Working for workplace religious diversity, equity & inclusion


Baku 2016 – Global Forum

Business can help ease global religious tensions, UN Global Forum

At the April 25, 2016 United Nations Forum in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, senior business and UN officials stressed the important role the private business sector plays in creating inclusive communities, underscoring that companies cannot operate successfully in societies that fail.

The Symposium convened more than 200 top leaders from business, media and civil society, including (pictured, L-to-R) Rufat Mammadov, President-Azpromo; Scherto Gill, Secretary General-Guerrand Hermes Foundation; Bill McAndrews, Vice President-BMW Group; Stefan Grobe, Euronews Washington Correspondent; Sebastien Crozier, CEO-Orange Horizons; Jean-Christophe Bas, CEO-The Global Compass; Holger Heims, CEO-Falcon Equity Group; and Silvere Delaunay, Vice President-Airbus.

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser (pictured), head of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), a body tasked with promoting harmony among nations, was among the main speakers at a Business Symposium ahead of the official kick-off of the 7th Global Forum.

Addressing business leaders, Mr. Al-Nasser spotlighted the role of the private business sector in dealing with, among others, interfaith issues, the refugee crisis, and the link between corporate diversity and business sustainability.

“The private-sector contributions to interfaith understanding and peace can help unravel many political and economic tensions,” he said, emphasizing the urgent need to raise the universal level of understanding and partnership amid the growing political and economic dissonance.


Brian Grim, President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, led a roundtable on “Private sector contributions to interfaith understanding and peace,” co-chaired by Ms. Sudaba Zeynalova, Chief Adviser to Azerbaijan’s President. Roundtable participants identified five key ways – summarized by the acronym EEEEV – in which businesses can be a powerful support in building interfaith understanding and peace, and thus help unravel many of today’s political and economic tensions.


Radicalization feeds on unemployment and economic despair. Businesses have an antidote – meaningful employment and entrepreneurial challenges.

The 9/11 al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre twin towers – soaring symbols of development and progress – was not a random choice. In 2004, Osama bin Laden said in a taped speech, “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars [spent by the US], including the “loss of a huge number of jobs”. And now, as the international community responds to ISIS’s brutal conquest of large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, it is important to remember its socio-economic context. The Iraqi public’s chief concern in the years leading up to the ISIS offensive was unemployment, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2012. Indeed, the lack of jobs arguably softened the ground for ISIS’ sudden advance. Although a poor economy does not cause violent extremism, it can contribute to the conditions that terrorists can exploit. So, if violent extremists provoke and take advantage of a bad economy to sow seeds of religious discord and violence, could peacemakers use good businesses to stimulate economic growth and foster interfaith understanding and peace? The presence of so many business leaders from major corporations at this Summit shows the answer is definitely “yes”.


Because businesses are at the crossroads of culture, commerce and creativity, their daily workings are a dynamic example of intercultural and interfaith cooperation, making the world more peaceful as people work.

Take, for example, luxury carmaker BMW. For them intercultural understanding is more than just a nice sentiment, it’s “an essential part of our daily work,” says Bill McAndrews, the company’s Vice President for Communications. Indeed, since 1997, BMW has been actively promoting cooperative dialogue between different cultures. One reason for BMW’s emphasis on cross-cultural dialogue and cooperation is the nature of its business. The carmaker may famously be headquartered in Germany, but its business is truly global, with 28 production and assembly facilities in 13 countries and a sales network in more than 140 nations. The importance of intercultural understanding has led BMW to help found the Intercultural Innovation Award. Created in partnership with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), the award provides financial and other support each year for ten nonprofit organizations that are promoting intercultural dialogue and cooperation around the world. McAndrews says that the award enables BMW “to highlight some of the wonderful cross-cultural work being done worldwide.” The BMW Group’s commitment to the awardees extends beyond financial support and includes other resources, such as helping winning organizations become part of a global network of organizations working for intercultural and interfaith understanding. McAndrews emphasizes that “this can make the crucial difference in turning an idea into a practice that enriches peoples’ lives.”

