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Seeing diversity through a pan-Asian lens

May 31, 2021 - 535 views

Seeing diversity through a pan-Asian lens

Business leaders need to ensure the workplace provides a safe place for open discussions about diversity among Pan-Asian people and beyond.

Each May, we celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. But recognizing what diversity, inclusion and equity mean from a pan-Asian perspective is something we should be doing continuously, no matter what month it is. There are certainly plenty of questions to confront and resolve on the topic in today’s highly charged and divisive times.

For starters: What does it mean to be a Pan-Asian in a global economy that relies so much on technical talent and knowledge workers who reside in or have emigrated from India? Secondly, should the term Pan-Asian include people of Indian origin — especially those of us working in the US? And last but not least, what does diversity and inclusion mean if membership is restricted to only some Asians? And what better way to think about this than against a backdrop of my own background, origin and life experiences? 

These might not be the questions that are top-of-mind for everyone, and maybe we have different ideas about how they should be answered. But I think most can agree on the importance of creating a safe place in our workplaces and communities to pose these questions and have discussions — sometimes discussions with no clear conclusions. 

As we learned throughout the last year following the civil unrest that continues to roil many communities, talking, listening and working together really matters. As a business leader and Asian, I have a responsibility to ensure that my company creates a culture that facilitates this. And in some small way, our actions are viewed as a model for racial and cultural equity by others in our industry and markets that we serve.

A minority among minorities

I come from a small community of orthodox “Syrian” Christians from Kerala, India. This community is a miniscule minority of less than 10 million in the Indian population of 1.4 billion. It traces its origins to one of Jesus Christ’s disciples, Thomas, who went to India, along with 40 families, to spread the gospel of Christ.

Growing up in Chennai and Mumbai, we were certainly a minority, albeit a successful minority, in the larger, highly stratified communities in India. I appreciated the differences among all the communities I was exposed to — Parsis, Jains, Tamilians, Konkanis, Marathis — as well as the ways they differed and were similar.

We moved to Rome, Italy, when my father took a job at the UN Food & Agricultural Organization. I went to a British middle school surrounded by children of UN employees, diplomats and corporate types. As someone with an Indian heritage, I was certainly a minority there — but quickly learned to tell the difference between a German and a Finn; a Brazilian and an Argentinian. The school had Arabs and Israelis, Pakistanis and Indians. While wars raged between some of those countries, we learned how to get along, discuss our differences, and learn from each other. Ultimately, we were all minorities. 

Multiculturalism & racial divides

Moving to England to finish my schooling and university, I discovered the term “multiculturalism” that was being bandied about at that time. Significant numbers of people of South Asian and Caribbean origin had migrated into England in the 1950s to do menial labor and were typically categorized into the lower strata of society. I also recognized the deep hierarchy of the English society, with a significant divide between a Yorkshireman, one from Surrey or an Irish immigrant in North London. 

I was once, mistakenly I might add, stopped by the police one late night when I was walking from one hall of residence to another. The policeman called it in, saying, “We have the RC4.” When they released me, after realizing their error, I found out that RC4 meant Race Class 4 — which identified people of South Asian descent. It was the first time I felt categorized by a race class!

I now call the US home and have been here for much of my career. However, the US is where I became conscious of the racial divides underpinning this society. Scarred from the race riots in the 1960s, the US Census Bureau created artificial, simplistic groupings of people such as white, Black, Hispanic, Native American. The Asian & Pacific Islander category was only created in the 1980s.

In this broad group of Asians, how do we account for the diversity among Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Indians? What happened to the differences between a German and a Finn? A Yorkshireman and a person from Surrey? Israeli and Arab? What does it mean to be Black if you immigrated to the US from a Caribbean island? After 9/11, Indians with turbans were mistakenly attacked by bigots who wanted to lash out against predominantly Saudi hijackers. 

In the US today, people of East Asia are being attacked by haters who want to blame a whole community for the COVID-19 pandemic — even though one community cannot be made responsible for a pandemic or its global spread. If we don’t recognize the many ways we are diverse, how can we build a society on a foundation of inclusiveness?

Building, spreading affinity

One way for businesses to do this is through affinity groups, which bring together employees with similar backgrounds or interests. They provide a forum for connection and a platform for the group members’ collective voices.

In my role as the executive sponsor of our Pan-Asian Affinity Group, I want to be sure we create a safe space to talk about our experiences and how they inform who we are in the workplace. 

Our Pan-Asian group has reached out to other affinity groups within Cognizant, which has led to best practices for sharing and a strong network of support. We hold virtual events with representatives from other companies and host external speakers who share their perspective on important issues facing the Pan-Asian community. 

I want to push Cognizant to be the employer of choice in the US and abroad, known for its diverse associate force and systematic approach to developing leadership pipelines among their minority employees. 

Recognizing and celebrating each other and our heritage demonstrates respect and broadens our mindset of inclusion. Let us celebrate the diversity of what it means to be Asian each May — and continue throughout the year. Celebrate the traits and characteristics that make people unique while we also broaden our mindset of inclusion, as well as the behaviors and social norms that ensure people feel welcome. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experiences, it’s that we will all be stronger for it. 


Digital Business & Technology, Diversity & Inclusion diversity, inclusion, asian pacific american heritage month, asian and pacific asian heritage month, pan-asian

Anil Cheriyan

Anil Cheriyan is Cognizant’s Executive Vice President, Strategy and Technology. Overseeing all aspects of corporate strategy,...

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