Founded in Bulgaria, Software Group has expanded across a number of countries including Australia, Egypt, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mexico, Philippines, and the US. This mix of nationalities and religions has created a culturally diverse company from day one.
Why does D&I matter for Software Group especially when present in different countries and cultures?
It is one of the factors impacting our success. First, we want our clients to be able to relate to us. Second, diversity and inclusion relate to our social mission. And third, creating a diverse and inclusive culture based on equality was the vision of our founders from the very start.
How does cultural diversity resonate with your clients?
We aim to be as close as possible to our clients, their cultures, and their understanding. We do that by employing people who they understand and relate to.
Many outsourcing companies offer local staff but what they do is they hire some expat to take control over the office which is something we have tried to avoid until this very day. All of Software Group’s regional offices are managed by local people or if not local, they have worked and lived there for a long time and have proven themselves to be right for the job.
What happens when companies assign an expat, not a local?
When an expat is assigned they become the single source of truth. Any information that comes from head office or management meetings is being cascaded down through this individual. This leaves an open door for potential abuse of power, such as individual appointments. A local person being elected among peers is better received and accepted for leadership locally.
What is your social mission as a company?
Our company has the core social mission to support financial inclusion in the underdeveloped regions of the world by facilitating the access to financial services through the solutions we provide. It is critical to have employees who understand the issues, so we can help the locals instead of telling them we know what they need to do. We work with a lot of organizations that stimulate the economic development in countries where 5-10 years ago lack of access to financial care, health care, and education was stagnating their lifting from poverty. That’s why we have a lot of high profile, successful projects but also a lot of strategic projects which have the primary purpose to support our social mission.
Before working in this company I didn’t know how much some of those regions are behind in certain financial areas, for example. They don’t have water, electricity, streets, and you have no option of developing this, so circumstances have forced them to be much more innovative in some regards. In Kenya, once you enter, they take your fingerprints and you don’t need a passport. Meanwhile, they do a lot of transactions between each other for a total of let’s say 50 cents per day. We are a technological advisor to our clients but as a counselor we need to understand them as best as possible to be effective. We need to understand their context.
What was the vision of your founders for the company’s culture?
The company was founded by people who have vast experience working as financial and technological advisers. We don’t believe people who do the same type of work and provide the same quality of work should be paid less simply because of the region they live in. Our founders are Kalin Radev, originally from Bulgaria, and Geraldine O’Keeffe, originally from Ireland. They have worked in Sub Saharan Africa for over 20 years and experienced everything the region has to offer. Geraldine still lives in Kenya. She has shared about her previous experience in companies where stereotypically women are not taken seriously.
She wanted to create a culture that doesn’t look down on women, and I believe in Software Group we have achieved this. We have several initiatives and policies that support or outright guarantee Diversity, Inclusion and Equality in the workplace. We have equal pay policies with included job salary brackets and we have no disproportion between male and female remunerations.
“We have several initiatives and policies that support or outright guarantee Diversity, Inclusion and Equality in the workplace. We have equal pay policies with included job salary brackets and we have no disproportion between male and female remunerations.”
How do you approach Diversity and Inclusion?
We introduced a lot of policies that promote and protect equality based on creed, religion, sexuality, race, gender, etc. They are strict and that makes them effective. We had to take into account that we work in very culturally different environments in all of our offices. So far we have managed to govern a lot of that through policy.
We also support a culture of tolerance and culture of celebrating each other’s success, promoting the best person for a specific job, appreciating one another and celebrating our differences. We have one dedicated person in HR who checks every region’s local celebrations and traditions and benchmarks salaries and benefits per location. We do our annual team buildings in a different region every time, so we can experience and appreciate each other’s culture.
We strongly support any type of volunteering for marginalized communities and people in need. We encourage employees to find a cause that they want to help. They are very active in that regard. When they find out about initiatives we never thought about or we’ve missed, they bring them forward to us. We do a lot of charity runs in Bulgaria. We construct housing in underdeveloped parts of Africa and India. Things like that bring us together. For example, I volunteer with Single Step, an organization that supports LGBTI youth, their families, friends, and allies in Bulgaria.
