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Zabeen Hirji explains why inclusion is becoming a competitive imperative in the future of work

To discover how clusters can attract the best talent and empower people to contribute their best, European Cluster Collaboration Platform (ECCP) sat down with Zabeen Hirji, Global Advisor, Future of Work at Deloitte, and former Chief Human Resources Officer at RBC. In addition to discussing how to mobilise talent and diversity in an inclusive way, Zabeen explained why it’s important for cluster practitioners to act on diversity and inclusion with intention.

ECCP: At the TCI Network’s global conference in Toronto last October, you spoke about why diversity and inclusion matter. Can you recap that for us?

Zabeen: Diversity and inclusion are about getting the best talent and creating conditions in which everyone can contribute their best. I think of this as a win-win. When we enable people to unlock their potential, they thrive as individuals, as do the organisations they work for. Diverse teams are more creative and drive innovation, and they serve markets and customers better - and that improves the bottom line. It’s a pretty straightforward business case.

Research studies back this up. For example, Deloitte Canada’s report, Outcomes over optics, found that 49 percent of highly inclusive organisations were more likely to invest in research and development, and reported faster revenue and employee growth, while two-thirds were more likely to bring new products and services to market.

Drawing on my experience at RBC, we similarly learned that to serve the market, we needed to hire the market, and that diverse teams challenged the status quo, generated more ideas, and drove innovation. One concrete example is RBC’s Amplify program, an intensive summer internship program that brings together university students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines. The program has resulted in numerous market-disrupting solutions and products, as well as a number of patents.

So, inclusive organisations empower individuals, enable communities to prosper, and are good for the economy - making diversity and inclusion the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do.


ECCP: If this is true, why do you think we aren’t seeing more of the benefits of diversity and inclusion?

Zabeen: One reason may be that we aren’t doing a very good job at it, at least not yet. Part of the problem is that the concepts of diversity and inclusion are often used interchangeably. And they shouldn’t be.

Diversity is a fact. It refers to easily identifiable physical attributes or traits, such as gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, physical or intellectual ability, and age. It also includes less visible, or even invisible, traits, such as educational or professional background, socio-economic status, life experiences, and diversity of thought.

Inclusion, on the other hand, is an act. It’s a choice we have to make every day to empower, engage, and enable those around us. This means creating an environment where every individual feels valued, safe, and motivated to share their ideas. The act of inclusion gives people a sense of belonging so they can be their authentic selves and, by extension, do their best work.

ECCP: How do these concepts fit into the talent agenda?

Zabeen: Diversity is about getting the best talent, which we know comes in all genders, races, ethnicities, and levels of education. Conversely, inclusion is about getting the best from your diverse talent by helping everyone unlock their full potential. Quite frankly, without inclusion, diversity is a hollow practice.

I like the way that Verna Myers, VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, puts it. She says: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance. ”I would add that, as leaders, we need to ensure we play all genres of dance music, so that everyone has a chance to shine.


Here’s why this matters to cluster practitioners. To drive growth and innovation, you need access to the best talent, creative minds, and diverse perspectives. As a result, diversity and inclusion are no longer simply about competitive advantage. Rather, they are fast becoming a competitive imperative in the future of work. To thrive as organisations, we need to tap into our talent even more and become really good at drawing out diverse perspectives. This is the only way we’ll be able to solve our increasingly complex problems in new ways. One thing is for sure: good ideas come from everywhere.

There’s also a risk if we get this wrong. If we don’t build clusters in an inclusive way, we may contribute to growing global inequality. According to recent World Economic Forum reports, around 75 million to 375 million people, or about 3 percent to14 percent of the global workforce, will need to switch occupational categories by 2030 or become unemployed. If not managed well, such transitions could exacerbate social tensions and lead to rising skill and wage polarisation.

So, if we want to avoid exacerbating labour-market inequalities, we must begin adopting inclusive practices to equip these groups with the skills, training, and professional opportunities they need to adapt. Similarly, unless deliberate actions are taken to build a diverse pool of talent in clusters, traditionally under-represented groups will remain under-represented, and will not share equitably in the growth that clusters drive. This makes lifelong learning and reskilling at scale an imperative for the future of work. 

