SE100 awards: Keynote speech by Atif Choudhury, CEO of Diversity and Ability and co-founder of Zaytoun CIC

Diversity can be a social change superpower: olive oil entrepreneur Atif Choudhury

Diversity of thought “deeply changes the world” – but we will miss out on innovations if we don't make it our business to listen out for those with different life experiences, says Atif Choudhury, founder of Zaytoun and of Diversity and Ability. Catch up on the social entrepreneur's SE100 keynote speech, as he makes a powerful case for embracing diversity.

Why does diversity matter? For Atif Choudhury, the answer is obvious. 

“I would strongly argue that diversity of thought is a key to social innovation, and maybe one of the things that deeply changes the world. And perhaps it’s the only thing that ever really does,” he said.

Choudhury is the founder of Zaytoun, the world's first fair trade olive oil company, and of Diversity and Ability, a social enterprise supporting “individuals, organisations and social justice projects to create inclusive cultures where diversity is valued and people can thrive”. 

In his keynote speech at last month’s NatWest SE100 Awards, the social entrepreneur praised the finalists and winners for “recognising where the power is and where the voice of people who need support can be… heard”. The real test now, he added, was ensuring their organisations had “staying power”. That meant convincing people in more comfortable situations of “how urgent your work is, and how desperately needed it is”. 

The lack of social capital that we faced as founders was the very thing that made it work

Innovations sometimes occurred because of, not despite, people’s lived experiences, Choudhury said, “however marginalising they may feel at times”. At Zaytoun, for instance, “the lack of social capital that we faced as founders was the very thing that made it work”. 

Numerous tales from history suggest that experience is not unique.  

Thomas Edison, for example – “a diabetic, deaf man with dyslexia, who didn’t like spending much time with people” – put in the many hours to invent the lightbulb. 

“Maybe because he didn’t find it easy to be with people, that may have given him the time and space and concentration to do something that simply wasn’t easy to make work,” said Choudhury. “Nevertheless, it did work and it changed the world.”

We will miss talent and strength, unless we make it our business not to get excited when it’s famous – but to look for it when it’s quiet

The anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman, inventor Alan Turing, boxer Muhammad Ali and climate activist Greta Thunberg – all influenced the course of history in part thanks what made them ‘different’.

Often the most innovative thinkers remain under the radar, however.

“People are erased all the time, and we will miss talent and strength and the diversity of thought and the differences, unless we make it our business not to get excited when it’s famous – but to look for it when it’s quiet, when it's not famous,” said Choudhury.

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