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Mind-changing and actionable: Embracing Inclusion – Driving Innovation Event at SAPPHIRE NOW/SAP TechEd Madrid

Flying back from SAP TechEd Madrid, my thoughts are with the dear friends, good mates, and great collaborators I was lucky to meet during the event. As I reflect my experiences and takeaways, my mind still reverberates strongly with the Inclusion event and particularly the panel discussion, which was a profoundly mind-changing experience. I’ll share why.

Panel discussion

Marilyn Pratt was so kind to invite me to join the panel discussion of the “Embracing Inclusion – Driving Innovation (EIDI)” event. (This discussion was actually only the first part of the event, followed by a wonderful Design Thinking workshop conducted by Heike van Geel. The workshop was also important to me but I’ll write about it separately.) The discussion was moderated by Patti Fletcher, an accomplished expert on the topic of women in technology. As a bit of context, I should add that in September, I attended the inclusion event in Las Vegas and felt strongly alienated by the panel discussion there, and I believe that it was because of my post-event criticism (much in line with Matthias Steiner’s articulate and thoughtful blog about the Las Vegas event) that Marilyn gave me a chance to be a contributor at the Madrid event.

Fig. 1: Patti Fletcher, Raquel Cunha, Thorsten Franz, Claudia Brack, Kerstin Geiger (photo credits: Roel van den Berge a.k.a. @roelvdberge)

The panel discussion on inclusion was the first part of the event and was conducted in a very participatory fashion, with lots of contributions from the audience. It was my first time on a panel and as the only guy in a panel about women in technology, I was slightly out of my comfort zone, but as soon as it started, it felt really good and getting better all the time. The other participants, the moderator, and the audience were thoughtful and humble and had interesting thoughts and experiences to share. The discussion was actually leading somewhere and produced good results and insights.

Naturally, the topic of “women in technology” was at the center of the discussion. Why are women so underrepresented in the industry and even more so in leadership positions? What goes wrong that keeps so many talented women from being in places where they can contribute to the successes of our projects and companies?

Wider scope

The discussion started with each participant introducing themselves, and although “women in technology” was a natural focus point in the discussion, thankfully we discussed inclusion in a wider sense, and touched on the value of diversity and how we need to break the false assumption that there is only one way to be good, or that different equals worse (I explained that with an example from modern evolutionary theory, where the notion of one contemporary species being less evolved than another one has been abandoned). The discussion also touched on cultural and ethnic diversity and the value of having people with a variety of educational backgrounds and personality types contribute.

Spare your kids the brainwashing

What can everybody do to improve the situation? Looking at the impressive biographies of the other panel members, it became clear that if only the tiniest fraction of university students in a technical field is female, the exclusion of all the others (those who never made it into that lecture hall) is already effective at a very early point in life, apparently childhood and youth. So it’s primarily up to the families to exert a positive influence and send their children a powerful message: “You can do it. You can be it. Anybody who says otherwise is wrong.” That’s a very important thing to learn and I make sure both of my children, a girl and a boy, get it. (Teachers are also a very important influence and you better believe that I will eye my kids’ teachers closely. Just saying.)

Mentor others

Something else we can do is to mentor others. Some of the women who were present explained how much of their success they owe to the encouragement and support of mentors who spotted their talents and helped them get a chance to prove themselves. Imagine how close these women, who are talented leaders or experts and contribute greatly to the success of their organizations, came to not having a seat of the table. What a shame if that talent had gone to waste. By mentoring others, we can help them live up to their potential. Even if we had no morale, we should do it to make these valuable talent resources available to us.

If we can make even a small contribution to peeling away the layers of discouragement and intimidation that keep an excluded person’s light from shining brightly, that’s a great achievement and a very worthwhile thing to do.