Another group we are concerned about is youths. According to a recent Deloitte report, by 2030 more than half of the two billion youths worldwide will not have sufficient qualifications to participate in the global workforce. Preparing our youth for the future of work requires new ways of collaborating and co-creating across sectors - from business and government to academia and NGOs.

ECCP: How can we address these issues?

Zabeen: Let’s talk about five accelerators to mobilise diverse talent:

  • First, we must develop inclusive leaders. Culture change starts at the top, which is why we have to: concretely define inclusive leadership behaviours; set clear expectations; train, coach, and provide feedback; and link behaviours to performance and rewards. Leaders must demonstrate inclusive behaviour all the time and be held accountable at every level.
  • Second, we need to embed diversity and inclusion in all talent management practices. One critical area is recruitment. Although many claim they hire for cultural fit, this is often a proxy for “just like me” hiring. Rather than being fixated on cultural fit, hiring managers should rely on tools to remove their personal biases so they can hire for a candidate’s talent and cultural contribution.
  • Third, we have to cultivate an inclusive culture in which all employees can connect and feel a sense of belonging. Culture change requires a combination of systemic changes across the organisation while also harnessing the power of small moments. And to move the needle, we need to have courageous conversations about harassment and exclusion.
  • Fourth, we must identify and interrupt our own unconscious bias by using tools readily available in the market. I can say from my own experience that while this can be quite jarring, it does change behaviour.
  • Finally, we need to harness the power of clusters through collaboration 4.0, in line with the Industrial Revolution 4.0. Leveraging the power of clusters can help us achieve the scale of change required to close the exclusion gap; we must work together to co-create diversity and inclusion solutions at scale.

ECCP: Can you share an example of how clusters could achieve this outcome?

Zabeen: One example is for clusters to work together to expand the talent pool. By collaborating with partners in the ecosystem, including universities and workforce development agencies, clusters can help build a diverse talent pipeline and create opportunities for under-served groups.

Consider NPower, an industry-led program in the US and Canada that helps develop the entry-level tech skills that employers demand, while also increasing diversity. What’s notable is that industry competitors, which we can think of as clusters, actually work together. In Canada, there are multiple banks, consulting firms, and tech companies in this collaboration. They sit on the board of directors, inform the curriculum design in real time, mentor, and provide meaningful paid internships.

Since its inception in 2014, NPower Canada has trained 850 under-served youth, and is changing their lives in a meaningful way. And NPower is on its way to scaling up. Of its graduates, 91 percent are from racialised backgrounds, 43 percent are women, and 21 percent live with disabilities. Socio-economically, 34 percent received government income assistance prior to joining, 25 percent have lived in public housing, 69 percent were unemployed, and 31 percent were underemployed in survival jobs.

Here’s the punchline: Within six months of graduation, fully 84 percent were employed or enrolled in post-secondary education and, on average, their starting salaries were $39,000 - more than double their previous household incomes. Organisations are getting the talent they need, and graduates are launching sustainable careers.

ECCP: How can clusters help drive this agenda?

Zabeen: First, cluster leaders at the senior-most levels must make mobilising diversity a priority, and must visibly lead and support the effort. Without this, progress will be limited. It also sets the stage for others to implement their ideas for how clusters can work together to drive diversity and inclusion. For example, what about regional, national, or even international cross-cluster mobility programs? Or HR professionals within a cluster working together to make their recruitment practices more inclusive to build diverse pipelines?

By taking deliberate action to diversify talent pipelines, recruit and develop diverse teams, and create inclusive cultures, we can mobilise talent and diversity for economic success and address growing inequality.

To learn more about the business case for diversity and inclusion, check out Deloitte Canada’s report, Outcomes over optics: Building inclusive organizations.

ECCP: Thank you so much for your time to share your knowledge with and inspire the cluster community!


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