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The Journey from Diversity to Inclusion

There was a moment in the Syrian refugee crisis when diversity and inclusion became one with innovation.

RBC’s Moncton operation, like many across Canada, was trying to help refugees start their financial lives anew. Trouble was, many of the newcomers didn’t speak English or French.

Fortunately, Amr and Maya, two Arabic-speaking employees from the RBC Advice Centre, jumped into the breach, setting up basic bank accounts, explaining the novel concept of debit cards, even finding North American cell phone chargers.

For this group of Syrian refugees, RBC’s branches and advisors became a kind of community welcome centre that bridged them to Canadian banking, and more. It’s the sort of innovation that banks everywhere are on the lookout for.

RBC’s journey from diversity to inclusion is central to our efforts to build the bank of the future, and it begins with open and creative minds. Diversity, we like to say, is a fact; inclusion is a choice, like the one Amr and Maya made to devote countless hours, and ingenuity, to help the bank’s newest clients.

At RBC, we consider diversity and inclusion to be central tenets of our purpose to help clients thrive and communities prosper. Our employees have told us those values are among the reasons they joined the organization, and why they come to work every day. Our clients have told us they expect it of us — not as a morale-boosting idea, but rather, a catalyst for innovation, a verb that can energize the nouns of diversity.

RBC has been a champion of diversity for decades, and taken it seriously at the highest levels. Since 2002, our CEOs have chaired our Diversity Leadership Council, which stimulates, informs and holds the entire organization to account in how we include differences – gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, as well as perspectives — in everything we do.

We’ve also been active in the communities around us, investing in initiatives that enable diversity groups and advocating for public policies that help pluralism thrive.

But we’ve also seen how employees from different backgrounds can enhance our appreciation of a changing world, and changing country.  They empathize with new clients. They understand the mistrust some people from other countries have about banks. They can translate their hopes and fears. And they can appreciate that while money is a universal language, it has many dialects.

Our focus on inclusion has come more recently, as we began to notice the most innovative centres of the 21st century are places where diversity and inclusion thrive, where creative collisions are celebrated and divergent voices are sought. Silicon Valley, London, Singapore: these are places that seek to be crossroads of culture and intersections of ideas, where differences in background, choice and perspective are not to be forged in a melting pot but rather woven into a mosaic of purpose.

Our employees — more than 20,000 of them — made that abundantly clear in a digital jam we held over several days in 2015, to discuss our values and restate RBC’s collective ambition around a shared purpose.  “The best ideas come from when we invite those who ‘aren’t like us’ to the table,” was a typical comment.

We’re still learning. Words remain the easiest part of change, the kindling to the matchstick of intention. But through our collective ambition, we’ve also seen the need for the oxygen of open minds and the fuel of persistence.

We’ve seen the walls we build in our minds – unconscious bias, we call it – and through conversations and test cases and employee groups striking out on their own, we found ways to break them down.

We got a taste of that this summer when we picked a cadre of 32 work-term students and assigned them to six teams, each with a special business problem to solve. All were given access to RBC leaders under a program called Amplify, which was as much about inclusion as it was about innovation. (For more, watch this video.)

By the end of summer, the Amplify teams had filed for two provisional patents. We don’t know what that will lead to, but we do know the groups would not have flourished without the diversity of people involved. Sixteen of the students were born outside Canada, and, combined, they spoke 20 languages. But their differences were much richer than just their heritages. There were two RBC Next Great Innovator winners, multiple marathon runners, a provincial badminton champion, a GoPro-sponsored snowboarder, and enough musical skills to cover the ukulele, cello, viola, saxophone, flute and piano — in addition to an accomplished rapper.

As we learned, diversity takes an orchestra, and inclusion is its conductor. Like Amr and Maya, the Amplify teams found themselves to be part of a greater symphony that blended their diversity of perspectives with a consistency of values — and along the way, helped forge a better future.


RBC is a Presenting Partner of 6 Degrees. See Zabeen Hirji and John Stackhouse at 360: Prosperity.