Look for the inner light in people even if it’s not obvious

This analogy also helps to explain how I have learned to look at people differently. I understand now that in many people, there is an inner flame of talent and passion that shines much more brightly than is visible from the outside, because only a fraction of the light can shine through the layers of discouragements and intimidations that are formed when a person is told: “You can’t do that. You can’t be that. You’re not good enough.” It’s trivial that often, there’s more to a person than meets the eye – but coming away from the event, I understand the reasons and mechanisms a little better and I transform that into action by looking twice, thinking a little more, withholding my judgment a little longer, giving a little more room to people and encouraging them a little more. If done consistently, this is mentoring and it can make a world of a difference.

Fig. 2: Busy workshop participants around midnight (photo credits: Christian Braukmüller a.k.a. @CBasis)

* Bonus track: Hardcore Remix, or: A very clear afterword

After what would have been a perfect upbeat conclusion, I have decided to add, for those who appreciate a clear word, another paragraph in which I put my conclusions in a rather drastic way, even if I risk to  appear like a nutcase: It’s the rule of force at work. Some  groups are on top (often but not always  the majority groups) and hold on to their privileges by brainwashing the  rest  into feeling small, incompetent, and worthless. All parties act mostly  unconsciously and the behaviour is in many cases handed down from  generation to generation via cultural tradition. As a result of the  process, many people look  small and incompetent and feel worthless, and society doesn’t benefit  from their beautiful talents. There is a huge potential that could be  freed by removing some of this crippling brainwashing, or doing a little  less of it in the future.

And just to be clear about another  thing, this is not just about women, but it appears to me to be a  universal pattern of discrimination that can be used against any  arbitary group (such as red-haired, gifted, elderly, gay, ethnic groups, etc.).

Creating  a culture of inclusion requires us to develop a keen awareness of these  mechanisms and the willingness to stop doing it, to stop others from doing it, and to start cleaning up the damage that has  already been done.

Further reading

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  • These topics have been on my mind since I saw the tweets from last week's events.

    I look back on my childhood and think of my father, who wouldn't accept my lame excuses of "I can't do this Algebra".  I was very lucky to have such supportive and encouraging parents.

    I like the themes of role models and mentors.  I don't have any answers for the question "why aren't there more women in technology"

    Personal question for you Thorsten: what will you do to encourage your daughter and son to seek beyond the boundaries? 

    I look forward to hearing more about the workshop.


