Once rejected for a cleaning job, the co-founder of IT training agency Mission Ready Diana Sharma talks to Rahul Bhattarai about the struggles she faced as a qualified immigrant arriving in New Zealand and why she's on a mission to encourage diversity in the workforce.
It was the rejection as a cleaner at SkyCity Casino that Diana Sharma couldn't believe. Here she was with two degrees, a masters diploma and more than 10 years' experience in hospitality and working for multi-nationals including Powergen and Orange (Telecom), and she couldn't get a part-time cleaning job in her new country.
"The reality doesn't really hit you until you have submitted hundreds of CVs and received hundreds of rejections."
Before Sharma and her husband left India for New Zealand in 2009, friends already in Aotearoa warned the couple they would need to start at the bottom. Sharma hadn't realised quite how far down that was.
Undeterred by the SkyCity rejection, and on the advice of a friend, she went back to persuade them to give her a go. This time they took her on. Sharma describes her "tears of joy" that someone had given her a chance. Sure, she would be vacuuming the casino floor but here was an opportunity.
Sharma had arrived on a fulltime study visa, so was only allowed to work part-time. She and her husband had to cover their living expenses and repayment of a sizable loan to come to New Zealand.
"With a hefty loan to repay, and to cover our living expenses we had to start somewhere," Sharma says.
"It was the right start for me. I got to meet amazing people and to understand the New Zealand culture, and It was a nice and fun way of introducing myself to a completely new space."
She doesn't regret a moment of the time she spent cleaning the casino nor has she forgotten the lessons the experience taught her.
Eight months later she landed a job as a research assistant at Unitec, later becoming general manager of partnerships and alliances. It was there, during an eight-year stint, that she spotted both a gap and a need in the market.
"I was fortunate to see the opportunity that existed in tech, and how there was untapped potential in people, and we needed to match those two opportunities."
In late 2018 Sharma and Unitec colleague Alan Khan founded IT career development agency Mission Ready, specifically to increase diversity in the tech industry, and to bridge the gap between unemployment and labour shortages in certain industries.
Mission Ready offers a range of courses, from nine to 19 weeks, designed to fast-track people into careers such as a software developer, a UX designer or a tech entrepreneur. Mission Ready students have gone on to work at companies like 2degrees, Datacom and PwC.
"Our vision has been that we needed to remove barriers to success and one of our social missions is to bring in diversity and inclusion into tech."
But we're not there yet, Sharma says, pointing to a statistic published in the Herald in April - that Māori and Pasifika make up just 6.8 per cent of New Zealand's IT workforce. It's a sector that is booming, offering millions of jobs globally but is not attracting talent who can bring diversity to the industry, she says.
Sharma made it her "social mission" to change that. Mission Ready has partnered with Auckland Council to provide scholarships and financial aid to the Māori and Pasifika communities, and other scholarships for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"They don't need a handout, they need a hand-up. They need support to guide them into careers where they can support themselves as well as their families."
Inclusion is the key to diversity
But it is the concept of inclusion that Sharma most wants to talk about. It is an employers' responsibility to make sure everyone feels safe, safe enough to be different, to speak up when they have an opinion, to be asked their opinion and, above all, to feel included.
Inclusion is the extent to which various team members, employees, and other people feel a sense of belonging and value within a given organisational setting, she says.
"I think we look at it in the wrong order."
Inclusion first, equity next and then diversity, she says. "We need to stop categorising differences and start embracing people in their entirety."
Too often companies treat diversity as a "tick-boxing exercise", putting people into token positions based on the colour of their skin, or belatedly appointing women onto the board. Sharma calls that "window dressing". An organisation may think it has a diverse workforce but does not understand what that means, she says.
"We tend to focus on the differences and that is not the intent of diversity."
She wants to refocus that conversation to say "inclusion comes first".
Diversity is less about what makes people different because of their race or socio-economic status and more about understanding, accepting and valuing those differences, she says.
Sharma has a favourite saying: "Getting invited to the party is part of the diversity strategy. But inclusion is actually being asked to dance."
Who would want to be invited back to a party like that, she asks.
"That is why inclusion has to be the primary focus of an organisation if you want to attract, retain and grow your workforce."
Name: Diana Sharma
Job: Mission director of Mission Ready and Mission Impact Foundation.
First job: Casino Group of Hotels and Resorts - hospitality management trainee.
Worst job: Only lessons learned. No regrets.
Family: A husband who has stood by my side for over 15 years and a 2-year-old daughter who challenges me to be better.
CEO you admire: Sal Khan, founder of The Khan Academy. I admire his vision to provide free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere and build a world of good.