Recently, Single Step was part of a competition for NGOs based on public voting to win a grant for volunteering education. To support the initiative even further, I organized one of our Friday gatherings in Software Group in which colleagues are able to vote for it if they supported the initiative. People from the team supported me. Some people came to me and asked me why I was doing it. I gave them more context. They wanted to understand, even if they didn’t agree with it initially. Software Group supports an open environment where people can express their position and influence each other.
Can you give me an example of how different creeds and religions are accepting each other within Software Group?
Once we were having a teambuilding near Nairobi. Kenya is a very religious country. We were a mix of atheists, Muslims, Hindu, Christians, and others. As we were boarding the buses, one of our Kenyan colleagues, who is also a pastor, started going on the bus making a prayer for a safe trip. After she did that a lot of her colleagues of different creeds were interested in that and why she did it. They thought of it as something very generous and said on the next trip they’d like to do something like that as well. That made me realize we had created an environment that doesn’t suppress the opportunity to express yourself as an individual irrespectively of your background, culture, religion, etc.
Globally, we have 12 different religions, plus atheists and agnostics. These include 53% Orthodox, 12% Catholic, 17% Muslim, 10% Hindu, and 8% other. We adopt policies of cultural and religious tolerance, as well as observe each celebration within the company together.
What is the mindset that leads to this culture of belonging?
It comes from the founders and the fundamental understanding that at the end of the day the workplace is where we come to achieve a common goal, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an organization for profit or not. If you come in with that mindset when you start looking into expanding the company and bringing new people in, it broadens your horizons. You don’t think “I need thre developers, so my go-to contacts are specifically men or my go-to options are in Bulgaria”.
Instead, you can look for developers in the Czech Republic or Kenya, for example. One should go for outsourcing because of quality, not cost. That’s key.
How do you ensure this culture of inclusion when new people come in?
We have a well-structured three-month mentoring program for newcomers with “a senior buddy” that starts from day one. We encourage them to proceed beyond based on the relationship between the two.
First, the buddy is responsible to culturally acquaint the newcomer with how different offices operate. Globally, the first thing that our employees get challenged with is working with different cultures. For example, Kenyans haven’t worked with Bulgarians, or Philippine people haven’t worked with Ghanaians. A lot of them have worked in local companies. The buddies share their personal experience with the newcomer. We also encourage a lot of travel, so our employees can be close to our clients and can start to understand their context and culture. That’s not just for sales people or senior management; it’s for everyone. We want employees to be prepared when they land in Ghana, for example, and know how to communicate effectively without risking to insult anyone.
Second, the newcomer receives our internal employee handbook. It provides detailed information about our equal opportunities non-discriminatory policies. With the buddies they go through a few scenarios where something might not be acceptable or encouraged. We have a strict policy on harassment. We had experienced it in the past and we took very immediate drastic measures to change that. Working in different cultures where some abuse between men and women is perceived as natural and accepted is not something we tolerate.
Third, when it comes to training, we look at the requirements of the different departments on an annual basis. We examine skills, technologies, soft skills, as well as their interactions with different regions and departments to identify challenges. Based on that we pick the trainings for the following year. We do a lot of sensitivity trainings and best practices trainings for corporate environment which touch on appreciation in working with different people. The buddy program has a very clear objective and measures of success. Even before the beginning we have two separate information sessions for both the junior and senior person, to familiarize them with expectations, boundaries, do’s, don’ts – to ensure the smooth establishment of the relationship. At the end of the program we use surveys and metrics to determine how successful the process has been for the new hire and the buddy.
Last but not least, we work on unconscious bias. I don’t think it’s something you can completely eradicate regardless of whether it comes to bias based on background or agenda or personal feelings towards an individual or a project. We try to challenge perceptions and ways of understanding and approaching other people by creating teams of different regions, so they naturally become diverse teams. It is not disclosed as structure but working with different people on a daily basis breaks walls. It’s challenging at the start but that’s why we have experienced senior managers and HRs to direct and helpt. We require them to work in a challenging environment even in their comfort zone, internally in the company. Every project that we have for a client has a term – a start, delivery and end date. Once ended, the team is dissolved and it’s very likely that the people are now grouped on new teams with no one from their previous team. That also contributes to appreciating people from different departments.
Interviewed by Vessy Tasheva, Founder of Vessy.com
Story told by Konstantin Kunev, He/him, Head of Learning & Development, Software Group