    • Hi Tammy, hi everybody,
      I am not a girl, but what worked for me was that parents never let me compare myself with others, rather compared me with myself. So instead of being lazy if others are, I was always asked to improve my previous results and so become "better".
      Cheers Otto
      p.s.: blog is nice, I fund it funny how we reference each other all the time:))
    • Tammy,
      I'm glad you replied, because I think you set an excellent example of how it can and should be done. Firstly, obviously you're one of those who made it, and can point at the success story of how your parents were supportive and you were able to thrive in highly demanding academic and professional environments. Secondly and more importantly, in your work with ASUG and the SAP Mentors (and probably in other settings, too), you are a true mentor. You're constantly encouraging others and giving them opportunities to make contributions and grow. You're so modest and work so hard to let others shine.
      At the last two US ASUG/SAP TechEd conferences, I had the chance to shine as a speaker - because of your encouragement and because you and other ASUG volunteers were working quietly behind the scenes, reviewing tons of material, building an agenda, and organizing a thousand things to make it happen. Also, I will never forget how surprised and happy I was when, after doing an ASUG webinar by your invitation, you sent me and my boss a real paper, air-mailed thank-you letter in recognition of my contribution. Things like this are an encouragement not only to go on and keep doing the needful, but also to do the same and use the same methods to encourage others. So your mentoring turns others from non-contributors into contributors, and then from contributors into mentors, thus setting off a slow but powerful chain reaction.
      To answer your personal question, "what will you do to encourage your daughter and son to seek beyond the boundaries?"
      I talk to them a lot. Like me, they're both verbal, concept-oriented persons who seek explanations and grasp ideas easily, so I can already now teach them (mostly my five-year old daughter until know - my two-year old son will get to the point) a lot about group dynamics, how mobbing works, and why going to kindergarten is not always fun but how to stand your ground. I guess that makes me a kind of life coach, and I intend to fill that role as good as I can.
      We often discuss and reflect upon their days - and whenever they receive any dubious messaging aimed against their sense of fairness, or self-worth, or potential, or anything else that makes them feel bad, I try to understand not only that that message was wrong, but more importantly, where it came from. What made that kid tell you that they know karate and you don't? Why didn't they let you play along in the ball game? It also works reversely: When they're cruel or exclusive to others, I try to help them see why that happens, the group dynamics and how everybody contributes to that.
      Bottom line: raise aweareness. They're only small kids, but this works really well.
  • Hi,
    What a beautiful and thoughtful blog!
    It could not have been written in a deeper fashion than this.Deep,revolutionary thoughts.
    I strongly believe,character building starts at school level and teachers should be realized their importance.
    Now going to the embracing inclusion part!(culture,women,everything else) I am wondering ,were these thoughts provoked within you only after attending the workshop or was there in your mind already and were subdued? All of us work with different people and know the challenges faced!
    The blog also raised the expectations from Mentors!
    P.S : I am glad you did not take the suggestion I gave for this blog in my tweet!!!!@singhkumud
    • Kumud,
      Thank you so very much for your kind words. Made my day! To answer your questions whether my thoughts were provoked by the event, the answer is definitely yes. Naturally, I had known many of the facts before. Before the panel started, I had a long preparatory meeting with Patti, during which she shared with me some impressions of what it was like to be a women in technology. That was one key piece of input.
      During the panel, I was sitting next to these very strong and talented women and had to learn that they felt they, and others they knew, could not have made it without the help of a mentor. This touched me because in a world where people like these can't make it on their own, there is evidently something deeply, deeply wrong. That was the second key piece of input.
      What distinguished these key pieces of input from the facts I had previously known was that they were not abstract anymore, but had a human face attached to them. Learning theory says that emotional involvement is key to successful learning - well, that's what happened to me during the event. The ugly truth of many, many people, and obviously not just women, being systematically (read: in a fashion immanent to the system) excluded got to me and hit me hard. It raised my awareness and started a chain of thought, the intermediate result of which you read in this blog and my comments. 🙂
      Everyone is many things, and part of many groups, and so I expect that most people experience some kind of discrimination for whatever little features they happen to have that are penalized with negative discrimination. For example, one of the many things I am is left-handed, which was, oddly enough, enough to get me a light version of the "you're not okay" special treatment in early childhood. Other categories I belong to gave me other versions of that treatment during other periods of my life. The impressions from the evening of the event helped me put two and two together and see how ubiquitous this is, how wide and far the effects go, and what a grave obstacle for economic success this represents.
      To pick up on your last comment, "The blog also raised the expectations from Mentors!", I agree completely. These were my thoughts exactly even as the panel discussion was still going on: This has deepened my understanding of what it means to be a mentor, and this will also impact the way I perform as an SAP Mentor. I'm quite sure all the other SAP Mentors and others mentors who were present would agree.
      Again, thanks for your kind feedback - means a lot to me.
  • ...better than I could ever have done. So thanks for writing this up. I totally agree with your impressions, observations, thoughts and conclusions.
    It was a wonderful experience going far beyond the ordinary SAPTechEd technical workshop, and as such proved a very good addition to the whole SAPTechEd schedule. I'm very glad I attended, and I went away with a lot of new (or revived) insights, even if there were no ultimate answers given (which was not possible anyway imo).
    Looking forward to your impression on the Design Thinking workshop!

    Cheers, Fred

  • I attended EIDI in Las Vegas. As Fred explained, it was a wonderful experience going far beyond the "ordinary" SAPTechEd technical workshop. I enclosed ordinary in quotes; yes, the sessions are ordinary compared to what I gathered/gained in 4-6 hours during eidi. If I really care learning SAPTechEd sessions, they are available now to me virtually;anytime, anywhere. But EIDI: it was available only on a specific day, specific time and specific location. Thank you once again Marilyn, Heike and SAP for sponsoring events of this kind. I'll attend the events of this kind any day.

