversity, and inclusion.
I came to this realization for a number of reasons, especially when I was with Meta based out of Dubai. Along with my business role, I was highly involved at a global and regional level, with our DEI and Culture & People Strategy. Especially in the Middle East, a region close to my heart, where I first realized the importance of Diversity and inclusion and the need to understand and cater to minority groups. As I was also one of them, I felt I had to do something about this. That’s how my transformation came about – leaving corporate life after 30 years and setting up a company focusing on inclusion and inclusive leadership.
Read our detailed article on “Candidate Experience: What Companies Get Wrong!” here.
MATTHEW PITT: Thank you. I want to pick up on the word ‘inclusion’. It’s a word that is often bolted on to the word diversity – in job titles, for example – but I wonder how often it is understood or considered in its own right. So, I’d like to ask you what is your definition of inclusion and why is it so important.
ELENI KITRA: Well, I think, you know, it’s not that difficult a word to understand but it’s sometimes difficult to measure. Diversity is easy to measure. You decide what kind of people you want from where by using specific criteria. And either you recruit them or you don’t. So diversity is clear. It’s a visually tangible aspect and you can say ‘I’m good at that’ or at least ‘I’m making an effort and can see the progress…’
On the other hand, inclusion is not that easy because it’s about making people feel comfortable in the environment you are setting up in the workplace. Are you helping these people? Do they trust you as their employer and are they in the best shape to communicate and collaborate and be progressive and really efficient? That’s something you don’t easily measure or at least you need a long-term approach to measuring it.
Here is a simple example I like to use. Imagine you’re invited to a party, but you need to be able to dance. For me, dancing at the party and being yourself is what inclusion is all about. If you’re dancing, you’re included!
Another way of looking at it is that there are countries that are, by definition, very diverse. I live in a region where there are over 100 different ethnicities. But this doesn’t mean all of the people will feel included in the place they are living and working. So, inclusion is allowing people to be their best selves in a workplace or an ecosystem. And then we need to take care of any biases which may kick in and avoid sticking to the differences when we actually need to focus on people’s qualities and the value they bring to the table.
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MATTHEW PITT: Another thing that you raise in your work is this idea of the four Cs – curiosity, collaboration, courage, and commitment. I wonder if you could tell us a little about the importance of these qualities and why they are so vital to a successful DNA strategy.
ELENI KITRA: I always start from the curiosity piece. That’s very important because if you’re not curious, you don’t see the things around you. You don’t search for different ways of doing things and you just stick to what you know because it’s easier and safer. Also, you won’t have the drive to see or deep-dive into different kinds of situations, people, opportunities, or ideas. So this is the number one consideration.
Next comes collaboration. We all know that a group is better than just one individual effort, and a group doesn’t have to be people who are ‘copy-pasted’ lookalikes. Collaboration happens when you bring these people together – because you’re curious and you want to make things happen – and you give them the foundation to make this work. That’s important – you must provide the backbone for that collaboration to succeed.
But when you do this, it can’t be some fluffy thing – that’s where you need commitment. You don’t do it once, just to be viewed favorably. It’s not a costume you wear for a short time and then forget about. As we know in other areas of life, if you are not committed, you won’t get results. So that commitment needs to be integrated into your collaboration and everything you do.
Last but not least is courage. And I say that because it’s essential you overcome your own fears, your own limitations, your own biases. Or perhaps the ones which are externally imposed on you . . . And that takes courage. And the moment you take this leap, you become bolder.
What would you do if you were not afraid? This is what it comes down to – answer that question and you see the best version of what you’re trying to do without letting your fears overcome you.
Also, check out the article “Be an Agile Shape Shifter” here.
MATTHEW PITT: You’ve couched that all in personal terms, but I suppose the same points could apply to organizations as a whole, couldn’t they?
ELENI KITRA: Absolutely. And that’s why I think we need to understand that organizations are not something ‘over there’. An organization is a group of people, so it’s always about the individual.
The ‘power of one’ is that if I want to do something I can do it by creating a sort of wave of change, talking to people, persuading, seeing where we stand, and seeing if we can make the change together. That’s one thing. The second point is that organizations need this approach. We know that so well because there are so many facts and figures and data points showing that diverse and inclusive companies have better results – not just financially, but in terms of people retention, innovation, and creativity. It’s not just one or two measures, it’s so many you won’t even be able to remember them all! But they are proven and they’re being updated year after year, so it’s something that is ultimately very clear and obvious. So any organization has to start moving in that direction and asking themselves, okay, how are we going to make this happen?
MATTHEW PITT: Really interesting. And it leads me to another question that I wanted to ask you. Something that we see a lot in our own work at White Crow is a tendency for some companies to focus on diversity statistics rather than any deeper underlying societal issues. In other words, they’re getting their own house in order but forgetting about the wider world. I wonder whether you also see this in your work and, if so, what you think the dangers are of such an inward-looking D&I approach.
