Why Countries Need to Embrace Diversity if They Want to Thrive — Hiring Blog
Just over two years ago I closed Jobbatical’s first round of financing — the angel round. Blue-eyed and determined to build my vision into a groundbreaking global business, little did I know at the time that our pool of investors would turn out to be a microcosm of the amazingly diverse company we ended up building. Hailing from five countries — Finland, UK, Russia, Latvia, and my native Estonia — our angel investors are an unusually international bunch, with this round normally being reserved for a startup’s home country.
But assembling an international investor board wasn’t part of my grand vision. The fact of the matter is quite simply that local angels didn’t want to join in at first, and there was no way I was going to let that stop me. So I bootstrapped and I bootstrapped, traveling the globe to find believers from elsewhere. Our first angel investors came from Finland, the UK and Russia. Soon after, a charismatic Latvian angel investor joined in. That’s when the Estonians got curious as well (how Estonian of them to look over and want a piece of what the neighbors were having — and I say that with the deepest affection for Estonians!). Two years later, our circle of investors has expanded globally across eight countries, with Union Square Ventures joining in from the US, LocalGlobe from the UK, and Airtree VC from Australia.
Last week, when I was speaking at Riga Venture Summit and TechChill, I met up with our Latvian angel Janis Rancans. While catching up with him and reflecting on the good old days, I realized that purely by accident we had opened a door for pan-Baltic angel network co-operation. You see, to the best of my knowledge, Janis’s investment into Jobbatical was the first direct cross-border angel investment from Latvia to Estonia.
Despite a bumpy start — think broken Airbnb beds and a midnight trip to a hotel in my pajamas — it was good be back in Riga, a city I used to visit almost weekly in my television days. Riga Venture Summit brought together policy makers from across the Baltics, Scandinavia, the UK, and the Netherlands to talk about building forward-thinking countries. Probably the most touching presentation was from TechUK’s Policy Director, Charlotte Holloway, who focused on where the UK went wrong, resulting in the vote for Brexit. In her presentation, she encouraged other countries to avoid the same mistakes.
What impressed me the most, however, was the small city of Eindhoven. As Yvonne van Hest jokingly said, the Netherlands has the important ABS: the Airport (Schiphol Amsterdam Airport), Brainport (Eindhoven), and the Seaport (Port of Rotterdam). Eindhoven is the Brainport of the Netherlands. This city of around 200,000 people has managed to build a multicultural environment that both attracts and retains talent from all over the world. This starts from an early age, when English-speaking immigrant student classes are integrated into local schools. Kids are raised knowing that there are people of different cultures, languages, and races.
Local companies share talent: when a person applies for a job but there’s no opening at the time, the company shares the person’s profile with 49 other companies in case they have an opportunity. How smart is that? “No talent gets lost,” as Yvonne put it. Here’s a city that’s thinking globally, working hard to improve the talent’s user experience. What a fine example of how cities can run the world (A TED talk suggestion: Benjamin Barber: Why mayors should rule the world)!
I was thrilled to see that it was Eindhoven that Latvian policy makers had invited to share their experiences. Theirs is a story we in the Baltics desperately need to hear and learn from.
The Baltics are a strange bunch. In many ways, these three small countries are as different as they come. For example, Estonia is one of the least religious countries on the planet, while almost 80% of Lithuanians are Roman Catholics. (When I was building National Geographic and MTV in the Baltics, I always had a hard time explaining to outsiders why one marketing strategy couldn’t possibly work in all three countries. I usually said, “Just imagine if Germany, France, and the UK were small countries — that’s the Baltics.”)
But for all their differences, a common theme for the three Baltic states is their relative lack of diversity. Yvonne van Hest’s presentation proved that small communities need to embrace change if they want to thrive — which the Baltics most certainly do. All three countries are working hard to improve their policies and build attractive, top-tier startup scenes. All three countries are working hard to become the Silicon Valleys of Europe. But what is Silicon Valley if not the very epitome of a melting pot? According to Silicon Valley Index 2016, 74% of computer science workers aged 25–44 are foreign-born. It’s that diversity that makes Silicon Valley great. And like any other area of civic development, diversity needs encouragement from policy makers.
With every new example of how it can be done, we’re running out of excuses not to follow in the footsteps of communities that have turned their diversity into their biggest strength.