Equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) aren’t just buzz words to Jim Ghadbane, CANARIE’s President and CEO, and Nizar Ladak, CEO of the Digital Research Alliance of Canada (the Alliance). For these two Canadian CEOs, EDI means better business – and it’s personal.
CANARIE and the Alliance have worked closely together for the past year on a common commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Their staff have shared foundational training, resources, and actions to serve their respective organizations and stakeholder communities.
Both organizations are committed to creating a culture of belonging and have taken steps to further formalize this goal. Each group is implementing new programs to help integrate and ensure that EDI principles are embedded into processes, communications, recruitment, and ultimately, culture.
I met with Jim and Nizar to talk about what EDI means to them and their respective organizations.
1. What does equity, diversity, and inclusion mean to you?
Jim: EDI is becoming mainstream as a term, but its principles are central in creating a culture where everyone feels seen and valued for who they are. And when we have a better understanding of who we are, we can put systems in place to make sure that everyone can excel without barriers.
Nizar: Whenever someone asks me about equity this image [below] comes to mind. For me, EDI stems from respect and enabling environments that haven’t recognized the systemic barriers. It’s important to understand the barriers that limits peoples’ participation.
2. Why is EDI so important to the success of your organization?
Jim: For one, there is a growing talent shortage. For example, in just one sector – cybersecurity – there are about 3 million jobs posted globally right now that aren’t filled. That means there’s a lot of talent sitting on the sidelines. Historically, many fields weren’t accessible to women, people of colour, or Indigenous Peoples. From a business perspective, it makes sense to tap into the entire talent pool – not just a portion of it.
Nizar: I’ll build on Jim’s point and use a quote from President Obama: ‘It’s like having a soccer team where you only put half your players on.’ As CEOs, Jim and I believe that teamwork is defined as having complementary perspectives working together. We need a variety of perspectives to shape our organizations as microcosms for the communities that we serve. Canada has a competitive edge globally for programming and research data software because of our various perspectives. Different people interact with software in different ways, and the adoption is quicker because people with diverse backgrounds worked on the project. As Jim notes, by tapping into the entire talent pool, we achieve better outcomes.
3. What do you personally do to make sure people at your organization feel included and supported?
Nizar: EDI has its origins in mutual respect and understanding context. I try to make sure that happens by having a strong values-based compass for our organization. We didn’t create our values just because we were expected to. Our organization’s values were developed by our teams and were endorsed by Senior Leadership and the Board. Our values were designed by the very people who are asked to live them. In that regard, our teams told us they wanted an organizational environment where everyone can feel empowered to say respectfully when they feel our values haven’t been followed.
Jim: At CANARIE, we try to break down the artificial barriers that come with titles. We encourage people to speak up if there’s an issue, and to not fear the organizational structure. The second thing we’ve done on our senior management team is to instill a sense of empathy. If we were the employee, how would we feel? We try to promote inclusion through empathy.
4. What are some actions that your organizations are undertaking this year to further EDI goals?
Jim: We’ve worked closely with the Alliance on our joint EDI plan and now we’re rolling it out. The first step is training for all our staff to establish a common, foundational understanding of the principles of EDI and why they’re important. Hopefully the training will help our team understand how everyone can contribute to fostering an inclusive culture of belonging.
Nizar: Similarly, we have training and development planned for our staff. We also conducted an inclusion survey to give us a baseline of the environment and culture. We also signed up for the 50-30 Challenge, a Canadian initiative that aims to advance gender parity and increase diversity on boards and in senior leadership roles. With regards to CANARIE, there are so many benefits of a close working relationship between our two organizations. The CANARIE and Alliance teams regularly share information and advice. With joint responsibility for Canada’s Digital Research Infrastructure, we believe EDI is also our shared responsibility.
5. What are some steps individuals can take to contribute toward creating an inclusive workplace?
Nizar: Self-awareness is huge and having the willingness to learn. Many Canadians said, ‘I didn’t know this about our history,’ in response to the news about the residential schools’ gravesites. We had an Indigenous elder come speak to our team for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and the Elder asked us, “Now that you know, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do that translates into action?” In other words, leadership for change doesn’t come from a title, it is our individual responsibility and accountability.
Jim: We are doing similar things and learning from an Indigenous storyteller who has encouraged us to think about our individual actions to support Truth and Reconciliation. We are also taking time to learn about and commemorate cultural days of significance that are important to our staff, which has been well received. We’re trying to instill in the staff the notion of being more curious than judgmental. We want staff to have the tools to provide feedback in a non-confrontational, non-judgemental manner.
6. How have your personal experiences influenced the importance you place on your organization’s EDI goals?
Jim: I’ve had experiences related to all three facets of EDI. The worst that I experienced was a lack of inclusion as a leader, which was a bit ironic. What I said was immediately discounted. I’d be surprised if people reflected on their experiences and could say, ‘This has never happened to me.’
Nizar: I would say without question that my personal experiences have shaped the importance of EDI as a leader. As a kid, I was bullied and experienced numerous racial slurs and discrimination, growing up in Toronto. I wrote about my experience and then a colleague encouraged me to share my story, so I did, and it was picked up by newspapers across Canada.
Often people think of diversity and inclusion from a gender or racial point of view, but Jim has a good point; that there are hierarchical inequities too. I’m one of three or four racialized individuals in the federal ecosystem in a leadership position. There are hundreds of leaders and I question why there are so few of us.
Jim: As a parting thought, I’d like to quote Louis Fox, President and CEO of the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), who shared: “Intelligence is evenly distributed but opportunity is not.”
Learn more about the culture and values of CANARIE and the Alliance.
This interview has been condensed and edited.