One example of the impact is that the BMW award inspired the inaugural Global Business & Interfaith Peace Awards to be launched at this summer’s Paralympics in Rio, and then carried forward in conjunction with subsequent Winter and Summer Olympics/Paralympics.


As people work together for a common end in a business setting, the differences they may have entered the door with become secondary to working together to produce a product or service. One of the roundtable participants told a story of how two employees – one Jewish and the other Muslim – came to loggerheads over their differing political and world views, so much to the point that they were failing at their work. However, when management stepped in and let them know that they were both valued employees and respected both, that led to a mending of the ways. The result was that they became not only supportive colleagues but also successful teammates. Certainly there is some truth to Voltaire’s observation:

“Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There [Jews, Muslims and Christians] deal with one another as if they were of the same religion….”


Businesses are masters of education, not only in technical skills but also in the interpersonal and social skills needed to make working toward a common goal a success. This rich storehouse of knowledge and knowhow can be repurposed as an aid in overcoming intercultural and interfaith differences.

At the same time, businesses often lack comfort and the knowledge necessary to navigate religious issues in the workplace and society. Therefore, there is a growing potential for civil society to be a partner with business in navigating such challenges. One example is the Corporate Pledge in Support of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) — which supports religious diversity and freedom in the workplace. The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation developed this as a resource for companies to send two clear messages to current and prospective employees: (1) You can work here without changing who you are; and (2) the company respects all employees and will not favor certain employees over others … and that’s good for the business of all.


Some businesses, by their very nature, directly engage in building intercultural and interfaith understanding. Shinework’s CEO Jonathan Shen heads a company that has brought intercultural understanding to one billion people by bringing world cinema to the Chinese audience. The Middle East and Justice Development Initiative (MEJDI Tours ), is bringing Jews and Arabs together through the promotion of tourism. MEJDI runs the ‘Dual Narrative’ tour, which is led by Israeli and Palestinian guides who each offer their own perspectives on culture, politics and religion at each tour location. Some news businesses cover religion in ways that bring understanding and insight, not just sensational headlines. For instance, the Religion News Service aims to be the largest single source of news about religion, spirituality and ideas. We strive to inform, illuminate and inspire public discourse on matters relating to belief and convictions. And finally, some companies make religious ethics part of their operating philosophy. For instance, Mexico’s largest bread company, the Bimbo Group, roots their company’s mission to provide bread in Catholic Social Teaching. Mr. Roberto Servitje Sendra, the company’s founder, states:

“Frequently I was asked to which principal causes I attributed the growth of the Group. The answer involves different aspects: service to the client, constant reinvestment, accessible prices, uniform quality, austerity, new technologies and hard work (…) but, invariably, I put ahead the factor that I consider is the fundamental one: our business philosophy with a strong social content, or said in other way, our unchangeable intention to make “an enterprise with soul.”


Based on the summary by Jean-Christophe Bas, CEO , The Global Compass, who was instrumental in organizing the Business Symposium.

(a) It is important to recognize that the private sector business can play a powerful role in building peaceful and inclusive societies. 

In today’s world, governments alone cannot accomplish this. While governments have important power to set rules and lead in some important aspects of society, in today’s world, they are in ways becoming a secondary force. This is especially true in the age of 24-hour breaking news cycles, where massive cultural changes are occurring, including the “fourth industrial revolution” where artificial intelligence, data automation and social media alter how societies function and people interact. Business, the place where a majority of people today spend their most focused hours most days, can play a major role because inclusiveness depends on the willingness of people and business can set the example. 

(b) The participation and comments of CEOs and senior leadership of multinational corporations participating in the Symposium shows that their companies recognize the role they play in building peaceful and inclusive societies. 

