Diversity and inclusion thought-leader Yahye Siyad has had an extraordinary life story so far, being born blind in Somalia, growing up in Bahrain, becoming a Paralympic athlete in the UK and starting his career in Dubai. Today, Yahye has spoken in 52 countries and is about to embark on a PhD in the subject. He is currently working as a consultant for accessible technology at CyberDuck.
He has recently published a book, Unshakable Will: part autobiography, part diversity and inclusion manual for the workplace and it is important to Yahye that proceeds from the book goes towards charities close to his heart.
Q: Why did you want to write this book?
“After a lot of encouragement from friends! I don’t like to promote myself but eventually I became convinced that my story is more than me.
“As someone who has been in the diversity and inclusion space for the last 12 years, I think it is important to bring the theoretical aspects of DEI into practice. Unfortunately, inclusion can be seen as somewhat abstract and highly theoretical – and because of this, it eludes a lot of people.
“By writing a book about my life story and sharing some practical advice for HR managers, I thought what a better way to highlight diversity and inclusion. It’s about engaging, right?
“To win the heart and mind of people, we need to bring stories to illustrate what day-to-day diversity and inclusion means.”
Q: How will it help DEI leaders?
A: “It is important for leaders to connect with their employees in terms of what D&I can look like. In my story, I speak about inclusive education, employment and sports. I hope my story will allow leaders to connect the dots and realise that no matter what space they are operating in, the challenges are always the same. It starts with people and ends with people.
“I have seen many, many times that no matter what the enterprise – from banking to media to digital agencies – that the diversity and inclusion issues are the same. People have the same needs, struggles, aspirations wherever they work.
“An organisation can have an amazing strategy which aligns with the visions of the organisation, but it is the practical implementation of this day in day out, which is sometimes a challenge. By sharing my story, it shows the day-to-day practicalities of what leaders are trying to plan and implement.”
Q: Which chapter is essential reading?
A: “The last one. I tried in that chapter to distil the essence of the book into 10 takeaways that individuals and leaders can use in their organisation.
“One of these takeaways is the dichotomy between authenticity and inclusion. I could not be inclusive in my thinking if I didn’t start from a point of authenticity. Today we have a lot of political correctness and this makes people less authentic. They feel ashamed of their values or background. People might think ‘If I feel that way, it will make me less inclusive and a bad person in the company’. We need to let that go.
“Before you become inclusive, you have to be authentic. We can always find a mutual ground to be inclusive if people start with authenticity.
“I struggled for many years with this. But now I have found peace about it. Just because I think differently, it doesn’t mean I am not inclusive. Sometimes people think inclusivity is thinking the same way. But it’s not.
“By imposing certain values on the world and believing in only one thing and using this as a benchmark for tolerance, we doing a huge disservice to humanity.
“People can be as diverse and different as possible and yet can be inclusive within their quiet realm of collaboration. It’s about respecting each other’s differences. We might have two set of values that appear contradictory but there is always a way to meet halfway.
“I have learnt that I need to stick to my values and be authentic but I can still be inclusive and collaborate with people who think differently from myself. Their values don’t have to mine and mine don’t have to be theirs. You have to navigate the messiness and complexity of difference to achieve collective inclusivity.”
Q: What feedback about the book have you had so far?
A: “It has been really heart-warming. I didn’t know how people would receive it because I spoke candidly in this book. I didn’t hold back from the good, the ugly, the reality but I think people have responded to that and I feel happy I wrote it.
“After reading the book, people tell me they have experienced what I have and can relate to what I’m going through – and not necessarily people who are blind.
“Inclusion isn’t necessarily just affecting people with disabilities or minorities or women. On a day-to-day basis, inclusion affects everyone no matter their background or experience. Exclusion can last an hour, a day, a month. I think everybody has a story about being excluded. It could be the first month of feeling awkward in a new job, as if you don’t fit in. Or trying to play sports when you are a beginner and people not encouraging you to play. Or when you were left out at school.
“When we realise that inclusion effects all of us, it is worth trying to think of what we can do day to day to put inclusivity into practical, discernible action – that’s what I want and I feel is missing these days.”
Q: What do you hope to achieve?
A: “To provide a spark of inspiration. That’s it in one sentence! I hope it touches people’s hearts in different ways to instigate thoughts and plan for change.
“A lot of us don’t realise our own resilience until it is tested. But we all have it in us. We need to test ourselves and we will surprise ourselves of what we are capable.
“Also, diversity and inclusion can be heavy topics and a heavy space. We need to see the light side of it and laugh about it. Humour is very important: it makes it easier for people to receive information.”
Q: Where will you donate the proceeds?
A: “I want to set up an education charity back home in Somalia where my story started. I’d like to provide an extra curriculum for kids who don’t have sufficient money for a regular education, and also to support those who are illiterate and feel too old to go to school.
“I want to have the charity named after my mum, to whom I dedicated the book. She provided me with an education and I would like to share that with others.”