    I've a different perspective than you Thorsten. After attending eidi, I was more confused than before attending the event. I would say I was probably naive before attending/reading eidi/blogs covering the event. I learned something new-definitely- during eidi but not enough to solve or make any conclusions.

    In addition, as you said, the discrimination is not just about women; whatever we learn using WIT case study could probably be applied to any arbitrary group. If this was the case, don't you think it was scope creep discussing inclusion in a wider sense? We had a very limited time of few hours to discuss; why not use that time focusing on a small group(WIT for example) than discussing discrimination in a wider sense.

    Best regards,

  • I agree with Fred, Thorsten.  You nailed it.  When Karin, Tammy, Mico, Anne Hardy and others wished to drive an event at the TechEds that would highlight the challenges of Women in Technology (WIT) I strongly recommended creating a wider "Inclusion" event and they (the folks that sparked this) graciously agreed. Our moderator and one of the organizers of the event, Dr.(leaves her title at the door ;-)) Patti Fletcher, coached me about the use of the word inclusion rather than diversity and explained that diversity was sometimes used as a check-box item in HR - even sometimes a quota-based concept that might have some pejorative connotations and she urged me to think of the word inclusion when I spoke of broadening the scope, topic and most importantly the target audience (namely everyone!).  I thought about age discrimination, racial/cultural prejudices, as well as gender biases. These have always been themes that catalyze the advocate in me and were the themes that I wished to address in the context of the SAP Community Network (from inception).  I wished to find a way to prove that inclusion IS a business imperative; that an inclusive development fostered and promoted and advanced the goals of very innovative collaboration and product creation.  This thesis was embraced by Heike van Geel who does much internal training around Design Thinking.  We connected and the name of the event: Embracing Inclusion - Driving Innovation (with Design Thinking) was her brainchild.  Anne gave us the needed support and exposure from an SAP executive perspective and "marketed" the concept with the CTO (who strongly supported us).  Vijay Vijayasankar, Karin T. and Mico helped us promote this to Sanjay Poonen who threw his considerable clout behind us and thus the evening series of events internationally was born.
    But I suppose there was also something going on in my head and heart that I had witnessed many years ago when my daughter was in Kindergarten and I got a huge lesson from the teachers, faculty and my local school community about what it feels like to be made invisible from an early age and dissuaded from being participatory.
    I feel a blog coming on.
    Thanks for your wonderful participation, brilliant analysis, thoughtful comments and incredibly generous support.  I hope we begin to see Design Thinking, Inclusiveness, and Challenging the "norms" as a way that we drive our businesses to be more productive, lucrative and ethical.  I am inspired to think there is a core group of great minds that are going to harness their considerable talents to that end.
    • Marilyn/Thorsten,

      Thorsten's blog and subsequent discussions is going to help me understand this complex topic better. No doubt Thorsten wrote a thought-provoking blog. One of his questions in the comment section is: "Will being more inclusive actually drive innovation?". Do we know the answer to this question?

      IMO there are at least 3 components to "Embracing Inclusion - Driving Innovation":

          1) People should become broad-minded.
          2) We need to empower people who need to be empowered.
          3) This is more critical component: What are the benefits of doing (1) and (2)? Why should we spend time promoting (1) and (2)? In other words, as Thorsten asked, " Will being more inclusive drive innovation?". Additional question: Are there other benefits by being more inclusive? Should Design Thinking try to answer this question and how to overcome psychological and other barriers in implementing (1) and (2)?

      Thorsten has explained how to tackle (1) and (2).

      Am I missing something? Is answering "Will being more inclusive drive innovation?" less critical than (1) and (2)?.

      In addition, please explain the objectives/goals of using Design Thinking. I know we used "Design Thinking" in Las Vegas because "we didn't know what we didn't know". I'm sorry but I took this to mean "We didn't know anything about EIDI". It seems I'm wrong. Can you please explain "What specifically we tried to answer using Design Thinking?"?

      Thanks and best regards,

    • Marilyn/Thorsten,

      Thorsten's blog and subsequent discussions is going to help me understand this complex topic better. No doubt Thorsten wrote a thought-provoking blog. One of his questions in the comment section is: "Will being more inclusive actually drive innovation?". Do we know the answer to this question?

