Johan Filip Axenpalm (HE/HIM)

Today more than ever, diversity in the team determines a company's competitive advantage. We develop products for a global consumer. Germany has enormous potential here in the population. We now need to make smart use of it.

Johan Filip Axenpalm is responsible for Public Policy and Government Affairs at Meta and has also headed the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion unit for six years – a matter close to his heart.

Johan, what does diversity mean to you personally? What is your definition of diversity?

For me, diversity is the ability to give a voice to those who deviate the most from the social norm and help them to be seen. Understanding what structural discrimination this person has experienced and how these structural elements can be eliminated in order to bring out the best in the person: their visions, their ideas, their courageous questions, their criticism.

There is a treasure buried here, and we are only just beginning to understand it. But in my view, it will determine how innovative we will be in the future. There is enormous potential here for companies, but also a great responsibility, because business can make a big difference.

What would you change immediately if you could?

I would make board appointments more diverse. Via a quota or voluntary, measurable commitments. That’s where the magic happens.

You are a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Team at Meta and work as a mentor and consultant for numerous organizations, including 2hearts, an organization that has set itself the goal of promoting people with a history of migration in the tech sector. What role does diversity play in your personal life? And do you separate it from your professional commitments? Is that even possible?

That’s an exciting question. For a long time, I strictly separated work and private life because I didn’t see the added value for one side or the other. Perhaps I even hid my background to some extent. I wanted to be perceived as a successful Johan.

My parents, for example, are both non-academics and would probably even be labeled illiterate by definition. Perspectives that you don’t necessarily like to bring to the table at any employer, where the other colleagues are more likely to have studied at Harvard or Cambridge. So, my fear for a long time – and I honestly haven’t completely put it aside – was that my background and biography could be used against me. But I would say that I have had a personal breakthrough in the last four years. I have come into contact with more and more people who have broken down this separation for themselves and recognized the power of their biography, who have told me who the people are who have shaped them, who have talked about what migration, the asylum process or starting their own business has done to and with them. What it means to come to Europe with nothing, to ask yourself profound questions about your identity and to search for a long time. This uniqueness and new perspective on my family’s and my own biography was and is quite new for me: to see this as enrichment, to perceive it as potential and to understand it as a driving force. In my opinion, it is no longer enough in the world of work to filter people based on their A-levels and university degrees.

You say that you were born with a passion for diversity, but was there a key moment that triggered your awareness of the topic? Or was that a process?

It was a process. And it’s certainly the zeitgeist that played into my hands here. There were suddenly people who had the courage to tell their story and who now form a great network for me. I feel like I’m part of a wave and that I’m helping to shape it. Fortunately, everyone is talking about having the courage to be more vulnerable. Coaches, podcasts and front pages are covering the topic. On the other hand, championing diversity and intersectionality is not a choice, but almost a sense of duty. I feel like I want to give back because I can do it now. I look back on my integration experience with gratitude, but now also on the painful steps of the career ladder. I was eight when we moved from Sweden to Germany and the support I received from the students and teachers was exemplary.

So many companies talk about it, but how do you actually get there: what makes an inclusive corporate culture?

It’s trendy to invite three people a year to talk about diversity, then share it on the relevant career platforms and that’s it. However, I have realized how important it is for the company to actually and authentically stand by people.

The employee resource groups at Meta were incredibly important to me: colleagues of all backgrounds come together in groups and encourage each other, be it in pride, woman, migrant, disability or black groups. I was very impressed to hear what stories people have behind them and what hurdles they have overcome to be and show who they are.

It’s also a question of resources. If it is meant seriously, you need WoManpower and budget. And ultimately, the incentives should take place on an equal footing with all other regular employee training, as an established and necessary format. Ultimately, we need KPIs for precisely these topics. Otherwise, little will change. Especially in times of macroeconomic crisis, such as the current one, these topics are often the first to be skimped on.

