February 25, 2019
Beyond human nature
Why Mohsen Shahini (PhD '11) surrounds himself with people who challenge him.
Why Mohsen Shahini (PhD '11) surrounds himself with people who challenge him.By Staff Office of Advancement
Take a moment to imagine the people you surround yourself with on a daily basis. Think about what lifestyle they live, and what their values are. You might find a sense of comfort and safety in the knowledge that you share similar traditions, political views or interests with these people.
Mohsen Shahini (PhD '11), co-founder of the education software company Top Hat and Kritik, finds that surrounding ourselves with people who are just like us stifles creativity, discovery and growth — in business and in life. In an interview with Waterloo, Mohsen shares the advice that challenges human nature, yet propels us into brighter, richer, more interesting territories.
As an immigrant from Iran, Mohsen knows how challenging it can be to adapt to life in a new country. “When language is a barrier, and culture is a barrier, it's more comfortable to spend your gathering time with the same community, and the same culture.” Mohsen admits that many of his friends at Waterloo shared some inspiring ideas with him — but they failed to share them beyond their community, with people who could have brought different perspectives and solutions to the table. These ideas, while promising, were not tested or challenged among a diverse group, and therefore did not reach their full potential. So, his advice to those living abroad — or even those in their home country — is this: if you want to expand your knowledge, and opportunities in life and business, then expand your network beyond your own background and beliefs.
In recent years, the conversation around subconscious bias at work has gained traction worldwide. As humans, we naturally look for what we have in common with people, but we also let those commonalities cloud our judgement. Hiring managers are increasingly seeing the importance of diversity in the workplace. “I’ve seen bias in the startup community… the first step is being conscious that you’re doing it.”
After experiencing unconscious bias first hand, Mohsen examines the way he recruits people at Top Hat on a regular basis. “One day we realized that we didn’t have a certain ethnicity… and we didn’t do it consciously.” Instead of looking for what values we share with potential candidates, Mohsen encourages us to look for how we differ. Hire — or ask your hiring manager to work with people — who fill knowledge gaps, speak a different language, and challenge your lifestyle or beliefs. In essence, surround yourself with people who teach, challenge, surprise and expand your mind and business every day. “Take a step back," says Mohsen. "Everyone benefits when there are equal opportunities."
Mohsen Shahini, Chief academic officer and co-founder, TOP HAT
When you’re not developing skills from new cultures, that becomes your enemy.
Finally, continue to replenish the pool of people you spend time with. Seek out individuals who don’t look, speak, dress or think like you. Ask their opinion, listen to their ideas, and learn from their experiences. “When you’re not developing skills from new cultures, that becomes your enemy,” says Mohsen. If we keep our minds, ears and doors open to people who differ from us, we can enjoy an endless supply of fresh perspectives that will only enrich our lives and endeavours.