      IMO there are at least 3 components to "Embracing Inclusion - Driving Innovation":

          1) People should become broad-minded.
          2) We need to empower people who need to be empowered.
          3) This is more critical component: What are the benefits of doing (1) and (2)? Why should we spend time promoting (1) and (2)? In other words, as Thorsten asked, " Will being more inclusive drive innovation?". Additional question: Are there other benefits by being more inclusive? Should Design Thinking try to answer this question and how to overcome psychological and other barriers in implementing (1) and (2)?

      Thorsten has explained how to tackle (1) and (2).

      Am I missing something? Is answering "Will being more inclusive drive innovation?" less critical than (1) and (2)?.

      In addition, please explain the objectives/goals of using Design Thinking. I know we used "Design Thinking" in Las Vegas because "we didn't know what we didn't know". I'm sorry but I took this to mean "We didn't know anything about EIDI". It seems I'm wrong. Can you please explain "What specifically we tried to answer using Design Thinking?"?

      Thanks and best regards,

      • Bala,
        Thank you for your thoughtful comments and questions. 🙂 I began to answer them in a blog comment here, but it got longer and longer, and eventually I ended up posting it as a blog in its own right: Will Being More Inclusive Drive Innovation?.
        I probably know just as much about Design Thinking as you do - whatever you can pick up from one workshop and a few discussions -, so please don't expect too much. This is just a newbie's perspective. However, I tried to find answers to your questions (or document my lack thereof) to the best of my capacity.
        • Thorsten,

          Thank you very much. I played a devil's advocate role asking for the benefits of inclusion; however I didn't mention that. I'm glad to know my thoughts/questions were not misunderstood.

          I read all your responses to other comments. After reading your response to Kumud, I said to myself: WOW! I'm learning a lot from your blog and comments Thorsten.

          I'll read your new blog and I'm sure I'll learn something new. I'll let you know.

          Thanks once again,

    • Marilyn,
      I thank you and your collaborators for this event because I learned so much from it. Mine and many similar voices confirm that your long-hedged "evil plan," this wonderful project, is a huge success. It works, you have actually impacted people's minds and hearts with this form, and made a difference. You could even say with some justification, that it works at scale (fulfilling the second Snabe criterion for true innovation), because the form is repeatable. Hey! What more can anyone (!) hope for?
      So here's a huge thank you for raising my awareness, and giving me a chance to contribute to an event that did this to others as well, and please: count me in on any future project along these lines. Will gladly join at any stage from brainstorming to execution.
  • Hi Thorsten,

    Thanks for the excellent blog and report on the embracing inclusion event. Sorry that I wasn't there. I'm afraid that, although I had heard different stories about this session, the name-tag on the agenda and tables saying "Women in technology" changed my perception on what the event's topic would be like.

    Most of the times, bonus tracks are just a marketing gimmick, but when it is included by the author, bonus tracks have a special mostly provocative meaning. As with many albums, the part I enjoyed most was your Bonus Track, containing your own thoughts and unsalted opinion on inclusion. Although I do like the provocation, I'm afraid that I do beg to differ a bit on the part where you are saying that it is mainly brainwashing and social forces at work. Although it may be a factor that does have its influence, I don't think it is the whole truth.

    Having lived in a country where these brainwashing or other social factors are more or less ruled out by the government of education, I have seen a bit of the flip-side. In Singapore, only school results determined in which direction the school would push you, not your personal or socially desirable interest. Women were not excluded in this matter, resulting in as many girls as boys being pushed in the direction of technology. Unfortunately, even though their marks indicated an affinity with technology, more boys than girls were excelling in their major. In these cases, I would blame it on social- or peer pressure to dislike technology, because society, peers and parents were all pushing to excel in order to establish a good future for themselves and their family.

