How to Succeed in Business When No One Can Pronounce Your Name
Posted on November 8, 2019
Varchasvi Shankar is President and CEO of iConnectX, as well as an IT entrepreneur who has built V2Soft into a multi-million-dollar, global operation serving Fortune 500 companies. He grew up in Mysore in the state of Karnataka, India.
“My hope is that we will soon swap out the lens in which we use to view names of applicants, candidates, and students so that we are just as comfortable in meeting Iyano, Bahati, and Fabien as we are meeting Anna, Bethany, and Frank.” – Huda Essa, TEDx Speaker, Author, and Cultural Consultant.
As someone with an unfamiliar name for the vast majority of Americans, I am inspired by this vision that Huda Essa holds. It reminds me of the challenges I faced in starting my business as an Indian entrepreneur in the U.S., but also the challenge we all face in making a first impression. It starts with our name.
For example, your name is the place where your professional networking begins. After all, how do we start a professional networking conversation? Usually with some form of: “Hi. My name is….”
I bring up the challenge of the first impression, because I recently participated in a panel hosted by Corp! magazine as part of its Diversity Awards Salute event. Each year, Corp! honors Michigan-based businesses who have demonstrated leadership in creating a more diverse workforce and cultivating a culture of inclusion.
I was among a group of executives and entrepreneurs who were asked to speak about the issue of diversity and inclusion from two perspectives. First, how do executives and entrepreneurs incorporate inclusion into the DNA of their businesses? Second, how do professionals of any background—especially women, minorities, and disabled people—find the support and advice from experts who can help them move their careers forward?
Here are some insights I took away from the discussion.
Diversity should be treated like water. As an IT professional, I see the world through data. Around the issue of diversity, the data is simple.
Writ Large, diversity is akin to the water that wraps around our planet. Three-quarters of Earth is made up of water. So to, three-quarters of the world is made up of people who don’t have names like Anna, Bethany, or Frank. If I ignore the talent market that comprises the vast majority of professionals, I’m ignoring data that is critical to the success of my business. The McKinsey Company—which has done extensive research on diversity in the workplace—puts a finer point on this fact:
“Drawing from a narrow talent pool leaves money, innovative ideas, and star employees on the table.”
At the Corp! Magazine event, I joined my fellow entrepreneurs and executives in encouraging this view of diversity—it’s just good for business. I also urge executives to make themselves available as mentors and experts to women, minorities, and people with disabilities, because their businesses will greatly benefit.
One way to do that is through iConnectX. We offer a way to create a culture of diversity through generosity. When you give your time as a mentor on iConnectX, you are not just helping professionals from many different backgrounds. You are helping the charities and causes that you care about—which in turn serve people from many different backgrounds.
Seek out formal support structures. Even so, it’s not easy for professionals who are “different” to find support, whether from a supervisor, a peer, or a mentor—even if their employer offers networking and mentoring opportunities. As important as these programs are, it can be hard to make the connection with a mentor who comes from an entirely different background. What’s more, these programs aren’t much help if you are thinking about switching careers outside your current industry.
Yet there are organizations and formal networks aimed at supporting professionals who find it hard to benefit from traditional networking and mentoring.
For me, the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council (MMSDC) provided many opportunities to meet with much bigger companies than my own and establish relationships. That’s why I would advise women, minorities, and disabled people to find similar organizations with a mission of helping to open doors.
Look beyond difference to find common challenges. While our unique experiences make us who we are, it’s an easy default to focus on them in any conversation. I’ve found that in business, looking for common challenges creates connection and opportunity.
Entrepreneurs as a whole, for example, face a host of hurdles that don’t change based on our names, our gender, our skin color, or what we wear. We start off strapped for resources, struggling to build trust around our products, and seeking to expand professional networks that help our businesses grow.
So I believe starting a conversation around challenges when networking is easy and effective. It can be as simple as asking: “Have you faced this challenge?” or “What challenges have you overcome?”
Find common ground beyond the workplace. We all get trapped in a box when trying to build professional connections—whether online or in person. We focus on what we do and what our work experience is. When we don’t share more about ourselves, we’re not bridging the divide of difference. We can inadvertently fall into stereotypes.
That’s why it’s important to remember that we are more than our resume or our LinkedIn profile. I encourage any professional to look for ways to network beyond the workplace. Of course, the challenge is finding the time with a busy family life or if you simply hate networking events.
I suggest to you that the connection that can be the most impactful is the one made around what you are most passionate about. Many professionals—across industries and at every level—are passionate about giving back to their communities.
I’m one of those professionals. Giving back by helping to organize and attend fundraising events is fulfilling and fun. Philanthropy creates meaningful social interaction that enables me to present a different side of myself to other professionals.
Indeed, a fundraising event can be an expert marketplace like no other, especially since it’s made up of a community of people who are naturally generous.
One of the great advances in our technical age is that you can be philanthropic in a multitude of ways, even at your desktop. For many professionals, a digital peer-to-peer fundraiser is a terrific opportunity to show a different side of yourself to your colleagues, especially if you face physical challenges or if you feel challenged as a woman or person of color.
The iConnectX team—along with myself and V2Soft—are on a personal mission to build a community of giving-minded professionals. What does that mean for diversity and inclusion? It means that there is only one lens in which we look at one another—our shared dedication to supporting charities and causes.
Within such a community, the conversation doesn’t start with your name or your job title. It starts with the cause that you care about.