This article, written by Nirat Bhatnagar, the founder of Belongg and a Partner at Dalberg, and Shruti Goyal, an Associate Partner at Dalberg, first appeared in Forbes India here.
Inclusion 1.0 is about increasing diversity in the workforce. The next phase of the Indian story calls for Inclusion 2.0, which focuses on building inclusive products and services to serve diverse customers and users better.
What does the Indian Constitution and the economic liberalisation of the 1990s have to do with the future of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in Indian industry? A lot, actually. Equality considerations in the first half of independent India’s journey were a function of the ambition put forth in our Constitution, a document promising access to opportunity irrespective of religion, gender, race, caste, and more. This aspiration led to equal opportunity and affirmative action policies for people belonging marginalised castes and tribes in educational institutes and public sector jobs.
India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s further propelled progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion across industries. Key developments include the establishment of the National Commission for Women, the 2013 Companies Act, legislation for persons with disabilities, and the landmark 2018 Supreme Court ruling decriminalising homosexuality—all of them significantly improved inclusion for women, persons with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Today, even though the ground realities remain highly unequal, it is undeniable that these developments have laid a strong foundation for more progress going forward.
The Indian industry actively participates in the DEI movement through HR policies, dedicated DEI teams, employee resource groups, and volunteer programs. These initiatives play a crucial role in promoting diversity in recruitment, leadership, employee experience, cultural training, and more. It has also created a new professional niche for DEI consulting firms like Interweave and Samana. However, the scope of these initiatives has so far been limited to adopting internal DEI lenses and increasing representation within the workforce and enacting more inclusive workplace policies. We term this approach Inclusion 1.0 and feel it is essential to lay a solid foundation. We believe the next phase of the Indian story calls for a move to Inclusion 2.0, which looks outwards and focuses on building inclusive products and services to serve diverse customers and users better.
There are sufficient case studies to take inspiration from. Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller, designed to cater to the needs of gamers with limited mobility, allows customisation of the gaming experience based on individual requirements. Nike’s Pro Hijab enables Muslim women athletes to participate in sports comfortably. And American brands such as Target, JCPenny, and Kohl’s have introduced a range of adaptive clothing that makes getting dressed easier for Persons with Disabilities.
An example closer home is the mental health app Evolve, which caters to the LGBTQ+ community, collaborating with queer-affirmative therapists to provide guided sessions that address important topics such as coming out to loved ones and navigating homophobia in the workplace.
If companies start thinking actively about creating products and services that cater to the unique needs of people with diverse identities, it will allow them not just to serve unaddressed needs but also drive business value for themselves, improve brand reputation, increase customer satisfaction, and drive growth for India.
HOW DO YOU LEAP TO INCLUSION 2.0? HERE ARE FIVE RECOMMENDATIONS:
1) Include products and services inclusion in the company’s strategic policy
Many companies have started including DEI metrics linked to leadership, employee diversity and cultural sensitivity prominently within their strategy. The shift to Inclusion 2.0 requires a similar approach where leaders define what inclusion looks like for their product categories and then develop strategic OKRs (objectives and key results). Key metrics to consider include the “inclusion scores” of the company’s products and services, assessing how effectively they cater to diverse user groups. Organisations tend to underestimate how large these user segments are and consequently don’t invest in product customisation or new product development. Leaders could consider investing in sufficient market intelligence on underserved user groups.
2) Leverage DEI teams and internal interest
Over time, HR teams, DEI teams, and even employee resource groups have built a significant understanding of inclusion, and many passionate employees would love the opportunity to work on inclusive product and service design. Leaders could create cross-functional innovation and product teams with members from these internal DEI groups to tap into their passion for inclusion. This would enable product teams to understand user needs better and create better solutions.
Google, for instance, has an inclusion champion group with 2,000 employees representing various races, genders, age groups, abilities, and geographic locations. This has allowed the company to lead in inclusive and assistive tech products, such as their gender-neutral Google Assistant and TalkBack braille keyboard.
3) Provide product managers with training and resources
Strengthening innovation processes to drive inclusive product and service development is essential. This requires training for product teams, creating toolkits and establishing best practices, involving diverse users across the entire product lifecycle—from ideation, design, development, and testing—to ensure targeted feedback. Companies can pioneer inclusive product management fellowship programs to equip new and seasoned product managers with the tools and resources needed to learn about building inclusive products and then help develop these products and features back into their organisations. An innovation budget could help incentivise this.
4) Develop product and inclusion metrics
Companies can develop inclusion metrics for their product portfolios and then regularly measure achievement through usage analytics: analysing user data for different user groups, regular surveys, and research with underserved user groups.
As an illustration, the inclusion metrics developed by Nielsen, a global leader in data and market measurement, evaluate content diversity across catalogues, genres and platforms. They measure representation, visibility and audience share of products while accounting for gender, race, ethnicity, LGBTQ identity and disability. When asked about inclusion during a media interview in 2020, the company’s CEO, David Kenney, emphasised how important it is to “set hard targets for ourselves and make those transparent to our board and measure them like we measure other outcomes like financial results”.
5) Learn from, but don’t be afraid of making mistakes
Inclusion and equity are nuanced topics, and there is often disagreement, even within the DEI ecosystem, on appropriate approaches. Sometimes, mistakes are amplified through social media, which can scare off organisations unwilling to face such consequences. In our experience, most people who have been working in this area for decades are welcoming of newcomers and acknowledge that mistakes will be made. Companies could partner with experts and organisations who can be supportive guides on the product inclusion journey and also ensure that errors are mined for learning.
Also Read: How process and practice can combat bias
Inclusive products can open a world of possibilities for typically excluded groups and are integral to building a safer and more equitable world. To funnel resources and capital towards inclusion, there is a need to recognise that inclusivity can be profitable. The Indian industry is well poised to start the inclusion 2.0 journey, create significant social impact, and reap economic rewards in this process.
About authors: Nirat Bhatnagar is a Partner at Dalberg Advisors and the founder of Belongg, a research and innovation firm focusing on inclusion. Shruti Goyal is an Associate Partner at Dalberg Advisors, where she advises on inclusive strategy and impact investing.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.