ELENI KITRA: Okay, so organizations have one main goal. To thrive. Of course, they have a support system around them and they should have a mission and a purpose and the intention of doing good, but they start from their identity as specific organizations which are trying to succeed in their particular goals. So, for me, if they start looking inwards and try to improve their own data, policies, processes, and structures, that’s a great way to begin. And if they do that, they’ll learn how to improve and how this becomes a habit so that eventually you don’t even have to talk about it, it’s just something you do. You don’t have to ask yourself, ‘Do I have 30% of women in my senior management team?’ because you’ve already established the right culture.
Then, once you’ve addressed the smaller challenges and problems, you can open up, you can start to see the bigger problems around the world. Also, you can see how you are impacting these, especially if you’re a global company.
You can’t easily start from the other way around. Even if you have all the right attitudes in your DNA and your vision, you can’t solve global problems if you don’t know how to apply a solution to your own company, and to your own ecosystem. So you need to start from the bottom up.
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MATTHEW PITT: So, in other words, take those learnings that you’ve achieved in your own organization and then share them externally. But do you still think that D&I is an area where some companies are a bit guarded?
ELENI KITRA: Well, I don’t think all companies are shy about their achievements in D&I, it’s more that they’re often not that big or not big enough to speak about those achievements. But of the Fortune 500, I think only one-third of the companies actually publish their D&I data. The ones that don’t, it’s usually because they’re not doing that well. For example, if I’m correct, I think only 7% of the Fortune 500 has a female CEO…
The thing is though, that we talk about gender equality – which is a huge problem – but there are so many different kinds of inequalities around the world that if you try to put all of this together into a set of statistics, it’s a huge challenge. So companies just need to make D&I strategy part of their overall strategy. Then they need to commit to it and make it a leadership obligation. It’s not the HR team’s responsibility or the D&I team’s job, it’s down to the leadership team…If a company puts money and effort and creativity into the challenge and then shares the outcomes with other companies, that’s when we’re going to see some real change. At the moment, we’re seeing a bit of progress but it’s like a Lego set – you build it piece by piece, but if one of the pieces is missing, you’re not going to finish the final structure.
MATTHEW PITT: And I guess that comes back to one of your Cs, doesn’t it? Because if responsibility doesn’t sit at the very highest level of a company, then they’re not truly committed.
ELENI KITRA: Yes, that’s right. And that’s what I’m trying to inspire with these ideas. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether it’s four Cs or three Ds, it’s what the words inspire…
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MATTHEW PITT: Thank you. For my last question, I’d like to refer to something you said in another interview that I was reading. You said you’d never considered yourself a victim. I was quite struck by this because I think a lot of the conversation around diversity and inclusion is well-meaning but disempowering. To take an example, if you’re a young woman and you’re told repeatedly that you live in a patriarchy and the whole system is rigged against you, there’s a danger you might conclude it’s not worth even trying. Do you agree with that analysis and, more broadly, how do we best help young women to succeed in life and in business?
ELENI KITRA: First of all I want to say that I have been a victim of situations. So when I say I don’t feel like a victim, it’s a psychological thing for me. From a very young age, I had what we now call a ‘growth mindset’. Even without knowing about it, I was always fighting against anything that was trying to push me back. So it was a personality thing, but then it became bigger, it became a conscious attitude. I realized if you feel like a victim, then you go into defense mode. And I never wanted that. But if you don’t feel like a victim, you try to think of solutions. You try to think of other options and you seek out help.
One of the biggest points to understand is that if you’re a victim in a situation but you don’t want to accept it – because you don’t have support around you, you don’t have real-life models who can help you articulate what you’re feeling – then it will be much harder to improve that situation and you’ll just feel trapped.
By the way, I have a young daughter and a young son and I’ve always taught them never to accept it if someone tries to make them feel unequal. Believe that you’re good, even that you can become better than anyone else, and then go and fight for that… Because if you adopt this mode of existence, then you will discover more opportunities and more capabilities. So we’re talking about a mindset, not a situation, but there are definitely lots of bad situations happening in the world.
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MATTHEW PITT: Well, Eleni, I could speak with you all day. It’s a fascinating range of topics that we’ve touched upon and there is so much more to explore, but I’m conscious of your time. Thank you so much for your spending a few minutes with us today and best of luck with your continuing work with PeopleFirst.
ELENI KITRA: Thank you very much, Matt. I appreciated the time and I hope we can make this world much better for the next generation.
Check out the first part of our series with Arvind Sachdev here.
The importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace cannot be overstated. With
globalization and changing demographics, organizations must acknowledge and value the
unique perspectives and experiences that their employees bring to the table. Research has
shown that diverse and inclusive companies outperform their counterparts in terms of financial
performance, employee engagement, and customer satisfaction.
As Eleni Kitra, founder and CEO of PeopleFirst rightly points out in our interview, inclusion is
about making people feel comfortable in the environment you are setting up in the workplace.
Inclusion is not just about diversity, but also about creating an environment where everyone can
contribute to achieving common goals. By investing in D&I initiatives and promoting an inclusive
workplace culture, organizations can unlock the full potential of their workforce, drive innovation
and growth and remain competitive in today’s rapidly evolving business landscape.
It’s high time for businesses to take action toward building a more diverse and inclusive future.
By doing so, companies can not only attract and retain top talent but also gain a competitive
advantage in the marketplace. Let’s create a workplace where everyone can be their best
selves and leverage their strengths to achieve common goals.