There is less recognition of this role in small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Large multinationals need to see their role in helping SMEs also maximize their role in building peaceful and inclusive societies.

(3) There is a treasure house of innovation and creativity in the private business sector that far surpasses that of governments in building peaceful and inclusive societies.

Today’s great social, technological and economic innovations are coming from the private business sector. The days when innovation came government agencies in specialized areas such as space are now even being privatized. Whether or not one sees the flood of changes as progress, it is clear that businesses are at the forefront of almost every socially impactful innovation ranging from the social networking revolution to amazing advances in medicine to the emergence of new social values, such as non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. 

(c) Building peaceful and inclusive societies used to be the domain of government ministries of culture or religion, but today, it’s being recognized the private business sector has more power to do this than a government ministry.

Recognizing this, speaking at a summit of world financial leaders, the head of the World Bank recently said that envisioning social innovation, inclusion and sustainable development is actually economic strategy. This is particularly notable because the usual discourse coming from such economic summits is laden with such things as interest rates and trade figures, not social innovation to build peaceful, sustainable, inclusive societies. “The end of extreme poverty is in reach,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim stated, but to achieve this ambitious goal would require greater collaboration between governments, the private sector, and multilateral development bank partners.

(d) A growing number of corporations now recognize their role in fostering inclusion and diversity.

This recognition follows that they have embraced the responsibility to lift people from poverty through jobs in ways that also protect the environment for future generations. Policy makers are also taking steps to promote this notion by tying foreign development investment to promotion of pluralism and diversity, as is being pursued by Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s administration. 

(e) The task ahead is to scale up what is now a proven case. 

This is another step along the path of showing that the private sector business can play a powerful role in building peaceful and inclusive societies. 

The Business Symposium also highlighted private sector contributions to inclusive societies and advanced the following objectives:

  • Raised awareness of the business case for private sector action;
  • Showcased good practices to demonstrate how the private sector can help foster social cohesion;
  • Served as a platform for business leaders to exchange innovative experiences and corporate initiatives to promote inclusive societies and combat radicalization, thereby addressing issues such as the refugee crisis;
  • Mobilized business action to support interfaith understanding and peace; and
  • Supported the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG16, which states the need to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development”, SDG8 on decent work and SDG10 on inequality; therefore elevating diversity and inclusion as a corporate sustainability issue of strategic business importance.


The Symposium convened more than 200 top leaders from business, media and civil society, including:

  • H.E. Shahin Mustafayev, Minister of Economy, Republic of Azerbaijan
  • H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations
  • H.E. Ms. Ursula Wynhoven, Chief Legal Officer/Chief, Governance & Social Sustainability, UN Global Compact
  • Dr. Stefan Grobe, Euronews Washington Correspondent
  • Bill McAndrews, Vice President, BMW Group
  • Sebastien Crozier, Senior Vice President, Orange and CEO, Orange Horizons
  • Holger Heims, CEO, Falcon Equity Group
  • Silvere Delaunay, Vice President Eurasia, Airbus Group International
  • Scherto Gill, Secretary General, Guerrand-Hermes Foundation for Peace
  • Vanessa Celano Tarantini, Partnerships and Engagement, Global Compact Network Brazil
  • Rustam Almammadov, Embawood
  • Holger Heims, Board member Educom
  • Brian Grim, President, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
  • Sudaba Zeynalova, Chief adviser from the Administration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan
  • Samir Gasimov, Akkord Industry Construction Investment
  • Denis Lemarchal, Managing Director & Chief Representative, TOTAL Azerbaijan
  • Iakounin Vladimir, former CEO of Russian Railways, chairman World Public Forum
  • Philippe Cayla, Chairman of Euronews Development
  • Jonathan Shen, CEO, Shinework, Beijing
  • Omar Qureshi, Managing Director, Owner, Entertainment Pvt. Limited, Mumbai
  • Jean-Christophe Bas, CEO, The Global Compass