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BMW Group Intercultural Innovation Award, Ten years of promoting diversity, tolerance, and inclusion

Diversity, tolerance, and inclusion have been at the center of what the BMW Group has been doing for decades. Ten years ago, the German giant decided to take its commitment to these values to a new level by collaborating with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) to promote intercultural understanding and strengthen civil societies—creating the Intercultural Innovation Award (IIA) to reflect what the BMW Group stands for!

Maqina Middle East was invited to the EXPO 2020 Dubai to attend the IIA’s festive award ceremony that took place at the German pavilion, coinciding with the “Tolerance and Inclusivity” themed week and the International Day of Tolerance.

Out of the 1,100 organizations from 120 countries that applied for this prestigious award, ten winners were selected this year from ten different countries to each receive US $20,000 in financial support.

Apart from receiving professional mentoring from BMW Group, UNAOC, and the consulting firm Accenture, the awardees from Brazil, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Switzerland will also become members of the Intercultural Leaders network—connecting professionals and specialists worldwide.

Since its inception, 71 organizations have received the Intercultural Innovation Award (IIA), reaching more than five million people worldwide with their projects. UNAOC and the BMW Group have recently agreed to continue their successful partnership into the future.

In an in-depth interview, Ms. Ilka Horstmeier, Member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Human Resources and Labour Relations Director, spoke about the partnership between the BMW Group and the UNAOC, women’s empowerment, and why Dubai was selected over other places for the ceremony this year.

1. Why have BMW adopted such initiatives?

BMW Group is an international company that operates in 140 countries. It has big production operations in more than 30 countries, and there are 110 different nationalities working at BMW. For us, we have to cooperate with others on a daily basis; that is why we believe that intercultural understanding and mutual respect are the key drivers for future cooperation. We are looking forward today to handing over prizes to the ten awardees who made an impact on their countries with their projects. There have been 71 awardees over the past decade, I think they have had an impact on about five million people in total. That is the reason we do it, and why it perfectly fits with BMW’s understanding of sustainability. It is not enough for an automotive company to build electric cars to be sustainable. There are two additional sides to sustainability: ecological and economic.

2. This year’s edition of the IIA took place at Expo 2020 in Dubai; what is the significance of choosing Dubai as a venue for this year’s edition?

I think it’s the perfect place to host the EXPO 2020. I like the motto of the EXPO: “Connecting minds, and creating the future.” If you want to connect minds, you have to respect other people. That is why I think it was a perfect choice to have the IIA here in Dubai this year. And, I am very proud that all ten awardees from all over the world were able to travel here today, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. How did this partnership with the UNAOC come about in the first place?

I think we started with the project before getting the UN on board. Giving the award to somebody is one thing but using a partner like the UN and their network, is a totally different story. For awardees, winning the award today is just the beginning of their journey. They will get a one-year mentoring program supported by BMW and UNAOC, and they will also join the intercultural network of the UNAOC. According to one of the UNAOC’s officials, the IIA was the first project in which they cooperated with the private sector. In general, leadership is one of the main topics we are addressing at BMW. For us, to train our people and develop the right leaders in a more complex world is our main task. The four main pillars of BMW’s corporate citizenship are: Leadership development, intercultural understanding, education programs we are running worldwide, and the culture and arts. We are supporting the awardees not only with money, but also with our knowledge, resources, network, and the management skills of our own people.

4. How is BMW approaching women’s empowerment?

Women’s empowerment for us is just one pillar of the whole diversity strategy at BMW. At first, many people were looking for targets, especially on the gender side. But, if you are only talking about targets, nobody will be motivated to do anything. The more important question is why must a company have a diverse workforce? Then you have to encourage people not only to see the difference, but also to see an inclusive workforce. For me, I think inclusion doesn’t only mean inviting somebody to a party, but it means also wanting to dance with him. That is the difference between diversity and inclusion. Second, on the topic of gender, you have to set up some prerequisites to help young and older women to manage family and business lives alike. At BMW, we have set up a lot of initiatives, including BMW kindergartens and joint-leadership roles (two leaders can share one leadership position—it’s not only for women, but men also).

5. In the early days of your 27-year career in BMW, did you have that sort of encouragement or did that come from yourself?

As a leader, whether you are a female or male, you need to have ambition and to take responsibility. As a leader, the most important thing is that you should love the task you are working on and the responsibility to take over. On a personal level, I asked myself, should I do it, or can I do it and take responsibility. In fact, I always had people who supported me and pushed me a little bit. When I started in production, I was 27 years old, and there were a few women in the production department at higher positions in BMW. I was lucky to have some people around me to give me that little kick to start.

6. Can you tell me more about the moments where you faced challenges in making decisions in your career?

There were two turning points in my career. First, when I had to decide to move from human resources (HR) to production. At that time in HR they were always telling me what to do, but no one was telling me how to do it—a completely different story nowadays. A production manager asked me to come to his department to help them implement teamwork and other sorts of HR-related things. Many people told me at that time that moving from HR to Production wasn’t a good idea. That was a turning point in my career. I think we all have to take steps out of our comfort zone. The second turning point was when I was asked to take over the engine plant in Munich. I was in production at that time doing logistics and the likes, but I had never really led a production unit. I told myself if I wanted to open up opportunities for the future, I had to be a leader for the production unit. For a non-engineer to lead a production unit, that was a big step.

7. How is BMW decarbonizing the business and manufacturing processes?

We have targets to reduce the CO2 footprint of our vehicles by 40% over the whole value chain. That also means a 50% reduction in the usage of the car, which means we want to ramp up to 50% electric cars by 2030. In the production department, we want to reduce the CO2 footprint by 80% and the footprint in the supply chain by 20%. The second thing is that we are looking at our own production sites. We produce our own heating energy at our production sites, and we purchase the rest. Since the beginning of this year, we have only purchased green energy for our plants. A good example is our new BMW i4, produced with our local green energy. We are using the specific infrastructure in our plants to make our green energy. On the other hand, if you look at the supply chain, you have two main drivers to reduce the CO2 footprint in the supply chain. First, using green energy in the supply chain, that is why we had this cooperation with Emirates Global Aluminum this year, where we bought 43,000 tons of aluminum from them, which was produced by the power of the desert sun. Second, we aim to recycle secondary materials. That is why, at the IIA mobility, BMW showcased the BMW i Vision Circular—a vision car that was produced using 100% recycled materials.

8. Regarding the IIA itself, are there any plans to increase the number of awards?

For us, it isn’t just about increasing the number of awardees or applicants—this year, we had 1,100 applicants from all over the world, which is a lot. I think we are now focusing on the quality of the support; that is what we are doing in the second stage. We don’t just give the awards to winners, but we support the organizations for more than a year to be part of the Intercultural Leaders network. We are thinking at the moment of having business students from the University of Berlin coming in and supporting the projects as part of their leadership development. So, aside from thinking about more applicants or awardees, we should make the award more impactful and involve more people. It is more about quality, not quantity.

9. Can you tell us more about the auto industry's future in relation to new technologies and innovations?

Autonomous driving is the second pillar in the future of the auto industry, along with electric vehicles. We need these kinds of technologies to develop a lot more to come to the point where the cars will be driven partly or fully autonomously (on certain roads the car can be driven without you being in charge of the car). I think, that is what we are looking at. In terms of the production and business processes, we are looking into these kinds of technologies, because they will really help us in the future. But, at the same time, I don’t see a future where everything is done by AI technologies. For BMW, people are the main assets of the company. We still want our cars to have a personal touch.


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