The business case for diversity is a sinking ship

Lily Zheng
The Startup
Published in
8 min readJul 24, 2019

This essay belongs to Beyond the Business Case, a Medium-exclusive essay series exploring the big-picture questions about diversity & inclusion work. Intended for D&I practitioners, C-Suite executives, and other leaders looking to shape the future of D&I.

“Diversity increases revenue, improves productivity, sparks creativity, and boosts innovation.”

In my line of work, the business case for diversity is practically a mantra. As Diversity & Inclusion has gained mainstream acceptance, so too has this “business case” emerged as the centerpiece of many modern organizations’ D&I efforts. It figures prominently in keynote talks, diversity panels, and internal presentations alike. And when corporate leaders talk about D&I, the business case for diversity is always one of their talking points.

This is, unfortunately, a big problem.

Under its flashy exterior, “business case” rhetoric has resulted in an epidemic of misinformed leaders and D&I strategies that don’t work. It has created organizations with good diversity optics, but plagued with a revolving door of diverse talent and stagnant progress on important D&I issues. The cause: well-meaning advocates and leaders fundamentally misunderstand and misuse the business case for diversity.

If we want to right the sinking ship that is the business case for diversity, we need to get over our infatuation with the buzzwords of the “business case” and actually understand the mechanisms of how diversity actually brings benefits to organizations. We need to resist the pull of performative D&I work, even when it makes good money, and remember that D&I work is rooted in justice, not profit. And finally, we need to learn how to use the “business case” tactically and sparingly, rather than as a miracle cure for every D&I-related context. Here’s how.

the “business case” doesn’t mean what you think it does

I spoke to an executive recently about his company’s work in the Diversity & Inclusion space…

Lily Zheng
The Startup

Organizational Consultant | Activist | Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Champion | Keynote Speaker | Author & @lilyzheng308