Companies Ramp up Diversity Efforts

NEW YORK -- The seasoned banker from Rhode Island and the junior banker from Brazil seemed to be worlds apart on the surface. But when Merrill Lynch managing director Kerry Cannella and young associate Selma Bueno joined forces on their first deal, they made a potent cross-cultural duo.

Merrill Lynch was representing Brazilian investors selling their stake in a multibillion-dollar Latin American company to potential U.S. investors. The deal was moving slowly, with both sides cautious.

Then Cannella and Bueno stepped up the pace. They jetted between New York and Brazil many times. Bueno analyzed financial papers in Portuguese. She put together an offering document for investors. She picked classy hotels and restaurants, translated during negotiations and made both sides feel more at ease with each other.

With the help of Bueno's business and social skills, the bankers finally closed the deal -- in the hundreds of millions of dollars -- to everyone's satisfaction.

"Selma and I were a perfect match," Cannella says. "She bridged the gaps between the U.S. party, the Brazilian party and me."

Most Merrill Lynch deals today involve an international party, which makes a diverse global workforce a must. Merrill Lynch boasts 740 offices in 37 countries, with non-U.S. revenue making up 54 percent of the total revenue of its global markets and investment banking group.

"The world is getting much smaller," Cannella says. "Borders basically don't exist anymore."

In past years, many U.S. companies lost their way in a business Babel, where international workforces are as likely to speak Spanish, Hindi or Mandarin as they do English. Today, though, as more multinationals race into the global economy, they're tailoring their diversity policies and practices to the new cultural and business order to a greater degree than ever before.

Like cultural chameleons, they're adapting to hundreds of countries, languages and religious practices. They're juggling more cross-border teams on all continents. They're recruiting and hiring diverse talent from Shanghai to Mumbai, India.

"Diversity is at the heart of globalization," says Douglas Freeman, CEO of Virtcom Consulting, a diversity-consulting firm in New York. "It's happening across economies on a global scale, and it will only grow in the future."

A must for businesses

For most companies, global diversity is a business imperative. "The speed of global business is accelerating diversity," says Pauline Ning Brody, former director of global sales at Colgate-Palmolive and a diversity consultant born in Shanghai who speaks several Chinese dialects. "All business processes cut across country borders now, with virtual teams in North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia."

During a recent diversity conference at the United Nations here co-hosted by Virtcom, the world's economy was reflected by a mélange of 400 diversity experts: Latino, African-American and Asian-Indian executives. Human resource managers from Hungary. A white male consultant from South Africa. A Hawaiian educator launching a college business diversity program.

One big theme that arose during the lively panels: how U.S.-style diversity, historically focused on compliance with federal hiring mandates, is evolving into a broader global version of a multilingual, cross-cultural workforce linked to strategic business goals.

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