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Hadi Mahabadi of Xerox Canada explains how skilled immigrants help push innovation

Often, when the importance of diversity in the workplace and of attempting to employ Canada's large and underutilized pool of skilled immigrants is discussed, it's addressed as a matter of social justice. This line of thinking says it's only fair to immigrants to give them a chance to fully participate in the economy, and that Canada's multicultural mosaic will be richer if we see its diversity mirrored in our business culture.
However, Hadi Mahabadi, vice president of the Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) in Mississauga points to an additional reason for diversifying the workforce: it drives innovation. "Innovation is impacted by many factors," he says, "but one of the key factors is diversity of thought." Usually in creating innovative solutions to problems, he says, brainstorming ideas is a primary part of the process. "When you have a diverse group of people brainstorming you come up with more and better ideas," Mahabadi says, adding that for companies looking to address a global market, employees with experience from around the world will bring valuable insight into differing regional needs and preferences.
When it comes to innovation, Mahabadi knows what he's talking about. He is the holder of more than 70 US patents, and the research centre he leads as VP and centre management patents about 140 ideas every year, with a staff of only 89 researchers. "These are all Canadian ideas and Canadian technology," he says, giving as an example an environmentally friendly "Emulsion Aggregation" toner that uses less energy and produces better image quality that was developed by his team at XRCC and is now used in printers and presses around the world.
Mahabadi says his ideas about the value of diversity come from first-hand experience. XRCC launched a new "diversity of thought" strategy in 2004, and has since seen a 17 per cent year-over-year increase in the number of its patent ideas. Today the centre employs researchers from over 37 countries, more than a quarter of whom received their academic training in their country of origin, and is also committed to hiring the best talent available from around the world, Mahabadi says. Employees are offered career-track positions appropriate to their training and experience, and benefit from such services as English as a second language classes on the job.
Though the diversity of thought strategy was formalized in 2004, Mahabadi says that appreciation of the idea behind it has long reigned at Xerox -- and uses his own story as an example. Born in Iran, Mahabadi originally came to Canada in 1972 to do graduate work in chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo. After his studies, he returned to Iran, thinking, "I could serve my country," he says, by heading up the chemical engineering department at Tehran's University of Technology.
However, after the revolution and the ensuing human rights abuses forced him into exile, he began looking for a new home. "I was very well known, and I had offers from Japan, Germany, the Netherlands... but I knew Canada was a very multicultural place [from having attended university here], I knew the social programs were good, how nice Canadians are." When he landed in Canada in 1981, his wife was pregnant, they had a two-year-old son, and he says he had less than $20. He originally thought he'd wind up at the University of Toronto, but was attracted to Xerox because they were, in his view, "like many other technology companies, in the business of democratizing information." Even at the time, he benefited from Xerox's advanced employee development programs, receiving on-the-job English training. This year, he was recognized by Canadian Immigrant magazine as one of the "Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2010."
Aside from his demanding work driving innovation as an executive, Mahabadi volunteers with organizations that promote science and technology, especially among students. "The leading economies in the future will be knowledge economies, which use the creativity of their people to create jobs ... creativity is a renewable resource, which never ends," he says. "We need in Canada to strengthen the knowledge economy, and the base of that is getting students in grad nine and 10 to realize the importance of science and technology."
He says that though Canada has more work to do to develop its homegrown science- and knowledge-based culture, current efforts towards creating innovation hubs in Toronto, Waterloo and elsewhere are starting to show encouraging results. And once again, he points to diversity as one of our greatest assets. "Considering that in Canada we have a very diverse workforce available to companies ... we believe that in the Canadian social condition we have fertile ground for innovation to grow."

Edward Keenan is Yonge Street's Innovation and Job News editor

Photos (top to bottom): Hadi Mahabadi; Mahabadi observing researcher, Kelly Zhou, as she tests the viscosity of toner in the EA Lab; the Xerox 914 (first photocopier ever, built in 1959); the Xerox Research Centre of Canada in Mississauga.

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