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How Intellectual Diversity Enhances Innovation


Investments in diversity typically—and justifiably—center on race and gender. In schools, workplaces, and communities, those lived experiences bring much-needed multiplicity that evidence suggests leads to better returns over time. While racial and gender diversity are necessary for a plethora of reasons, intellectual diversity is one added benefit that comes from building diverse teams across gender, race, and other aspects of one’s identity. Intellectual diversity is the freedom to bring new perspectives to a community and have them respectfully critiqued by others.

Displaying the Value of Diversity

Heterodox Academy CEO Debra Mashek told Forbes that intellectual diversity “exists when learners ask questions and approach problems from a range of perspectives.” It is meant to capture the myriad ways that humans can understand the world. For instance, social class can generate differing leadership and working styles that add significant value to companies.

Intellectual diversity is also the alchemy of bringing those people together in an open-minded environment. Higher education presents a conspicuous example of the long-term success intellectual diversity can lead to. In 2020, a Georgetown University study found that the return on investment for a liberal arts education increased significantly over a graduate’s lifetime.

Unlike vocational or professional degrees, a liberal arts education is defined by exposure to multiple disciplines. President of the Institute for Humane Studies Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright, who authored the article in Forbes, noted that “to pursue a liberal education is to develop intellectual agency—a deep sense of confidence—that allows us to bear the responsibilities and enjoy the fruits of living in a free society.”

The more homogenous the environment, the less likely it is to foster the transformative innovation that most investors seek to capitalize on.

Investing in Intellectual Diversity

Normalizing intellectual diversity may seem endemic to entrepreneurship and startup culture. After all, early-stage companies generally represent new ways of doing business. Yet the lack of diversity among startups that receive those early-stage investments is a well-documented concern. The more homogenous the environment, the less likely it is to foster the transformative innovation that most investors seek to capitalize on.

Investors can move the needle on intellectual diversity in material ways. As the push for greater disclosure of diversity characteristics continues, the “inclusion” component of diversity and inclusion may mark a good place to start. Researchers at McKinsey defined inclusion as equality, openness, and belonging—the key elements of intellectual diversity. Their existing research on racial and gender diversity offers evidence that diversity positively correlates with financial performance, demonstrating the financial strength of investing in innovative and independent ideas.

Prioritizing Inclusion

McKinsey’s study of US companies found that even among companies with greater gender and racial diversity, employee satisfaction with inclusion efforts was significantly lower. This finding points to a bigger challenge: making sure that all executives and employees feel valued for their unique perspectives rather than tokenized. Solutions may include hiring and promoting more representative leadership, encouraging accountability around key diversity metrics, and displaying transparency around pay and promotions.

A common thread in places with intellectual diversity is a willingness to consider things differently, in turn opening the door to innovation. As Chamlee-Wright wrote in Forbes, “When we are introduced to multiple points of view, when we see the same information through a different lens, we become practiced at interrogating our own knowledge and assumptions. This, in turn, allows us to navigate uncharted intellectual territory and make genuine discoveries—creative, scientific, philosophical, and entrepreneurial discoveries that drive individual success and social progress.”

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