Karim Ben-Jaafar of Beanworks: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
An Interview With Tyler Gallagher
Stand up to your own side. Sometimes your “side” or natural inclinations are wrong. In my case that’s most of the time. Stand up to the people you agree with if they go too far. Make common ground with those you don’t agree with when they, in those moments, are correct. The promise of a Representative and Equitable society is predicated on different ideas being part of that representation and other kinds of people being treated equitably. It doesn’t work if it only applies to you and the people who think like you.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Karim Ben-Jaafar.
Karim Ben-Jaafar is a tech entrepreneur known for creating some of the most dynamic and inclusive work environments in the startup world. He is currently the President of Beanworks, which was acquired by Quadient in 2021 for over $100 million. The recent acquisition marks Karim’s fourth tech exit. Karim also serves as a board member and advisor to numerous tech companies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I am the son of a practicing Muslim father from Tunisia and a Catholic, French Canadian mother. Being mixed race and raised in a multicultural home — with large families on both the Arab and French Canadian sides — offered a fun, inclusive, often messy upbringing filled with diverse and sometimes competing perspectives. I refer to this period of my life as the delightful chaos of multiculturalism, where the unstoppable force of one culture ran into the immovable object of another. Yet, somehow it worked and these collisions (mostly at large extended family events) left both sides with a better understanding of the other and even themselves.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
When Barack Obama took office he said he would take three books with him to The White House. First being the Bible, next the Bill of Rights, and the third: A Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin. Goodwin brilliantly illustrates how Abraham Lincoln built bridges with his political rivals and turned enemies into friends. Given the divided times we live in, I value these skills and encourage as many leaders as possible to explore the possibilities that come from reaching out to others you disagree with and find common ground.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” — John Stuart Mill. In today’s world of partisan echo chambers and group confirmation bias, the commitment to understanding the good faith position of those you disagree with is perhaps more important than ever. I find that most of what we think we know about those we disagree with is false and mainly stories we tell ourselves. The chasm that divides us from others is not nearly as wide as our political tribe is desperately trying to convince us. I work with an incredibly diverse array of people; managing employees in 30 countries, and understanding their cultural priorities is key to creating an inclusive environment that encourages diversity of thought.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
After a lifetime of mistakes made and lessons learned in the art of effective leadership, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that; at least for me, an approach of epistemic humility is most appropriate. In essence, I’ve simplified the act of leadership to removing barriers and recognizing achievements. People don’t want or particularly care for the stereotypical big personality or overbearing charisma of the leaders we see in Hollywood’s boardroom portrayals. A leader who trusts their team, works in service to their best selves, and gives credit when credit is due, does more to inspire human flourishing than the self aggrandizing “big man” that often comes to mind when we think of CEOs or Presidents.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Audiobooks and cardio. Taking long walks while listening to a near unlimited supply of great authors is a blessing of the modern world.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
The story of America is one of exceptional principles being poorly and unevenly applied. It is the story of a country who boldly proclaimed that all men are created equal while disenfranchising 50% of its population and counting others as 3/5th of a human being. We are now at a crossroads. For some, the frustrations at our slow progress in living up to the promises made in the Declaration of Independence has led them to question the very legitimacy of those principles; as articulated in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 project and the works of Ibram X. Kendi. Many have abandoned the dream of Dr. King’s post-racial world for a new paradigm, in which people relate to each other in the historical context of their identity.
The classical humanist view of Dr. King is being challenged by the ascendancy of antiracism: where racism is not limited to the beliefs and/or actions of an individual but expanded to incorporate the outcomes of a policy or action regardless of intent. The legacy of slavery in America still inhabits every aspect of our society in the face of the antiracist, so it would be naive to focus on the hearts and minds of people instead of focusing on the outcomes of systems as a whole. Bridging the gap between people with good hearts who have come to see each other as enemies when they simply disagree on the best approach to addressing America’s racial wounds–is the challenge of our day.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
We are especially interested in supporting a peer led environment, in which Diversity and Inclusion is less of a top down approach but rather a responsibility owned by everyone. From employees contributing to our bias-free hiring protocols, to position-based pay which eliminates the gender pay gap, our most celebrated initiatives have come from the staff. We have never implemented any sort of hiring quotas, and yet, the environment the staff has created in partnership with management has led to a company whose diverse makeup reflects the communities in which we operate. In short, people just want to work for companies that spend less time talking about how management is committed to D&I, and more on creating the circumstances in which it naturally manifests.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity of experience and background leads to diversity of thought. And the best, most game changing ideas are those that both surprise and scare you. You won’t get those sitting in a room of people who think exactly like you.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
1. Start by listening. Racism is an emotional issue, we all want to jump in with our thoughts. For those who feel implicitly accused of racism, they are often quick to defend their intentions without first understanding the perspective of those who are living with the legacy of racism. Or perhaps even worse, they admit complicity to avoid being labeled as a denier of their racism. But when someone is sharing their story or perspective on how racism affects them, it is not about you at that moment. Just listen.
2. Pay attention. We have busy lives filled with challenges, joys and our own tragedies. A truly inclusive society requires that we also make time for issues outside ourselves when we can. Spend some time learning about current events, history, political and business leaders, as well as exposing yourself to ideas from those you may not agree with at first. The time will come when you will be in a position of influence, even if it is only for a short moment or when you vote, and that is not the time to start trying to make sense of the issues before you.
3. Stand up to your own side. Sometimes your “side” or natural inclinations are wrong. In my case that’s most of the time. Stand up to the people you agree with if they go too far. Make common ground with those you don’t agree with when they, in those moments, are correct. The promise of a Representative and Equitable society is predicated on different ideas being part of that representation and other kinds of people being treated equitably. It doesn’t work if it only applies to you and the people who think like you.
4. Make the choice, would you rather be right or effective? An Inclusive society involves a diverse array of ideas, people and perspectives. You won’t be able to convince everyone that your vision for this future is correct, but you can be effective in working with people you disagree with to achieve this end. There are moments in life when we must abandon being right and winning the argument, and focus more on how to move forward in a way that everyone has their needs met. We are often not that far apart when we take ego out of it.
5. Forgive others… and yourself. It is a truism that we are but human. We will at times clumsily trespass on others as they have on us. We will say things we regret, do things that don’t reflect our best selves. We won’t create an Inclusive, Representative and Equitable Society without a commitment to kindness and grace.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m optimistic that we will meet the challenges of today. I still believe in Dr. King’s words when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
If I could have lunch with both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Glenn Loury, I would love to sit quietly and observe them contrast their ideas on racial reconciliation in America.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!