    In technology, I do see a lot of women doing extremely well though, but when I see them excel, it is usually not on the hard-core topic such as turning and twisting bits, but more in the area were soft-skills need to be demonstrated such as change management, systems design and requirements gathering. Instead of trying to change that, I think it is best to just let everyone excel in what they are good at. Men and women are not made out of the same set of chromosomes and DNA-material and it should be okay to be different and excel in different topics or areas. It is a physical fact that women are better astronauts than men (, and that a 100% hetero-sexual population might even go extinct (

    While Marilyn mentioned that diversity might not be an ideal word, as it is used as a HR tick-box, I do really like the word for its meaning. But only it is mentioned in the same breath as words like "inclusion". In fact, I don't like the word inclusion so much. Instead, I would prefer to see the word "diversity" being used in the same breath as e.g. "recognize" or "value", maybe in combination with words like "unique" or even "individual".

    All people can bring their own unique values to the table. Complaining about how other people are different makes us weaker. But recognizing, utilizing and complementing each other's strengths and diversity makes us stronger.


  • Hi Thorsten,

    A great write-up on your part and great comments beneath it!

    When I attended the Embracing Inclusion - Driving Innovation event I had no idea what to expect other than to meet new faces. I got so much more from it!

    Your contributions to the panel were very valuable and Marilyn, Heike and Patti did a great job asking you for it. While in the panel you gave an example of how you raise your daughter with an open mind, not to let anyone tell her that she couldn't do anything she wanted. And to not exclude others because they look or are different (not sure if you mentioned this in the panel discussion or in a tweet from a while ago).

    In the workshop-part of the event we were asked to answer the question "how can we carry tonight's ideas into our daily lives?", a question we debated heavily on. It is impossible to come up with some kind of mechanism at the end of the event that says how to change the world by tomorrow. We cannot change the world by ourselves. But changing the world does start with ourselves.

    We all have people that are special to us. People who selflessly helped you, that inspire or mentor you. People who believe in you. These people make you a better person. Paying these people back is often impossible. But the least we can do is to tell them how much they mean to us and to help others like you were helped asking nothing in return (or like the movie Mark Yolton mentioned at Demojam: "Pay It Forward"). Imho it really is the key to a great community of any magnitude.

    With this I like to say to you Thorsten: Thank you for inspiring me! And I don't mean just this evening. This panel contribution reminded me of what is really important: teach your children well! Teach them to have an open mind, not to exclude anyone and that their future is as big as their imagination. I hope I do just that and I sure hope that they will pass it on to their children.

    Cheers, Roel

  • Hello Thorsten

    Great write-up. I was touched and inspired by the event as many were (if not everyone) who were present. As a father of two embracing inclusion lies close to my heart. I would like both of my children to have equal opportunities and I would like them to embrace inclusion as well. As you already know we had talked about some pointers before the event already and I could tell you have similar thoughts on the matter.

    Even I have to fight the resistance heavily from time to time, especially being faced by non-believers who claim I’m too young to achieve anything. As such I was happy to see the discussion went beyond women in technology because I believe there is a lot of work to do to make the world a better place. This event inspired many and if everyone pays it forward we can start making the world a better place.

    Even small changes matter.

    Kind regards


  • Hi - This is a really good Blog and a great write up. I wanted to attend the event but couldn't make it.

    I've always encouraged a culture of inclusion, if you only ever work with / speak to / network with very similar people to yourself you will have some very narrow minded views. Bringing in to a project meeting or a brain storming session someone from a different "group" with a different background can only help bring fresh ideas and new ways of thinking. This is both beneficial to the business leaders but will also inspire and motivate others to be innovative and step out of their comfort zones to come up with ideas.

    Great meeting you at TechEd, see you soon hopefully.

  • Hi Thorsten, I am so glad that you were sitting on this panel, and that you found it rewarding.  I like your points about how inclusiveness doesn’t just mean women, but people of all walks of life, red-haired or not. I hope as a parent I do spare my kids the brainwashing, and I also like to think I mentor others.  And having been welcomed to see your inner light, I feel that this is an exploration well worth the effort.
    Great job,
    PS: This is the third time I've tried to comment on this blog, so maybe third time is the charm?