Diversity can make your company smarter.

That was the message from a morning sit-down with executives from Ernst & Young and Mastercard on Wednesday, part of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting. The topic of discussion in Davos, Switzerland, was how diversity--specifically inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees--can become a part of corporate culture in emerging markets.

Speaking on the panel were Beth Brooke-Marciniak, the global vice chair for public policy at Ernst & Young, and Shamina Singh, the executive director of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. Both are openly lesbian.

"To innovate, and to do anything successfully in business, you need to have people with different backgrounds, and people who think differently when they are looking at the same situation as you are, with a different set of eyes," Singh said.

Mastercard, for example, has so-called hackathons that bring together its various diversity groups to solve particular company challenges, Singh said.

LGBT employees have won new rights recently, including the right to marry in Ireland and the U.S., but hiring such employees in emerging markets can be a complicated matter--in nearly 80 countries, it is illegal to be LGBT. Businesses can play an important role in creating visibility for marginalized groups, the panelists said.

"Our corporate economies are bigger than the economies of some countries, and we understand the obligation, and the importance of speaking out about [LGBT diversity]," Brooke-Marciniak said.

Both panelists pointed to the impact that businesses had on last year's debate in Indiana over a religious freedom act, signed by the state's governor, that would have made it legal for businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers.

Indiana immediately became the focus of a concerted backlash from prominent business executives including Marc Benioff, chief executive and founder of Salesforce.com; Angie's List founders Bill Osterle and Angie Hicks, both of Indiana; and Apple chief executive Tim Cook, who is openly gay. All the executives involved publicly opposed the law and threatened various economic sanctions. The pushback resulted in the state legislature changing the language of the bill.

Similarly, strong diversity principles can make changes in other countries, the panelists said.

"By...bringing in [LGBT] employees, and welcoming the country into our companies, we are changing the culture of the country," Singh said.

Published on: Jan 20, 2016