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A tiny island’s big lesson

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

People in Curaçao are as diverse as their waterfront buildings. (Hughes Herve/Getty)

People in Curaçao are as diverse as their waterfront buildings. (Hughes Herve/Getty)

Pasquale Hernandes works a knife over the outside of a red snapper, tiny white scales flying everywhere. She works so quickly it’s hard for visitors to her Curaçao fish stand to catch the exact motion of her hands.

“Twenty years I’ve been working here,” Hernandes said with a smile, explaining her quick skill.

And for 20 years, on and off, Hernandes has been living in a boat behind her stall.

It is the way all of the vendors live in Curaçao’s floating market — selling fruits and meat by day from stalls or directly from their docked boats, and sleeping on their boats in the harbour at night.

The arrangement came about a hundred years ago when Curaçao’s population exploded. Oil refineries brought in workers from Holland, Indonesia, China and South America. The Dutch-owned island quickly needed new supplies of food. Venezuela, its nearest neighbor 40 miles away, came to the rescue.

Venezuelan fishermen and farmers ship their goods by boat to Curaçao’s market, where vendors sell everything from mangoes and sides of pigs to freshly picked grapes right from the boats that they call home.

 “Some of the people who work here are second generation living in the floating market,” said Emlyn Pietersz, a professional tour guide in Curaçao. “It was a solution to a problem, and it has worked.”

(Eric Barton)

Pasquale Hernandes of Venezuela readies red snapper for sale at the floating market in Willemstad, Curacao. (Eric Barton)

Curaçao, now known for its inclusive nature, learned that a fusion of different kinds of cultures can help solve problems. The Dutch added Curaçao’s stunning architecture, the Indonesians, the island’s spicy food, and former slaves found a haven that prides itself on ignoring race.

Fast forward a century and this philosophy also hold true in offices, where building a staff that includes minorities and people with different backgrounds leads to innovation.

So why don’t we see more of it? A key reason most managers fail at inclusion is that they get mired in the idea that diversity is a legal or ethical problem to solve, said Teresa Rothausen-Vange, professor of management and endowed chair in business administration at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota, in the US.

“The ethical and legal arguments for inclusion just get in the way,” Rothausen-Vange said. “The political correctness just makes it worse because suddenly that’s all you’re focused on.”

Make it happen

The benefits of a diverse workforce are only seen if the staff is well managed. Bosses need to understand that people with differing backgrounds will come up with ideas in different ways and give them the flexibility to be creative in their custom.

That comes together with a couple steps, Rothausen-Vange said. First, managers need to be sure they’re actively pursuing new hires that not only add diversity but also offer a new perspective.

The key is not just adding a Hispanic woman to the staff because you don’t have one now, Rothausen-Vange said. It’s best to seek people whose backgrounds are different from your current staff as they will likely find solutions in different ways.

Take the accounting firm Deloitte, an early adopter of diversity. The firm was training minorities to become top managers, but then it often lost them before they reached the executive level — as often happens in that profession. So Deloitte created a new executive training program that urged its accountants to stay on rather than jumping to another firm for advancement. This assured that the minorities the company was grooming for top management wouldn’t leave the company before reaching higher ranks.

There’s also the Royal Bank of Canada, which looked to build a diverse workforce to better reflect the community. Zabeen Hirji, the bank’s chief human resources officer, explained that Canada’s population is becoming far more diverse, and so the bank needed to include minorities to understand its customers.

But it’s not just about putting minorities in a few jobs and having them run things as usual, Hirji said. For instance, immigrants from countries where banks have failed or simply aren’t trusted may need to build a relationship with someone in a branch before depositing their money. A local branch manager who understands that relationship may be more likely to get that business.

“Having a diverse workforce is only an advantage if you’re able to utilise that diversity,” Hirji said. “It’s understanding the experience of people and what they can bring to your business.”

That’s what happened in Curaçao, today one of the few Caribbean islands known for being inclusive of gays, blacks, Europeans, and everyone in between.

The floating market is a little microcosm of that. Every day, locals and tourists peruse the stands and counters that jut out from the boats. The customers are all shades and backgrounds, and that’s just the way the islanders like it. ­­

“We are better off for having people who come from all over,” said Pietersz, whose father was from Curaçao and whose mother was from Holland. “We function better because of all these people coming together.”

The same can happen at offices. But it’s up to managers to show they value ideas as creative as the floating market.

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