Are there markers that can be used to determine how inclusive it really is?

Diversity will not prevail in any company if the boardrooms and supervisory boards are not also diverse. I firmly believe in the top-down approach. In the quota for women and diversity. The first models from Norway provide impressive evidence: performance, profit and innovative strength are increasing. It is now less about the evidence. We have had this for around 5 years and it is pleasing and resilient. Rather, it is a political power struggle. Wherever powerful positions decide on large budgets and the filling of positions, there are these battles. People who currently hold these positions are holding on to their power. We should also acknowledge this and think about how we can incentivize them to fill C-level positions in a diverse way.

Another parameter is to look at this regularly: Who gets promoted, who gets the high-profile projects? Are there salary adjustments for women as well as people with diverse backgrounds? There isn’t even any data available yet, but it is reasonable to assume that there are massive pay inequalities here too – as with the gender pay gap.

You deal a lot with the question of how digital platforms can act as a driver for innovation. Why are diverse and inclusive teams so important here too?

The metrics and evidence are all in favor of building diverse teams. We are already seeing this now and the situation will become more acute in the future: Competitive advantage comes with diverse teams. This is the only way we can address the “global user”, which is essential for most companies. We can only do this if we reflect the global consumer.

At Meta, for example, we have over four billion users and are well advised as an organization to consider all perspectives and integrate our colleagues from all countries around the world into the development of our products. The more we do this, the more likely it is that our technologies will be accepted and promote inclusion – because they reflect the center of society and have been developed in line with its needs.

So, companies have a political responsibility?

Absolutely. They have the scope to shape the future in a sustainable way. Especially at the present time, when right-wing parties are gaining strength, business and politics must act in close coordination. Politics always aims to give the economy the ideal scope for action. And business can set the agenda. Board members run in and out of politics. There is little wrong with that. It’s great that political issues are increasingly being placed in companies, for example against racism, misogyny or homophobia. That is the way forward. An enormous socially influential force is concentrated in business.

What can we all do to act more inclusively in everyday life?

First of all, become aware of our own privileges: Where do I come from, what education have I enjoyed and on whose shoulders have my privileges manifested themselves? If I have more than many others, the question inevitably arises: who paid for it? What we often forget: People do not migrate and flee voluntarily. Who wants to leave their home country?

Another bridge builder is the ability to listen. Taking a step back and allowing the stories of the people around you to take effect, giving them a stage. This requires greatness at a time when we often assume that the loudest and strongest will win.

Do you have any tips on where people can find out more about the topic?

We have a treasure trove of information sources in Germany: our citizens who live here. There is hardly a city that is not characterized by migrants. So, the very best source of information to build bridges are neighbors and people around me. As a highly privileged person, I don’t have to travel to dozens of countries every year, but I can talk to people here locally.

I understand that many people feel overwhelmed by this topic. But it’s okay to get help, sign up for training or get coaching. The German Dream initiative, People of Deutschland or 2hearts are great starting points – the main thing is that we get into action and change the structures sustainably.

Why are you committed to MoreDiversity?

Europe is at a crossroads in history where it can go in two directions. Either the right wing is on the rise and the opportunity of migration is not recognized. Or: We understand the unique opportunity and potential of migration at different levels.

Migration will increase in the coming years due to our practices and policies of the past decades.

It is a blessing for immigrants if we welcome and integrate them with dignity. For companies, it is a unique opportunity to build diverse teams and redefine competition. And for MoreDiversity, it is an important moment to give leaders visibility, unite and create role models. I personally have always missed that.

So, we can close the doors, or help on the ground and integrate people who want and need to come into our labor markets and our society. Redefine our society, redefine borders, see the borderless: What is a nation? What is France, what is Germany? Little more than a construct of borders.

More Diversity can help shape an opportunity-oriented new future. Not naively, but with the will to hold the necessary debates. It will be worth it.

Support us by sharing our content!