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Pride and Prejudice 2017

Innovating Inclusively

Miah Kiat (M.K.) Goh is the Chief Executive Officer of Karex, a Malaysian based condom company that supplies one in five condoms used globally today. At The Economist’s second Pride and Prejudice event in Hong Kong he shared an alarming story about the desperate need for product innovation in his field. In his talks with NGOs in Pakistan he was asked whether it was possible to provide condoms with lubricant. This was because he was told that men who were unable to bring their wives with them on travels were having intercourse with others of the same sex.

When condoms without lubricant were offered, they failed because these men were resorting to engine oil to make them usable. M.K. continued to point out that a male prison in Spain echoed the request, underlining further the importance of product innovation to protect the LGBT community on a very fundamental level across the globe. “There is a lot of product development that needs to go beyond CSR campaigns and corporate policies.”

Despite the intention of this particular innovation being primarily to promote sexual wellness, it also reflects positively on his company from a consumer standpoint. Simply put, people like innovation. It appears to have become a bit of a buzzword that represents development and growth. In fact, Ketchum’s first multi country innovation kernel study a few years ago revealed that 68 percent of consumers are willing to pay on average 21 percent more for a brand they think of as being innovative. The question is, is it just innovative products that makes a brand attractive or does that include their broader approach to business internally and externally?

Former Military Captain turned CEO of India’s first National Intelligence Grid and now Group President of Reliance Industries, Raghu Raman, sees business trending to accommodate the views of the youth who are generally more liberal. “The young are risk taking, have more empathy, have less baggage. Even straight people want to work with companies who have a liberal outlook even if it doesn’t affect them personally. Companies who cannot adapt to what their employees want and more importantly what their customers want, will perish.”

So how does a company innovate to accommodate this? Innovating the corporate mindset to incorporate inclusivity is one way. With regards to the LGBT community Raman believes we don’t need to learn anything, when it comes to India, we need to unlearn 400 years of colonial rule. “Some of the greatest warriors we had were transgender, crossdressers, great poets and effeminate. That did nothing to their fighting skills, they were just as lethal, just as deadly.”

Gigi Chao, Executive Vice-Chairman of Cheuk Nang Holdings in Hong Kong agrees that her native city has to firmly redefine itself post colonialism. “People in Hong Kong have a post-colonial psyche.” Her point being that Hong Kong citizens have difficulty identifying themselves as Chinese nationals leading to general sentiment that the Hong Kong Government lacks legitimacy. In her eyes, this is why it is difficult to try and push legislation with issues as controversial as LGBT rights. When it comes to innovating the mindset of business and society she said, “I think it’s up to businesses who have a conscience to do something to uphold dignity. To uphold the standards of human behaviour and set a benchmark in terms of what is acceptable in terms of our colleagues and how we treat other people.”

For Malaysian citizen M.K., change needs to be led by the government. Sexual intercourse between men in predominantly Muslim Malaysia is still punishable by law for up to 20 years he explained. As is evident by the sodomy trial of Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. He agrees that pressure for the government to change needs to come from businesses and explains that he has learned from the openly gay CEO of Karex’s U.S. operations. “I learned a lot in terms of running the business and in terms of how to include the LGBT community within product innovation and in terms of communication with the condom users themselves.”

Capt. Raman’s view on the way to make innovation happen with regards to inclusivity and diversity in business is to unite people through a higher purpose, much like what happens in the army. He says, “There is a sense of nobility and eliteness in going above and beyond. It’s the same in the corporate world. There is nobility in being the bigger person. That eliteness comes from accepting a person’s differences and not by enforcing your parochialism on other people.” He concludes by adding that despite the legality of LGBT being a concern, there is a sense that an increasing number of corporates are growing in an inclusive manner and as he puts it, “sticking their necks out”. Change will only happen though when people empathise and push forward together, which, he says is why conferences such as this are so important.

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